Greece has a government

The priests are chanting.” Antonis Samaras, the leader of New Democracy, has now been sworn in as Prime Minister of Greece, three days after his party won the plurality of votes and seats in Greece’s second election of 2012.

The Athens News live blog for June 20 (follow link in first line) offered regular updates about the apparently highly contentions bargaining. And I do not mean between ND and partners. I mean within Pasok and Democratic Left, the two parties that will join ND in offering Samaras and his cabinet a vote of confidence. According to updates during the day, the Pasok caucus meeting went longer than planned and included various excitements such as yelling and the throwing of an iPad.

As I understand it, the government will be a single-party minority cabinet. No Pasok or Democratic Left MPs will sit in cabinet, but they are agreeing to support it.

Evangelos Venizeols, Pasok leader, “confirmed that Pasok will be taking part in the coalition with no parliamentary members and insisted that the most important part of this entire effort was not the government itself but the formulation of a national negotiation team.” (2:05 pm update)

Fotis Kouvelis, Democratic Left leader, stated that his “parliamentary group has decided to give a vote of confidence to the this government. Our support of course, depends on correct government policy being set in place. The process of policy formulation is still in progress, with our party pressuring for the negation of any measures that have already damaged our society and its people. Our country needs a government, this is important, but the policy it follows is even more important.” (1:07)

In the 2:20 update there is some background on the new Finance Minister, Vasilas Rapanos.

According to the election results posted by the Ministry of Interior, the government and its two support partners combine for 179 seats, which is 59.7%. ND has 129 of the seats, thanks to earning the 50-seat bonus for being the largest party, which it was by just less than three percentage points over Syriza (Radical Left), which will lead the opposition.

The government’s electoral basis–the sum of votes obtained by the three parties offering confidence–is 48.2%. Thus, while not actually endorsed by a majority of voters, the parties that empower this government are very close to a majority. And it is a majority of those votes that were cast for above-threshold parties; 5.98% of the vote was wasted on parties that did not clear the 3% threshold. (This is less than half what it was in the super-fragmented election in May.) The largest of the below-threshold parties had only 1.59%, so we can hardly say that these voters expected their votes to count for empowering a government, or a parliamentary opposition. (In May, two parties, the Greens and the Orthodox Rally, were at 2.9%.)

The big re-sorting of voters in this election, compared to May, seems to come from the lower wasted-vote percentage. (Turnout was actually down, but not by much: 62.5% vs. 65.1%.) Both ND and Syriza grew their support by similar amounts, and the margin of ND over Syriza was very similar in both elections. Pasok did, however, suffer a further, but small, decline. Independent Greeks also did about 3 percentage-points worse, with their voters perhaps going back to ND, from which IG is a splinter. In this election, no party cleared 30% of the vote, but that’s quite a change from May, when none cleared 20%. ((See Adam Carr’s Psephos for the May results, which are no longer on their former page at the Interior Ministry. The current page for the June election presumably also will be taken down, so here is the Psephos link Athens News has a useful page at which you can compare the results of the May and June election, district-by-district. BBC has a useful graphic comparing seat totals by party in the two elections (scroll to the bottom of the linked page).))

Golden Dawn, the (not-so-neo) nazi party, did about as well, winning 6.9% in June, compared to 7.0% in May.

The outcome, for now, seems about as “good” as could have been expected. Yes, the Greek electoral system–which is not proportional–risks significant distortion when even a party that has won the vote 29.7%-26.9% gets 50 bonus seats and 43% of total seats, while the runner up gets only 23.4% of seats. Yes, there is something unseemly about the old and discredited, formerly alternating in power, Pasok and ND teaming up despite Pasok’s spectacular fall in voter support in recent elections (including, as noted above, a small fall in the past six weeks). Nonetheless, the government is backed by nearly three fifths of parliament and about half the voters, and includes one of the parties opposed to the current bailout terms–more pragmatically so than Syriza, which can carp and organize protests, but will have no say in the country’s policy for now. Whether this government can come up with policy solutions, and whether it can even hold together, are questions for another day.

16 thoughts on “Greece has a government

  1. Actually, the May election results were just moved to the archive location, which is pretty easy to find if you speak Greek. (Otherwise, you have to be stubborn or lucky, like me.) Greeks can find it by going to the ministry’s election page, and clicking on the big box labeled “previous election results” (in Greek; it’s the second big box on the page, the one with a calendar graphic.) There you’ll find the results of Greek elections going back to 1996.

    To make it all a bit simpler, I’m pasting the links here:
    May 2012

    Singular Logic, whatever their other web-design skills, are not very good at working with web clients. Since most of these pages are generated on the fly with javascript, they do not work with the back button, Google translate or screen readers. Also, you can’t save them as files or (in many cases) copy link urls. (I mention this on the off-chance that one of them reads your blog.)

  2. So, the points I actually wanted to make:

    First, the coalition would have had 129 out of 250 seats without any plurality bonus at all. That is, they did not require the bonus to achieve a majority, although their majority wouldn’t have been as big. The main difference is that the bonus makes the presence of Fotis Kouvelis’ Democratic Left optional rather than necessary, and thereby provides a bit more of a buffer against future defections, which are not all that unlikely.

    Second, I think the spectre of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats hangs very much over these coalition negotiations. Of course, unlike Venizelos and Kouvelis, Clegg was popular going into the election, but what is more important is that the coalition has pretty well devastated any popularity he ever had (and probably any chances of its return).

    Like Venizelos and Kouvelis, Clegg and the Liberal Democrats became a nominally left [1] member of a right-dominated coalition whoe majority member was determined to implement an “austerity” agenda. This left the LibDems in an impossible position: opposing the Conservative agenda would be a betrayal of the commitment they made in joining the coalition government, a government in which they are fully involved (Clegg is Deputy Prime Minister, for example); not opposing the agenda was seen as a betrayal of the people who voted for them.

    So Venizelos, who is probably more committed to the memorandum than Samaras, is trying to play the coalition game better than Clegg did. Obviously, his best move would be to convince Tsipras to take on the Clegg role, but Tsipras is certainly not stupid enough to fall for that. So his second best option is to try to put Kouvelis in that role, while maintaining a “forced by a sincere desire for national unity to reluctantly support this coalition” posture. Hence, his insistence that Pasok members put aside their personal ministerial ambitions. [2]

    Does this mean that coalition governments are really as bad as (some) people say they are? I don’t think so, but it’s not a particularly encouraging analysis either.

    Still, I note that neither Greece nor the UK have a tradition of coalition governments, and that countries which do have such a tradition generally manage to put together coalitions which do not try to bridge a major social cleavage. For example, a coalition between a centre-tending nominally left-wing “Socialist Party” with a more ideological “Left Front” and minor-cleavage Green party does not put minority coalition members in the position of being expected to reverse coalition policy. They are merely supposed to have some influence, nudging it in the right direction. Moreover, the majority member may not be totally averse to being nudged in this direction. That can all work out pretty well as voters for all coalition members expect it to; they may grumble from time to time, but on the whole they will feel properly represented.

    As an alternative analysis, governments elected in a moment of crisis (relative in the case of the UK, but clear in the case of Greece) cannot be expected to have an easy time of it, whether they are coalitions or not. So it’s possible that these two cases do not apply to normal governance.

    But I prefer my first theory (that a country has to learn how to “do coalitions”) because it is precisely governance in times of crisis which is the ultimate test for the value of a political system.

    And one final observation: Greece bans publication of electoral polls during a long period before the election. I believe this is a tendency in modern democracies. But it is quite possible that the May election and the resulting imbroglio is precisely the counter-argument to this tendency.

    If you look at the published polls, the interesting thing is that the final outcome is achieved very soon after the results of the first election are known. I interpret this as meaning that many voters would have voted differently “had they known what the results would be”.

    The May elections were held at a moment of total uncertainty about Greek politics; several of the apparently plausible parties had only been in existence for a few months. Polling during the last two weeks leading up to the election would probably have revealed the plausibility of a Syriza victory, and the publication of these polls could well have helped accelerate the reconfiguration of party support, avoiding the instantaneous dispersion of the discarded May result.

    So I think there is at least an argument that the deliberate refusal to allow the public access to relevant information about public preferences had a huge cost for the country.

    [fn 1]: At least, “left” enough that it was possible for the Guardian to give them an endorsement. Regardless of Clegg’s personal politics, I think there is little doubt that many of the votes he received were from left-wingers disaffected with the Labour Party.

    [fn 2]: He can’t refuse to join the coalition because that would force yet another election, and furthermore he would be perceived as sabotaging the EU process he is publicly committed to supporting (and which he probably believes in).

  3. The Greek parliament has 300 members, not 250, and 129 is not a majority.

    Despite the announcement of a coalition, there is no agreed programme. A minority government, especially one with a confected legislative majority is not going to be in a position to enforce the austerity measures demanded by the troika.

    There is a worrying tendency to revive the theory of the humours and contrast the cold phlegmatic responsible north with the choleric spendthrift south, but the Rutte government in the Netherlands fell in May because one of the support partners refused to approve the budget cuts demanded by the fiscal stability pact.

  4. I understood rici to be saying that if we took away the bonus seats, there would be 250 in total, and the government and its allies would hold 129 of these.

    I agree with Alan’s concerns about the likely disagreements and potential instability when it comes to negotiating and implementing an actual program(me) of continued austerity.

    Thanks also to rici for the interesting comparison to the UK case of “unusual” (for the country) coalition-making.

  5. Respect for any website that can report on an election result with “The priests are chanting”, but… “Habemus Samaram” should be something like “Ekhoume[n] [ena] Samaran”. Or even “Ekhoume[n] [ton] Samaran”? Alan, help me out here.

  6. Alan: I apologize for being a bit sloppy in describing what I meant about a majority without the bonus, but MSS got it 100% right.

    Also, I did say that I thought defections were likely; however, there will be a lot of pressure to maintain some sort of agreement. I think that the Germans understand that they have to allow the new Greek government to at least be seen to be winning a few bargaining points, which will help a bit. Also, to some extent Pasok and ND come “pre-defected”, as it were.

  7. @rici

    No apology needed, I wasn’t trying to say you were misstating the numbers. Personally, if I found myself wanting to form a government 179 out of 300 would make me a lot more sanguine than 129 out of 250.

    The rules about polls are interesting. There is, according to AEC research, a small number of electors who see their function as picking the winner, so fabricated late polls could change a close result. 2 weeks seems Draconian. In Australia it is 3 days.

  8. The ban on late opinion polls is interesting given that Greece’s “PR” [sic] system has a moderately steep threshold and a very hefty winner’s bonus. I have read (somewhere) that in List PR systems with high thresholds and/or quotas, tactical voting can be nearly as widespread as under FPTP. Even in Israel or The Netherlands, the large number of parties creates a risk of throwing one’s ballot away on one that polls under one per cent. Opinion polls should, in theory, allow for the same sort of “invisible runoff” as is common in the UK with its “POLLS SHOW LABOUR CAN’T WIN IN BRIXTETH-LITTLE CHIPPINGSLEY NORTHEAST – VOTE LIB DEM TO KEEP THE TORIES OUT!!” leaflets: you might think the New Democratic Democrats have a good platform, but if only 0.2% of your fellow citizens feel the same way, you might be tempted to swing behind a party that can win seats.

    So if Greece bans opinion polls, that might mean a substantial degree of Bayesian regret that normally goes uncorrected for four years at a time – except when a second election follows very shortly after the first, and can be treated as a kind of runoff.

  9. I was surprised Golden Dawn (XA) got as much as they did. I thought the violent incident where their spokesman hit two women representing left-wing parties in a debate would maybe even halve the XA vote.

    On a different note, does anyone know the story behind the last time(s) a Greek elections failed to produce a winner? I’m talking about the three elections that took place in quick succesion in late ’89 – early ’90.

  10. JD: As I understand the story, it goes like this: PASOK was first elected in 1981 and then re-elected in 1985, both times under an election law drafted by New Democracy, which provided a different but highly effective mechanism for enhancing the leading party’s seat-share. (Different from the current one, I mean). However, things started to go downhill for them in 1988, and it seemed pretty clear that they weren’t going to be able to win the 1989 election. In order to limit the damage, they passed a new election law which was strictly proportional.

    This all worked more or less according to plan. In 1985, PASOK had won 161 seats with a 45.8% vote share. In 1989, New Democracy came in first with 44.3%, but without the winner’s benefit, they were only able to claim 145 seats. PASOK won 125 and Synaspismos — a coalition of the communist party and what is now Syriza — picked up another 28. Synaspismos wouldn’t support PASOK, so no-one had a majority. It took two more tries before ND crawled up from 145 to 148 to 150 seats, and was finally able to form a government with the help of a small ND splinter party.

    As soon as they got in, they changed the law back to a majority enhancing law (the 40-seat bonus). So at the next election, in 1993 Pasok got its vote back up to 46%, and beat ND by 170 seats to 111.

    I happened to be in Greece for a good part of the 1989-1990 election process, and, although I didn’t (and don’t) speak much Greek, I found it all fascinating.

  11. With the exception of the Queen of Australia Etc Etc, isn’t it a bit unusual for a prelate to administer the oath of office?

  12. What Alan@11 said. Sounds like James II’s dictum “no bishop, no king” doesn’t work when causally reversed. The Orthodox Church in Russia seems to work very closely with the Putin government.

  13. Greek opinion polls give the hardline left SYRIZA between 32 and 36 percent of the national vote. But the party with the most votes in the general election gets a bonus of 50 seats, which might give SYRIZA an outright majority. You would think the governing centre-right/centre-left alliance would, unless it can form a common list (not really possible) want to repeal the 50-seat bonus before the next election. Why don’t they?

    • Greece has a rule that unless electoral reform is passed by a 2/3 majority, the new system does not apply until the election after next.

      • That seems like a pretty good rule. I can’t think of other countries with such provisions, although there may be some.

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