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Greek debt crisis: Voters ponder unclear question in Sunday's referendum

How Greeks interpret an ambiguous question is going to determine the outcome of its referendum Sunday, which was cleared to go ahead by a Greek court on Friday.

Survey suggests Yes and No votes are neck and neck as Greece ponders how much austerity to accept

Margaret Evans reports on the ambiguous choice they face in Sunday’s referendum 3:58

How Greeks interpret an ambiguous question is going to determine the outcome of its referendum Sunday, which was cleared to go ahead by a Greek court on Friday.

They must decide if a No vote indicates a strong stand against austerity and an opportunity for a better deal or whether it will mean abandoning the euro and possibly even the European Union.

Greeks on both sides of the questions demonstrated into the night on Friday, the final day of campaigning before the vote.

About 25,000 people gathered in Syntagma Square outside the national Parliament for a rally supporting a No vote, with musical performances that extended into the night. Another 17,000 people gathered at the nearby Panathenian Stadium for a Yes rally, according to police estimates.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke in favour of the No side at the rally, telling supporters the EU was "bluffing" when it said bailout terms could not be extended.

Tsipras said the referendum is not a choice about whether to stay in Europe, but a decision about living "in Europe with dignity."

He said Greeks want Europe to return to its core values, which it has sidelined for the sake of "dead-end" austerity programs.

Critics say the actual question put to Greeks is unclear — it essentially asks whether they will accept the terms of a bailout deal that is no longer on the table because the EU has withdrawn it.

Amid the chaotic referendum campaign, Greece's Council of State ruled Friday that the vote does not violate Greece's constitution, which bans referendums on fiscal policy.

That means the vote will go ahead. Two citizens had called on the administrative body to stop the referendum on the grounds it came on short notice and had an unclear question.

Polls released Friday by the University of Macedonia and an Athens newspaper suggest the Yes and No sides have almost equal support.

Clashes with police

Brief clashes broke out between a group of youths and police in Syntagma Square just before the start of the main No rally. Greek police used pepper spray Friday evening to deter several dozen anti-establishment protesters from throwing rocks and smashing property.

CBC's Margaret Evans rides through Athens with a taxi driver who says he's still not sure how to vote in Greece's upcoming referendum. 2:04

No campaigning is allowed the day before an election in Greece, so Friday's rallies would be the closing salvoes in the battle to persuade voters ahead of Sunday.

Tsipras called the referendum last weekend, asking Greeks to decide whether to accept creditors' proposals for more austerity in exchange for more loans. 

Tsipras says a No vote it would give him a mandate to negotiate a better deal for Greece within the eurozone. Opposition parties, and many European officials, say a No vote would drive Greece out of the euro and into an even more impoverished future.

An overwhelming majority of Greeks — 74 per cent — want the country to remain in Europe's joint currency, the euro, compared to 15 per cent who want a national currency.

Complicated question

The vote could be the most important in Greece's modern history, but many voters are confused about what's at stake. Much of the ambiguity arises from the complicated question that will be printed on the ballot paper:

Demonstrators in Athens hold Greek flags and placards reading 'Yes to Greece, Yes to Euro' during a rally organized by supporters of the vote in favour of accepting the EU bailout conditions. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

"Must the agreement plan be accepted which was submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the Eurogroup of 25 June, 2015, and is comprised of two parts which make up their joint proposal? The first document is titled 'reforms for the completion of the current program and beyond' and the second 'Preliminary debt sustainability analysis."'

Voters are asked to check one of two boxes: "not approved/no" and — below it — "approved/yes."

Apostolos Foutsitzis, a 43-year-old medical scanner operator in the northern city of Thessaloniki, said he is confused by the question but plans to vote Yes because he wants Greece to remain in Europe.

"The referendum is unclear in the way it is being phrased, so I interpret this ambiguity as meaning we might stay in Europe or not," he said.

During the entire week-long campaigning Greek banks have been closed to staunch a run, with cash machines allowing people daily withdrawals of up to 60 euros — although in practice this has been reduced to 50 euros as most machines have run out of 20-euro notes.

Some banks have opened to let pensioners without ATM cards withdraw up to 120 euros a week, with crowds of elderly people waiting outside the doors for hours. Tsipras has described the measures as temporary.

But banks say they could be out of physical cash as soon as Monday, unless the ECB steps in to send more.

A man in a wheelchair sells items in central Athens on Friday. Rival rallies supporting the Yes and No votes in Sunday's referendum took place outside the Parliament building in Athens Friday. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

"Our efforts are focused on overcoming the crisis as fast as possible, with a solution that preserves the dignity and sovereignty of our people," he said Thursday.

In a televised address Friday, Tsipras called on voters to reject "blackmail" by voting No on Sunday. 

While EU leaders have said Greece will be forced out of the eurozone if it votes No, Tsipras insisted Greece's presence in the EU was not at stake and urged voters to reject the "sirens of scaremongering."

He said IMF analysis released Thursday showing Greece's debt is unsustainable justifies his government's decision to reject an aid package from creditors that offered no debt relief.

"Yesterday an event of major political importance happened," Tsipras said. "The IMF published a report on Greece's economy which is a great vindication for the Greek government as it confirms the obvious — that Greek debt is not sustainable.

The 40-year-old prime minister argues that a strong No vote will help Greece win a new deal with the eurozone's rescue mechanism that would include terms to reduce the country's 320 billion-euro ($446 billion Cdn) national debt and to make payments on it more sustainable. He insists a deal could be struck "within 48 hours" of the vote.

His argument, however, was dismissed by the head of the eurozone finance ministers' group, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem.

"That suggestion is simply wrong," Dijsselbloem told Dutch lawmakers.

French President Francois Hollande agreed that Tsipras's interpretation is flawed.

"The consequences are not the same if it's a Yes or No,"' he said. "If it's the Yes, even if it's on the basis of proposals that have already expired, negotiations can resume and I imagine be quickly concluded. We are in something of an unknown. It's up to the Greeks to respond."

Demonstrators gather in Syntagma Square in Athens for an anti-austerity rally. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)

With files from The Associated Press

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