Greece 'Yes', 'No' camps neck and neck ahead of bailout vote

ATHENS - Greece braced itself Saturday ahead of a make-or-break bailout referendum as polls showed the 'Yes' and 'No' camps neck and neck and uncertainty rose over the future of the country's battered economy.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras got a rock-star welcome at an Athens rally late Friday as he sought to revive support for a 'No' vote in a referendum called to strengthen his hand in talks with international creditors.

But the most recent polls suggested Sunday's plebiscite on Greece's latest bailout offer from its international creditors was too close to call, with the nation of 11 million people evenly divided.

EU leaders have warned that a "No" victory could cause Greece to crash out of the eurozone. But Tsipras and his closest ally Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis have accused them of fear-mongering.

In an interview published Saturday the outspoken Varoufakis accused Athens's creditors of "terrorism".

"What they're doing with Greece has a name - terrorism," he told the Spanish El Mundo daily. "What Brussels and the troika want today is for the 'Yes' (vote) to win so they could humiliate the Greeks." As tensions rose he was forced to deny a Financial Times report that suggested Greek savers could lose 30 percent of their bank deposits to shore up the banking system, slamming it a "malicious rumour".

The British business daily, quoting unidentified bankers and businessmen close to negotiations, reported that Greek depositors with over 8,000 euros (S$11,969) in an account may be force to take a "haircut".

Rumours that capital controls imposed by the government were leading to food and medicine shortages were spooking Greeks, as was growing uncertainty over when the country's banks would re-open.

"I've heard shops are running out of flour, sugar and salt. I'm really worried, how will we manage if we can't get to our money and there's no food to buy?" said Lena Antoniou, a 35-year old mother of two.

Nikos Archondis from the Panhellenic Exporters Association (PEA) told AFP "certain supermarkets are very concerned because they cannot forecast how the situation will evolve," adding that stocks of meat, cheeses, fruits and vegetables "risk running low in the following weeks".

A defiant Tsipras told 25,000 cheering supporters at Friday's rally to "say 'No' to ultimatums and to turn your back on those who would terrorise you," adding: "No one can ignore this passion and optimism." A rival rally of 22,000 "Yes" supporters shouted pro-European slogans and voiced fears of a so-called "Grexit" from the eurozone and a return to Greece's former currency, the drachma, if Tsipras got his way.

"They cannot pretend any longer that it's not about leaving the euro," said a 43-year-old doctor who gave his first name as Nikos. "Outside the euro lies only misery."

Neck and neck

Many Greeks have jumped into the "Yes" camp since capital controls were imposed this week limiting daily ATM withdrawals to just 60 euros after Greece's international aid package ran out on Tuesday.

Fresh ATM queues snaked along pavements Saturday morning, with many faces drawn or pinched with anxiety as voters confessed they thought Sunday's referendum was going to be an extremely tight race.

Adding to the sense of crisis, a eurozone emergency fund officially declared Greece to be in default on Friday for not making a 1.5-billion-euro payment to the International Monetary Fund this week.

The latest voter intention polls, published late Friday, showed the pro and anti-bailout camps were neck and neck.

A GPO poll put the 'Yes' voters at 44.1 percent and the 'Nos' at 43.7 percent, while an Alco survey found 44.5 percent would vote 'Yes' while 43.9 percent would vote 'No'.

Tsipras says the vote is needed to force creditors to finally accept his key demand of another round of debt relief to save Greece from financial meltdown and possibly crashing out of the euro.

But critics have complained the very technical bailout question being put to people in the referendum is unintelligible, while eurozone officials have said that the "deal" referred to expired on Tuesday.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned in Brussels that Greece's negotiating position would be "dramatically weakened" in the event of a "No" - and still difficult even in the event of a "Yes" vote.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, known for his tough line against Athens's leaders, said it was clear Greece's leftist leaders did not really want any reform programme.

"Only the Greeks" can now decide if they want to stay in the eurozone, he told German daily Bild.

European leaders fear the referendum will not only seal Greece's fate: Eurosceptic parties at the extreme left and right of the political spectrum have been exploiting the Greek referendum to bash the euro currency.

Tsipras insists Greece needs to trim its suffocating 323-billion-euro debt burden by having creditors forgive 30 percent of what they are owed and allowing a 20-year grace period for repaying the rest.

Varoufakis has promised banks would reopen on Tuesday if a new deal is agreed quickly, and the Union of Greek Banks said Friday its members had enough liquidity until then.

But on Greece's streets, the cash rationing has led many to despair, especially pensioners who have been allowed a one-off over-the-counter withdrawal of 120 euros if they don't have a bank card.

In the second-biggest city of Thessaloniki, one 77-year-old man unable to withdraw his money crumpled to the ground, scattering his papers.

"I am a sensitive person," the man, George Chatzifotiadi, explained later to AFP. "I cannot stand to see my country in this situation."