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.