Athens—Making history means not knowing what comes next. I knew that in theory, but I hadn’t known what it feels like until these last two days in Greece. Nor had I understood how an unimaginably complex and confusing landscape can crystallize, through a formal (if flawed) democratic process, into something that looks like an expression of national will—and in that shape become a player on the world stage.
The question put to the Greek people in yesterday’s referendum—whether to accept the bailout deal offered the previous week by the country’s creditors—was either a misleading fudge or a masterpiece of constructive ambiguity, depending on your point of view. Some people (mostly on the “No” side) thought they were voting against austerity; others (mostly on the “Yes” side) thought they were voting to stay in the eurozone. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s insistence in the days before the vote that there was no question of leaving the euro and that a No vote would only strengthen the government’s hand with the creditors incensed even some of his supporters, who felt he was, at best, patronizing the voters and, at worst, lying. And yet the answer returned—a solid 61.3 percent for No—has a surprising clarity. The No vote is a no to austerity. It means: We can’t and won’t do this anymore. Deal with it.
From the outside, watching the young waving flags in Syntagma Square last night, the vote might look like some sort of grand heroic gesture. It certainly took courage. With the banks closed, pensioners standing anxiously in line to collect their money, businesses going into lockdown, flash floods of fear pouring from Greece’s private TV channels (with help from the foreign press), and a drumbeat of dire warnings from European leaders, the Greeks have lived through one of the hardest weeks of this whole five-year nightmare. Like a parade of zombies, the old politicians who brought Greece to this pass were taken out of mothballs to admonish the populace. On the day of the referendum, one channel ran a ticker: “The choice: Greece or Zimbabwe.” Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, said Greece needed a regime change to continue the negotiations.
But the barrage backfired. None of this made much impression on people I talked to at polling centers in the center of Athens. In lower-middle-class Gyzi, the atmosphere at the local school was much more subdued than at the January election. Faces were anxious, thoughtful. Elderly people walked slowly across the playground, made their way upstairs, helped by their children or the young policeman on duty (the elevator was broken). “People are keeping themselves to themselves,” one man said to me. “I feel like I’ve been duped: We’re voting on an offer that’s no longer on the table.” But he was voting anyway. “Yes. Because I should.”
Eleni, tall and blonde, came out with the kind of line journalists love to quote. “Just imagine if we voted Yes,” she said. “They’ve dug our grave for us; do they want us to pull the slab over our heads? They’ve put the gun to our temples and now they’re waiting for us to pull the trigger.” But on the whole there was little bravado, no illusions in evidence. There was anger, but sunk inwards: a kind of patient bleakness.