ATHENS — On a night filled with emotion and packed city squares, naysaying Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his “yes” vote rivals made their final pitches at bailout referendum rallies, as polls showed the two sides in a dead heat.
More than 40,000 people gathered at the two rallies, half a mile (800 meters) apart, before Sunday’s vote on whether to accept creditors’ proposals for more austerity in exchange for rescue loans, or reject the deal as a show of defiance against years of harsh economic austerity.
“This is not a protest. It is a celebration to overcome fear and blackmail,” Tsipras told a crowd of 25,000 in front of parliament, who were chanting oxi, oxi— “no, no.”
Meanwhile, police said about 17,000 people gathered outside the nearby Panathenian stadium for the “yes” rally, waving Greek and European Union flags and chanting “Greece, Europe, Democracy.”
Rallies for both campaigns were also held in 10 other Greek cities Friday.
Tsipras is gambling the future of his five-month-old left wing government on Sunday’s snap poll — insisting a “no” vote will strengthen his hand to negotiate a third bailout with better terms.
But the high-stakes standoff with lenders this week saw Greece default on debts, close banks to avoid their collapse, and lose access to billions of euros as an existing bailout deal expired.
At the “no” rally, Athens resident Maria Antiniou held a handmade sign, reading “oxi.”
“We have to strengthen Tsipras. It’s not his fault we are bankrupt,” she said.
“He doesn’t have the mandate to take tougher measures and now we are giving that to him. It’s not true this is a vote on the euro. It’s a vote to change course and stay in the euro, and Tsipras is our best hope,” she said.
That is a message the “yes” voters refuse believe.
Evgenia Bouzala, a Greek born in Germany, said she was considering shutting down her olive oil export business because of the financial turmoil.
“I don’t think we can keep going. Look at what happened in the last three days. Imagine if that lasts another six months,” she said.
“A ‘yes’ vote would bring a caretaker government and that would probably be better … We have to start over.”
The drama remained high in the final hours of campaigning.
The country’s top court stayed in session till the late afternoon before rejecting a petition to declare the referendum illegal, while party leaders, personalities, and church elders weighed in with impassioned pleas to vote “no” or “yes” on the airwaves and social media.
In a rare public declaration, 16 former armed forces leaders wrote an appeal to citizens to show “calm and national unity.”
A series of polls published Friday at the end of a frantic weeklong campaign showed the two sides in a dead heat, with an incremental lead of the “yes” vote well within the margin of error.
But they showed an overwhelming majority of people — about 75 percent — want Greeceto remain in the euro currency.
Much of the ambiguity arises from the complicated question on the ballot paper:
“Must the agreement plan submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the Eurogroup of 25 June, 2015, and comprised of two parts which make up their joint proposal, be accepted? 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.”
“People don’t even understand the question,” Athens Mayor George Kaminis told supporters at the “yes” rally.
“We have been dragged into a pointless referendum that is dividing the people and hurting the country.”
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis told Ireland’s RTE radio Friday that an agreement with 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, rejected the idea, pointing out that negotiations had been broken off.
“There are no new proposals from our side and, whatever happens, the future for Greecewill 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.”
Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble told his country’s Bild daily that any negotiations after the Greek vote “will take a while.”
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.
Online: Official referendum website http://www.referendum2015gov.gr/en/
Elena Becatoros and Costas Kantouris in Athens, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Michael Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report
DEREK GATOPOULOS, Associated Press
MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS, Associated Press