Greek parliament can’t elect president, must be dissolved

It is the season for snap election calls, even if Sweden recently unsnapped.

As widely anticipated in various news accounts in the past week or so, today the parliament of Greece was unable to muster the required three-fifths majority in its constitutionally mandated final attempt to elect a new president. The Greek presidency is almost entirely ceremonial, but the constitution further mandates that when parliament has failed to elect a president, there must be an early general election for parliament. The newly elected parliament will have to try again to elect a president. The parliamentary election will be 25 January.

A new president did not have to be elected for another couple of months, but the Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras of the conservative New Democracy party, advanced the date. The media seem to be painting this as a miscalculation, but I am not so sure. Of course, we have already been getting for a while the obligatory hand-wringing headlines about investor confidence being shaken. It’s a CRISIS! And, indeed, the anti-austerity Syriza (radical left party) is leading the polls. But what if Samaras knows exactly what he is doing, and that strategic voting in the actual election will give his party a stronger plurality, a more stable new government, and, as a nice side benefit, allow his preferred presidential candidate to be elected? I find that scenario pretty plausible, actually.* After all, if he truly feared a Syriza win, he and his party presumably could have found a compromise presidential candidate acceptable not to Syriza, but to the 12 independent** MPs whose votes would have reached the required 180. Stavros Dimas, the government’s candidate, and a former European Commissioner, ended with 168 votes.

It seems to me that the Greek presidential-selection process is intended to do one of two things: force the ruling party to come up with a consensus candidate, or have it call an election to get a larger parliamentary mandate. The government will choose to trigger an early election only when it is confident it can win.

I might add that the newly elected parliament in a case like this may elect a president with a simple majority (see Art. 32 of the constitution).

Of course, politicians sometimes miscalculate, so this will be one to watch.

* As the Reuters article I linked to notes, “Syriza has held a steady lead in opinion polls for months, although its advantage over Samaras’ conservative New Democracy party has narrowed in recent weeks.” From various news articles that I have seen recently, it seems the lead of Syriza has never been more than a few percentages points. Plus PASOK (the old socialist party, and a reluctant partner backing Samaras) is in danger of failing to clear the nationwide threshold of 3%. The Independent Greeks party is also hovering right around 3%. (See The Economist.) Many voters favoring these two threashold-scraping parties may have to decide whether a Syriza plurality is worth the risk of possibly ending up without representation for their first-choice party. There is also a new center-left party, The River, founded before this year’s European elections by a well known journalist, is polling safely over the threshold. It may be a potential supporter of a new Samaras-led government.

** They are defectors from other parties. No independents were elected in the last (June, 2012) election. I am not even sure if the Greek electoral system allows independents to be elected. It will be interesting to see what lists these MPs end up in, if they seek reelection.

24 thoughts on “Greek parliament can’t elect president, must be dissolved

  1. And note that if Syriza did somehow win a plurality of the votes, it would get the automatic 50-seat (or is it 40?) bonus. Given just under 25% of the vote in recent polls, that would get it something around 100 seats, depending on how large a vote was wasted on sub-threshold parties. It is inconceivable that it could form a government. Moreover, likely no other combination of parties could form one either, given the over-representation of the largest party by the electoral system. So then what? Another election, just as in 2012, because the constitution requires it. Crisis! But, the second election would probably deliver the ND plurality if the first one failed, and would deliver a lower sub-threshold vote than the first. This is more or less the sequence in 2012 (except that Syriza did not have a plurality in either of those elections).

    • Syriza has polled at least 30% in every poll since September. Most seat estimates show them getting between 140 and 150 seats. There still may not be an obvious partner–I can’t see Syriza being willing to work with the new Papandreou party (called Kinima, or The Movement). PASOK and ANEL are both looking below the threshold, and they won’t work with ND or Golden Dawn. That would leave either the Communists (who have indicated that they aren’t interested in joining any coalition) or To Potami, which is an enigma but which describes itself as “pro-European.”

      • Chris, do you know a good link for polling results in Greece? The Economist (to which I linked) and other sources I have seen report figures below 25% for Syriza.

        But even the higher seat estimates you report for Syriza don’t change the conclusion about whether they could form a government, as you note.

      • The Wikipedia compilation looks pretty decent to me. According to the polls there, Syriza has been consistently leading since June, falling in the 31-36 range during the last month.

      • The Wikipedia compilation is where I’ve been getting my numbers, plus reading E Kathimerini’s website. I don’t know if there are other polls out there. I do know that the Economist frequently does not source poll numbers and really does not like economic leftists, so there’s reason to doubt what they have to say on the subject.

        Apparently Papandreou has indicated that he would be willing to work with Syriza, but there has been no indication that they would be willing to work with him.

      •,_2015 is the polling site.

        Syriza has been in the lead in virtually every poll since the European elections, and in every poll since September they’ve been over 30%. Just where above 30 they are is not clear (though they don’t look close to the 38% needed to get a majority of seats), and ND’s polling has been all over the place. The 3% gaps are from polls where the gap has been 3-4% for most of the year; other polls have the gap as high as double figures, so it’s difficult to know who’s right and who’s wrong.

  2. “The government will choose to trigger an early election only when it is confident it can win.” Yes, but the election might still be triggered by the opposition.

    Presidential Power has an interesting account of why Samaras moved forward the presidential ballot:
    It seems it will allow him to contest the resulting election before committing to concrete terms on the extended bailout agreement.

    • Sure, the opposition could trigger an election by simply refusing to vote for any candidate. That does not look to me to be what happened. Thanks for the link to the Presidential Power post. I would agree with this point: “The logic of bringing the presidential election forward is that if a president is elected, then the government will also have demonstrated that it has enough support to pass a revised bailout package and the further tough conditions that will be imposed on the country. […] PM Samaras hopes that the stakes will be so high that he will be returned to office and will have enough support to pass the new bailout agreement.”

      Bottom line: I think Samaras forced this election, and could have attempted to get a broadly agreeable president chosen in February if he had wanted to keep this parliament in office.

    • “Stable government” is the usual defence, but the real rationale for Greece’s electoral systems being tilted in favour of the largest party appears to be to lock out any party that is not PASOK or New Democracy from political power.

      • If that were the aim, it’s far from the ideal system to do it, as the recent realignment demonstrates. To prevent the entry of newcomers you’d want to impose higher effective thresholds, whether through first-past-the-post or simply a higher formal threshold. The aim of the system is clearly to generally generate single-party majority governments. Whatever was initially seen as the virtue of such outcomes, I think the three elections held under PR in ’89 and ’90 solidified ‘stability’ as the main virtue in the mind of many Greeks in a way which is at least somewhat warranted.

      • I don’t think that there was any intent to lock small parties out of parliament. However, the major source of power for such parties is coalition governments, which were hardly expected to occur as a result of the change when the system was first introduced.

  3. Wouldn’t Greece be better to reform it’s electoral system, abolish the 50 bonus seats for the plurality winner and have a higher electoral threshold? What would the previous election result been had there been not the plurality bonus seat rule? Would it had been harder or easier to form a government?

    • The removal of the 50-seat bonus would have significantly limited the strategic voting that happened in the June 2012 election and brought it closer to the extremely fragmented result of the May 2012 election. It would certainly have been more difficult to form a government, although one might argue that Greek parties might have been more willing to compromise had they been more used to such situations as a result of a lot more experience with PR.

      A higher threshold would have had to be as unusually high as 7% to alter the result in May 2012, and a more conventional 5% threshold would only have removed the Communists in June (indeed the most intransigent Greek party, but that would not always be the result – in May, the smallest party with seats was DIMAR, the party most amenable to joining a coalition at the time). Of course, this is assuming that people would have voted in the same way, which is a very unrealistic assumption, especially for the latter election. In general, higher thresholds reduce fragmentation, but wouldn’t be nearly as conducive to the formation of stable governments as the 50-seat bonus because 1) the seats denied to sub-threshold parties are distributed roughly equally among parties that passed the threshold, a very different effect to the concentrated advantage the 50-seat boost gives to the largest party and its bloc and 2) because having fewer small parties will generally increase the bargaining power of the remaining parties, making cabinet formations if anything more difficult for the large parties.

      Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this course of action immediately, as it might undermine reform efforts in Greece’s current fragile economic situation, in the long run my suggestion would be to keep the 50-seat bonus but to re-establish an upper house which would be directly elected through PR. This way, while governments would continue to be formed in a more majoritarian format, all bills (except budgets, for which the upper house would have no veto) would have to have the support of the representatives of a majority of the electorate to pass the Senate (as it would be elected through PR.

  4. Or keep the same 300 politicians but stipulate that only the 250 elected by PR get too vote on all Bills. The 50 plurality bonus members are allowed to vote only on budget and confidence matters. (And electing a President?)
    And to avoid debates over which is the “largest party,” have the 50 members chosen by a separate ballot from the 250 PR members. Tick one party list, the list with the most votes elects its 50 highest-ranked candidates (it should be allowed to nominate more in case of casual vacancies) to fill all 50 seats.
    I can’t believe I’ve advocated the US Electoral College as a model no less than twice in the past week. But it is an improvement on some of the half-baked schemes that other countries have devised.
    By the way, when I first started noticing Greek politics (during the Karamanlis I/ Papandreou I era of the mid-Eighties), the western media (okay, Time and Newsweek) all described the Greek presidency as extremely powerful. It seemed to be, if not quite French or Sri Lankan, then at least Finnish or Portuguese. Have its powers been limited by constitutional amendments since then?

    • The Karamanlis dynasty originally wrote the constitution and installed a very powerful presidency as a safeguard in case the Papandreou dynasty ever came to power. The Singaporean presidency has very strong powers for similar reasons, although Singapore is marginally less dynastic.

      In due course the Papandreou dynasty did take power and they reduced the presidency from one of the strongest in Europe to one of the weakest. I seem to remember Karamanlis I had himself elected president when he retired as prime minister.

    • I don’t think having an extra set of MPs, voting only on certain issues, would be very practical. Electing them on a separate ballot would lead to vote-splitting and the effectiveness of the bonus provision would greatly diminish as a result.

      As to the number of politicians, I would actually reduce their numbers, considering that the cube root of Greece’s population is about 220. The lower house would have about 200 seats (keeping the proportion of bonus seats the same) with an upper house of about 50.

      • The new MMP legislatures in the UK have been bedevilled by role confusions about constituency representatives versus list representatives.

        The Harper-Abbot rules, that coalitions and minority governments stitched together by dodgy deals are the greatest threat to Western civilisation as we know it since the ravening hordes of Chingiz Khan rode out of the steppe, were pure constitutional mythology. In a certain segment of US opinion, everyone ‘knows’ that the filibuster, the unit rule and the absolute prohibition on federal healthcare insurance are all prescribed by the constitution.

        One can only imagine the constitutional mythologising that would emerge from a two-tier assembly.

    • Having qualified bicameralism seems a bit similar to what Norway use to have before 2009 Constitutional Reforms abolished it’s temporary adhoc upper house. It seems a bit too complicated. Perhaps reviving Sortition/Selection by Lot members of the population as a sort of advisory upper house and to suggest laws that can be sent to the people by referendum.

      This article seems to explain something that the Greeks could learn from their ancestors rather than slavishly trying to imitate Western Europeans.

      I will quote the article above, “The Athenians regarded elections as inherently aristocratic, since only those with money and status could win. To the Athenians, selection by lot was an essential feature of democracy. In fact, this was the general view among political theorists from Aristotle to Montesquieu and Rousseau (Manin 1997).”

      “Through sortition, all citizens who wished had an equal chance and high likelihood of serving in public office. This is fundamentally different from the extremely unequal chance of being elected to political office through election.”

  5. Pingback: Greek election 2015 (or should that be “2015a”?) | Fruits and Votes

  6. This thread feels incomplete without the note that the Greek parliament, uncontroversially, elected a president as it was duty-bound to do:

    A conservative former interior minister, [Prokopis Pavlopoulos] was nominated by radical-left premier Alexis Tsipras who wanted a unity candidate.

    Pavlopoulos got well over the 180 votes he needed, with his only rival for the largely ceremonial post far behind. (Euro News, 18 Feb. 2015)

  7. Pingback: Greece–what next? (Yes, I asked that already) | Fruits and Votes

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