Greek Vote to Close to Call
ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- The brief but intense campaign in Greece's critical bailout referendum ends Friday, with simultaneous rallies in Athens supporting "yes" and "no" answers to a murky question in what an opinion poll suggests could be a very close vote.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called the referendum last weekend, asking Greeks to decide whether to accept creditors' proposals for more austerity in exchange for more loans - even though those proposals are no longer on the table.
The campaigning by law ends Friday to give the country a 24-hour blackout period before people start casting their votes on Sunday.
Tsipras says a "no" vote would put him in a stronger position to seek a better deal for Greece within the 19-nation eurozone to reduce its 320 billion-euro national debt and make payments more sustainable.
In a televised address to the nation Friday, Tsipras urged Greeks to vote "no to ultimatums, divisions and fear." He emphasized that Sunday's referendum is not a vote on whether Greece will remain in the euro, Europe's joint currency.
But opposition parties, and many European officials, say a "no" vote would drive Greece out of the euro and into an even more impoverished future.
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis told Ireland's RTE radio Friday that an agreement with the country's creditors "is more or less done" and that the only issue left is debt relief.
But the head of the eurozone finance ministers' group, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, harshly rejected those comments, saying negotiations are not still going on.
"There are no new proposals from our side and, whatever happens, the future for Greece will be extremely tough," Dijsselbloem said. "To get Greece back on track and the economy out of the slump, tough decisions will have to be taken and every politician that says that won't be the case following a `no' vote is deceiving his population."
A poll conducted Tuesday and Wednesday and published in To Ethnos newspaper Friday showed the two sides in a dead heat. It also showed an overwhelming majority - 74 percent - want the country to remain in the euro, compared to 15 percent who want a national currency.
Of the 1,000 respondents to the nationwide survey by the ALCO polling firm, 41.5 percent will vote "yes" and 40.2 percent "no," well within the margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. Another 10.9 percent were undecided and the rest said they would abstain or leave their ballots blank.
Both sides were trying to sway the undecided in rallies Friday evening, to be held 800 meters (875 yards) apart in central Athens. Tsipras was to speak at the "no" rally in the capital's main Syntagma Square outside Parliament, while "yes" supporters would gather at the nearby Panathenian Stadium, where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.
The vote could be the most important in Greece's modern history, but the question is unclear and many voters are confused about what's at stake.
The Council of State, the country's highest administrative court, was to rule Friday on a motion brought by two private citizens asking the court to rule the referendum illegal.
Sunday's vote "is invalid because it expressly violates the constitution, which stipulates that a referendum cannot take place on economic matters," Spyridon Nicolaou, one of the two filing the motion, told The Associated Press.
"But it's also invalid because it doesn't incorporate the text of the documents on which the Greek people are called on to decide. Would anyone from Evros (in far northeastern Greece) know the specific documents?"
A separate group has filed a counter-motion supporting the referendum's legality. Dimitris Belantis, one of those seeking to ensure the vote goes ahead, claims the Council of State has no jurisdiction over the matter and that the constitution stipulates popular votes can be held on "crucial national matters."
Much of the ambiguity arises from the complicated question on the ballot paper:
"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 was 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.
Greek banks have been closed during the week-long campaigning to staunch a run, with cash machines allowing daily withdrawals of up to 60 euros ($67) - although in practice this has been reduced to 50 euros as most machines have run out of 20-euro notes.
Some banks 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 said the measures are temporary.
The country's bailout package expired Tuesday, and Germany's finance minister on Friday dampened hopes that a deal for another can be reached quickly.
Wolfgang Schaeuble told Germany's Bild daily that any negotiations after the Greek vote "will take a while."
He said that Greece would first have to apply for aid and eurozone finance ministers would then have to consider whether to open negotiations, which would have to be approved by the German Parliament. He insisted that Greece would have to make efforts of its own in return for any aid.