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Greeks reject bailout terms in landslide referendum

Greek voters on Sunday delivered a desperately needed victory for their government in its showdown with European creditors, as official results from a Sunday referendum showed the country rejecting a bailout offer that officials here had scorned.

With nearly all of the votes counted, "no" had won 60 percent -- a landslide for the government. Throughout the evening, thousands of government supporters converged on central Athens' Syntagma Square to wave Greek flags, dance and celebrate victory.

Square to wave Greek flags, dance and celebrate victory.

"You gave me the power not to break away from Europe, but to achieve an agreement with Europe that will take us away from austerity and bring us into a new era," Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in a televised address to the nation.

Tsipras and others in his radical leftist administration had campaigned vigorously for voters to spurn an offer from creditors that he repeatedly described as "blackmail." He had gambled that the public would back him, giving him the leverage to go back to the bargaining table and win a better deal.

It remains unclear whether the gamble will pay off. Although the government avoided what would have been a humiliating defeat, European officials had insisted that a "no" vote would not make them any more likely to give Greece the debt relief and easing of austerity that it seeks. They also warned that the country could be ejected from the euro if it voted no.

As the Greek government's victory became clear Sunday evening, attention shifted to European capitals for signals of whether the continent's decision-makers would follow through on that threat.

Government negotiator Euclid Tsakalotos told a Greek television station that top government officials were prepared to fly to Brussels Sunday evening to meet with their European counterparts and resume talks. He set a deadline of July 20 for reaching a deal - the date when Greece's next set of loans comes due -- and said Greece's hand had been strengthened considerably by the Sunday vote.

But initial reaction from European officials suggested they were unmoved by the result, and had no intention to yield.

"The E.U. is not a make-a-wish club in which a single member sets the rules and the others pay the bill," tweeted Julia Klöckner, deputy chairwoman of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party.

Germany's deputy chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, said Greece had "destroyed the last bridges across which Europe and Greece could have moved toward a compromise."

"Tsipras and his government are leading the Greek people onto a path of bitter sacrifice and hopelessness," he told Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel.

Belgian Finance Minister Johan Van Overtveldt struck a more conciliatory tone, telling the VRT television network that the Greek vote would complicate matters, but that the door was open to resume talks "within hours."

Merkel will travel to Paris Monday evening for dinner with French President Francois Hollande. But Reuters reported that the euro-zone's finance ministers, who would be responsible for crafting any deal, had no plans to meet.

Analysts were downbeat about prospects for a deal. Malcolm Barr of JP Morgan wrote in a research note that "Greek exit from the euro appears more likely than not."

Nick Malkoutzis, an analyst with the website Macropolis, rated the chances of a deal any time soon as "very slim."

But he also said that Europe will feel pressure to reopen talks. "It would be a really damaging precedent for leaders to refuse to enter negotiations after a democratic vote in a member country," he said.

The most pressing issue for Greece is the question of whether Europe will continue to prop up Greek banks, which were on life support Sunday night and in desperate need of a fresh injection of cash from the European Central Bank.

The banks were closed all of last week, but continued to dispense a maximum of 60 euros a day per customer. Without greater access to cash, they could run out as soon as Monday.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis told CNBC that he believed Greece could achieve a deal within 24 hours in the event of a "no" vote. European officials have scoffed at such claims, insisting that any deal will only come through long and difficult negotiation.

After the result had became clear, Varoufakis appeared before the media to proclaim that the Greek people had responded to Europe's austerity-heavy "ultimatum" with "a big no."

Wearing a gray t-shirt and a wide smile, the finance minister urged his counterparts to come back to the negotiating table. "We have a common aim," he said. "Tomorrow, Europe, starting with Greece, will begin to heal its wounds."

Greek opposition leaders acknowledged that the government had won a decisive victory - but also pressured it to sign a deal quickly.

"The Greek people are feeling uneasy. They are scared, but they gave the government the leeway it asked for," said Vangelis Meimarakis, a former parliament speaker who is a member of the opposition New Democracy Party.

Meimarakis said the opposition will give the government 48 hours to seal a deal with its European creditors, in line with a promise that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made last week. "If there is no agreement within 48 hours, we will reply to them harshly on Wednesday," he said.

New Democracy's leader, former prime minister Antonis Samaras, later appeared on television, looking grave as he announced his resignation.

But elsewhere in Athens, the mood was jubilant, with people dancing in the streets and amateur fireworks lighting the skies.

"I did not expect such a result. I'm very happy," said Zoe Makrigianni, 20, who studies mass media at the University of Athens and came to celebrate the "no" victory at a plaza near the University of Athens. "The majority of young people voted for no, because it's for our future."

"I have children and grandchildren, and I'm fighting this fight for them, not for myself," said Tassos Venetis, 68, a retired public worker. "I'm anxious about the banks, but I think that my pension is in danger not from the government but from [Greece's creditors]."

Greece's radical leftist government came to power just over five months ago with a promise to deliver a new deal for a country that has been brought to its knees by its sky-high debt and the strict austerity prescribed to reduce it.

But it ran into a wall of opposition from European creditors, who have resisted granting Greece the debt forgiveness it has sought.

Despite widespread confusion in the days leading up to the Sunday vote, balloting in this Mediterranean nation of 11 million proceeded smoothly under cloudless blue skies, with few reports of trouble or irregularities.

Interior Minister Nikos Voutsis said turnout was "over 50 percent," well above the 40 percent minimum threshold to make the referendum valid.

Airlines had scheduled extra flights in recent days to bring expatriate Greeks back to their country. Many within Greece were on the road Sunday, driving from the big cities to the home towns where they're registered.

The wording of the ballot question was virtually impenetrable:

"Should the proposal that was submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund at the Eurogroup of 25 June 2015, which consists of two parts that together constitute their comprehensive proposal, be accepted? The first document is titled 'Reforms for the completion of the Current Programme and beyond' and the second 'Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis.'?"

But that did not stop Greeks from campaigning passionately on either side, with tens of thousands attending dueling rallies Friday night in Athens.

On Sunday, divisions ran deep in Athens's Exarcheia neighborhood, a graffiti-covered area that has long been a bastion of left-wing activism. People on both sides of the debate said they worried that cleavages opened in the last week would take a long time to heal.

"The separation of the people, that's what I'm worried about," said Katerina Liapi, 34, a psychologist who planned to vote in favor of Europe's austerity demands because she feared Greece would be expelled from the European Union if it doesn't.

"In close friendships we used to be able to agree to disagree," she said. "But now it has a real effect on our everyday life."

But those who were voting to reject the demands said they had little to lose after five years of economic pain that rival the Great Depression in scale.

"It can't get any worse than it is now," said Nikos Moullos, 40, an artist. "This will give us a better chance for negotiations."

Other Greeks despaired that the country is facing an impossible choice, with no reasonable hope that conditions will improve.

Roumpini Terzaki founded a charity, Kid and Family, to help impoverished Greeks in 2009, just as the economy was deteriorating. Then it served 200 families. Today it helps 5,000, including migrants who fled war and poverty in the Middle East or Africa only to end up marooned in Greece.

In the past week, Terzaki said her organization has faced shortages of food and medicine for the first time in its history.

"People are going hungry. It's like an earthquake everywhere," she said. "If we have a 'no' on Monday or a 'yes' on Monday, the situation will be exactly the same."

[Source: By Griff Witte and Michael Birnbaum, The Washington Post, Athens, 05Jul15]

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