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Greeks head to polls to decide financial future

AFP / Andreas Solaro I A woman walks past posters reading OXI (No) and NAi (YES) for the upcoming referendum in central Athens on July 4, 2015

Greek voters headed to the polls on Sunday to vote in an historic, tightly fought referendum on whether to accept worsening austerity in exchange for more bailout funds, in a gamble that could see the country crash out of the euro.

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Across the country of 11 million people – on far-flung Aegean islands, in the shadow of the 2,400-year-old Parthenon in Athens, to the northern border shared with fellow EU state Bulgaria – voters began casting their ballots.

The rest of Europe, and international investors, will be watching intently, unsure of the outcome that could greet them on Monday. Polls suggest both the 'Yes' and 'No' camps are neck-and-neck.

Dozens of people were queuing outside schools and university buildings transformed into polling stations, with doors opening sharply at 7:00am local time (0400 GMT) and set to close 12 hours later.

"I'm voting 'No' because I think it's better for the country," said 80-year-old Michelis, first in through the doors of a school being used for the vote on Skoufa street in central Athens.

"If we vote 'No' they'll take us more seriously," he said, adding that he was "not voting for myself, but for my grandchildren" and their future.

Theodora, 61, a retired journalist, said she was voting 'Yes' because "it's a 'Yes' to the European Union".

Greece's youthful Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a radical leftist who came to power six months ago, has staked his political career on the plebiscite.

He announced it a week ago in a bid to break a five-month impasse with international creditors, insisting a 'No' vote would force a restructuring of Greece's massive debt and a softening of drastic austerity conditions.

“As of tomorrow we will have opened a new road for all the peoples of Europe,” Tsipras said after voting in Athens, “a road that leads back to the founding values of democracy and solidarity in Europe.”

A ‘No’ vote, he said, “will send a message of determination, not only to stay in Europe but to live with dignity in Europe”.

Supermarkets emptied

But many who first backed him have swung to the 'Yes' camp, heeding warnings from EU leaders, notably European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, that a 'No' result could see Greece expelled from the 19-nation euro zone – a so-called "Grexit".

Greece was officially declared in default on Friday by the European Financial Stability Facility, which holds 144.6 billion euros ($160 billion) of Greek loans, days after becoming the first developed country to miss a debt payment to the IMF.

>>> Read more: Fear, anger as Greece faces grim choice in referendum <<<

Tsipras's flamboyant finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, on Saturday accused Athens's creditors of "terrorism" for trying to sow fear around the vote.

He pointed out that no legal mechanism exists to force Greece out of what is meant to be an "irreversible" monetary union.

Greeks were nevertheless alarmed this week when the government imposed capital controls, closing banks and limiting daily ATM withdrawals to just 60 euros ($67).

The banks' liquidity was expected to dry up entirely in just one or two days' time unless the European Central Bank (ECB) injected funds quickly.

'PM MUST HELP HEAL WOUNDS AFTER REFERENDUM'

Supermarket shelves have been emptied in the days leading up to the referendum.

"Most people are buying food now because they fear the worst," said Andreas Koutras, a 51-year-old Greek woman who works in finance in the capital.

Mothers, elderly men and university students were seen pushing heavily overloaded trolleys or coming out of shops weighed down by bags of food, with essentials such as sugar, flour and pasta top of the list.

Despite the fear on the streets, Tsipras was adamant Friday in pushing for a 'No' vote, when he told a crowd of 25,000: "On Sunday, we don't just decide to stay in Europe – we decide to live with dignity in Europe, to work and prosper in Europe."

Austerity or Grexit?

The referendum is seen as so crucial that some Greeks living outside the country made the trip back to vote as no provisions had been made to permit ballots in embassies for the hastily called poll.

"I came just to vote," said Kostas Kokkinos, a 60-year-old Greek living on the nearby EU island nation of Cyprus, as relatives greeted him at Athens's airport. He said he was voting "Yes" and then leaving just a day or two later.

>>> Read more: ‘Greek referendum is about two visions of Europe’ <<<

Thanasis Hadzilacos, a professor in his late 60s working at Cyprus's Open University, brought his summer Greek vacation forward to be able to vote in Athens. "I think I will vote 'No'," he said.

But he added: "I don't think either result will make much difference anyway, especially as it is so close."

Financial analysts also said they doubted a 'Yes' or a 'No' would greatly change things. Many said they expected negotiations would resume in either case, though a 'No' could still conceivably hasten a "Grexit".

Some of the world's top economists, though, said Greece's least-bad choice was to vote 'No,' accept a painful exit from the euro but then claw its way back to economic stability through a devalued national currency.

"A 'No' vote would at least open the possibility that Greece... might grasp its destiny in its own hands" and shape a future that "though perhaps not as prosperous as the past, is far more hopeful than the unconscionable torture of the present," wrote Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and professor at Columbia University in the United States.

Paul Krugman, another Nobel winner, who writes for The New York Times, agreed, saying a 'No' vote "will also offer Greece itself a chance for real recovery".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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