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The symbolism of NO in Greece

Why getting Greeks to vote NO may be easier than getting them to vote YES.

 

Spectators watch an Ohi day parade in Thessaloniki, Greece. Demotix/Craig Wherlock. All rights reserved.In Pablo Larraín’s film No, about the 1988 Chilean referendum which asked whether General Pinochet should stay in power for another eight years or step down to allow for free elections, the central character - an advertising executive for the NO side - is faced with a conundrum: How does he turn the word ‘NO’ into something positive? Surely, it’s easier to campaign for an inherently positive word like ‘YES’ than it is to inspire people about ‘NO’?

If a film were made in the future about this Sunday’s referendum, I imagine the conundrum would be reversed. Tsipras and his party are well aware of what they are doing when they design the referendum so that NO is the answer they want the people to choose.

Every year, on October 28, Ohi day is celebrated in Greece and by Greek communities around the world. The word ‘Ohi’ means ‘No’ and commemorates the rejection of the ultimatum made by Mussolini to Greece on October 28, 1940. He had sent a message to Ioannis Metaxas, the Prime Minister of Greece, which offered this choice to Greece: either be occupied peacefully, or be invaded forcefully. Metaxas was said to have a replied with a single word: ‘Ohi’. That day, Italy invaded from Albania, while crowds gathered on the streets of Athens to euphorically chant “Ohi! Ohi! Ohi!”

The event has been mythologized quite a bit (Metaxas was actually a rather nasty dictator himself and his reply was probably more than just a laconic “No”), but the symbolism of a nation deciding for itself has prevailed. It was a moment of great dignity, moral courage and the assertion of one’s right to self-determination in the face of foreign occupation. As secular national holidays in Greece go, it is up there with Independence Day in terms of importance.

Like Mussolini’s ultimatum, the ultimatum given by the EU (austerity or Grexit) is not a choice where either option can be seen as positive, but based on history one would imagine the Greeks will pick the most dignified of two bad outcomes. Tsipras is being very clever in his strategy, subtly implying a connection to the famous Ohi without specifically saying it. In contrast, the opposition and the media are going to be scratching their heads on how to turn "YES" into a positive slogan.

Greeks have been low on pride and self-worth these past few years. Maybe Sunday will be this generation’s “Ohi”.

Or maybe we are just reading too much into a single word.

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About the author

Alex Sakalis is associate editor of openDemocracy. He edits the Can Europe Make It? debate and tweets @alexsakalis.

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