In Athens district where the view is leftist, the word is 'no'

Radical ideas get passed around at the O Tseligkas cafe as easily as the plates of ruby-red tomatoes and wine-dark olives. White-haired leftists and tattooed rabble-rousers — sometimes one and the same — plot revolution, a better world or both as they sip ouzo and roll cheap cigarettes.

So it wasn't a surprise to see some of the Friday lunch crowd sporting bright orange stickers on their shirt fronts with the single word "oxi" — "no." That's how they'll vote in a pivotal referendum Sunday on a financial bailout package for Greece that would entail more of the austerity many people say has brought their economy to its knees.

"They gave us medicine that was worse than the illness," Popy Melliou, 57, said of the international creditors whose loans have kept the Greek government's lights on for the last five years. "It's a shame for them that they cannot save a small country."

She scoffed at warnings from the "yes" campaign — and from a passel of European leaders — that a "no" result could lead to Greece's banishment from the 19-nation Eurozone. And she laughed at the idea that anyone in the cafe might support the other side.

This is Exarchia, a neighborhood long renowned in Athens as a hotbed of radicalism and free thinking.

Anarchists, anti-fascists, environmentalists, feminists and immigrant-rights activists have all cut their teeth here. So did Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a left-wing firebrand who attended the National Technical University of Athens down the street, site of a famous uprising against Greece's military dictatorship in 1973, the year before he was born.

The political instincts Tsipras honed in Exarchia helped lead him to call Sunday's snap referendum, a bombshell announcement last weekend that blew up his negotiations with Greece's lenders. Tsipras said voters would have to pass judgment on the bailout offer, which he is campaigning against.

Other Eurozone countries have been urging Greeks to accept their proposals to extend the $270-billion package of loans the country received in the last five years, even though the offer technically expired Tuesday after the failure of talks between Athens and its creditors. Only a "yes" vote will open the way for negotiations to a new bailout, they say.

Polls suggest that the race is neck and neck. Beneath pink Athenian skies, both the "yes" and "no" sides held massive rallies Friday evening in a final push before a mandatory day free of campaigning on the eve of the vote.

"Today the whole of Europe has turned its eyes on the Greek people," Tsipras, wearing his trademark open-necked white shirt, told the boisterous "no" crowd in front of Parliament.

He urged them to stand up to threats and "blackmail" emanating from other European capitals and to reject their demand for "dead-end" austerity cuts. He repeated his contention that a victory for the "no" camp would improve his bargaining position.

Barely half a mile away, backers of a "yes" vote cheered speakers who said that the referendum posed a stark choice: Greece remaining a player in a united Europe or being sidelined and left to sink on its own.

They blamed Tsipras and his Syriza party for pushing Greece into a standoff with its lenders so damaging that the government had to order a weeklong bank shutdown to prevent a run on the financial system. The head of the banking association said Friday that Greece's banks had enough cash, about $1.1 billion, to last only until Monday.

"We have been dragged into a pointless referendum that is dividing the people and hurting the country," Athens Mayor George Kaminis said.

The nail-biting showdown Sunday has sharply divided a nation already reeling from five years of deep budget cuts in exchange for emergency loans. The Greek economy has fallen into a depression as severe as the one the United States experienced in the 1930s.

If the "no" campaign prevails in the end, it will be due in no small part to the anger and activism of left-wing enclaves like Exarchia.

Its cafes nestle between buildings splashed with graffiti like "No racism" and "Athens burns." Bookstores sell Marx; music stores sell vinyl.

There's little evidence of the long lines seen elsewhere in Athens at ATMs, perhaps because local anarchists tend to destroy them.

Conversations reflect the intellectual ferment of college campuses in the neighborhood. A site saved from development by community activists has been turned into a people's park where all types can meet.

"There are places in Exarchia where you can see the professor from Paris next to the anarchist who just got out of jail for armed robbery," said Melliou, the customer at the O Tseligkas cafe, which has been serving customers for at least 30 years.

It was already around when, in the 1990s, Tsipras distinguished himself as a gifted and charismatic student leader at the National Technical University of Athens, building on an activist temperament he had shown in high school during a campus revolt against education reforms.

His skills eventually propelled him to the leadership of Syriza, an acronym for "coalition of the radical left." The party's logo consists of three stacked flags in red, green and purple, signifying its commitment to labor unions, environmentalism, feminism and other social-activist groups.

Its ascent to power in elections in January on an aggressive anti-austerity platform set the stage for Greece's standoff with its international lenders.

From Syriza's stronghold in Exarchia, a main artery leads to the neighborhood of Kolonaki, an exclusive enclave that is almost Exarchia's polar opposite. There, the orange posters for the "no" campaign that are everywhere in Exarchia largely disappear among posh wine bars and boutique shops.

As he shared a cup of coffee with his cousin before attending Friday evening's "yes" rally, civil engineer Andreas Pierrakos said the choice in Sunday's plebiscite boiled down to whether Greece would remain a member in good standing of the group of 19 nations that share the euro currency and of the European Union.

"It's a matter of existence, of our future in the EU," said Pierrakos, 42. "There can be no Europe without Greece. But if Greece won't do what it takes to stay in, what do we do?"

Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Twitter: @HenryHChu

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