Greek election: undemocracy in action

Greeks elected a 300-seat Parliament on May 6, which was sworn in today.  And they go right back to elect another one in exactly a month from today – all in the name of democracy and the will of the people.  But the fact is that the Greek electoral process is a sham, and while the May 6 elections didn’t lead to a government, it seems inevitable that the June 17 elections – if they do produce a government – will not – can not – translate to a government according to the will of the people.

When Greeks voted on May 6, they didn’t vote for a prime minister or a president.  Unlike the American presidential election, or the one in France on the same day, Greek elections are held to choose members of the 300-seat Parliament, analogous to the US House of Representatives.  Unlike the United States, where only two perspectives are taken seriously – that of the Democratic Party and that of the Republican Party – in Greece there are more than two parties.  Of course, the US has lots of parties – but how many US presidents and members of Congress belong to parties that are not in the “top two”?  Not very many.  Greece had two top parties also, PASOK and New Democracy, but it also had several other parties that get a significant portion of the vote.  Because the Greek constitution is designed to represent more than two views at the same time, the 300 seats of Parliament are divided according to how many votes each party gets overall.  So even if a small party’s politician doesn’t receive a majority of the votes in any one district, as long as the party as a whole receives 3% of the vote overall throughout the country, they get seats in Parliament.

As a result of this system, the Communist Party, for example, which received the largest number of votes in only one place in Greece (the island of Samos) still received 26 seats in Parliament.  This system guarantees that parties do not have to be a majority force in any single place, as long as they are a minority force everywhere.

It is a nominally democratic system that puts an emphasis on popular vote rather than majority vote.  However, there are several undemocratic elements to the current electoral system in Greece:

1.  In the city where I live, there is a slight Muslim majority.  This is unique in Greece and is due to the fact that this city was excluded from the Exchange of Populations between Turkey and Greece in 1923, which relocated all Christians in Turkey to Greece, and all Muslims in Greece to Turkey according to the Treaty of Lausanne.  In the past, our Muslim townsfolk here supported a local party that wanted to unite this region with Turkey.  Because the party’s candidates only ran for office here in this town, they made up a tiny fraction of the national vote; but they were the winning party here.  To prevent this party from entering Parliament, lawmakers changed the electoral law so that any party had to have at least 3% of the total popular vote throughout Greece to get into Parliament.  This had the effect of killing any small local movements.  Only political parties that are on the ballot in Athens, Thessaloniki, and other large cities are able to get into Parliament now.   Greek politics must now be conducted on a national or at least urban scale.

The practical result of this undemocratic law is that 19.5% of the voters who voted on May 6 voted for parties that cannot set foot in Parliament.  These voters are completely unrepresented citizens, just as much as those who chose not to vote at all.

This law has one further undemocratic result:  the more votes go to parties that stay outside Parliament, the smaller a percentage the first party needs to get 50 bonus seats (which I’ll explain just below).  So voting for a party that will not get that 3% minimum directly helps give a majority to the party that these voters are voting against.  In fact, voting for a tiny party is a more effective vote for Party 1 than a simple vote for Party 1, arithmetically.  The best way to strengthen Party 1 is to vote for Party 20.

2.  The party that gets the most votes, even if it only receives a few percentage points of votes, gets fifty additional Parliamentary seats.  The 250 remaining seats are then divvied up based on the percentage of votes that each party received.  The purpose of this system is to strengthen the two-party system.  In the past, you would often have elections where 41% voted for Party 1, 40% voted for Party 2, and 19% voted for Parties 3, 4, and 5.  Because nothing can ever get done if one party doesn’t get at least 151 votes for a simple majority – required to pass any law – in our example, there is a problem.  Party 1 would get 123 seats (41% of 300), which isn’t enough to do anything.  To fix this problem, lawmakers give them a bonus.  Party 1 starts with 50 seats, and then gets 41% of the remaining 250 (102 more seats).  This way, they get 152 seats – just enough to form a simple majority and allow the government to function and actually get things done.

However, this is undemocratic for several reasons.  For one thing, it gives over 50% of the seats in Parliament to a party that only represents 41% of the votes.  For another, it makes the discrepancy between a party that got 41% and a party that got 40% very large – a difference of 52 seats with only 1% difference in votes.  Such a big difference makes the government appear illegitimate to the people who elected it.  Third, these fifty seats are “stolen” from the other parties.  Fourth and perhaps most seriously, the knowledge that Party 1 will be rewarded with 50 extra seats serves to extort votes from all voters who feel represented by Parties 3, 4, 5, etc.

The concept of voter extortion is well understood in Greece.  Most voters wrestle with the dilemma of voting for the party they support, or voting for the Big Two party that they hate least.

The two undemocratic laws work together to extort votes.  Those who support a very small party know that it is unlikely that their party will get 3% of the vote.  People can be reluctant to “throw away” their vote on a party that will not get into Parliament.  The logic that “I won’t vote for them because other people will make the same decision not to vote for them for the reason that other people will make the same decision not to vote for them for the reason…” is self-destructive because it ensures an ever-larger pool of voters voting for parties they do not support, and an ever-smaller pool of voters voting for small parties, thus dooming small parties to stagnate, even if they do in fact represent a large number of voters.

Those who support a small, but not tiny, party also have a dilemma.  They can vote their party into Parliament, but by doing so they may “allow” Party 1 to get a majority, even if they prefer Party 2 over Party 1.  So the supporters of smaller parties may choose to vote for Party 2 simply to have a voice in the dominant two-party system.  This undermines the strength of the party they support and further strengthens the two-party system that misrepresents them.

These issues are hardly unique to Greece.  Even the US, with its dominantly two-party system, presents its voters with a similar dilemma.  But in the May 6 election, we saw in a very stark way how undemocratic electoral laws don’t work well in a democratic process.

Party 1, New Democracy, received 18.8% of the vote, winning it an extra 50 seats.  Even with these extra seats, they had no majority.  This points out just how undemocratic the rule of the extra 50 seats is:  though it was applied, and thereby disenfranchised many voters, its application was useless and served no positive purpose.  No majority government could be formed, no matter what – but they still got to take those fifty extra seats.

Party 2, Syriza, received 16.8% of the vote, and got only 52 seats, compared to New Democracy’s 108 seats.  Party 3, PASOK, received 13.2% of the vote and got 41 seats.  So while the difference between Party 1 and Party 2 is 2 percentage points, Party 1 got 56 more seats – more than all of Party 2′s seats; and while the difference between Party 2 and Party 3 was 3.6 points, almost twice the difference between Party 1 and Party 2, still Party 3 only got eleven fewer seats than Party 2.

3.  Something that many voters may not realize, and many people outside Greece don’t know, is that not all parties are eligible to get the bonus 50 seats for being Party 1.  Probably the most undemocratic of all the electoral laws in Greece, it’s also the least understood.  There are two kinds of political parties in Greece:  single parties and group parties.  A group party is a party that has been cobbled together from several political groups but conducts itself as a single political party for all intents and purposes.  An example of a single party is New Democracy.  An example of a group party is Syriza.  Group parties are not eligible for the bonus 50 seats unless they receive an absolutely enormous majority of the popular vote, in which case they wouldn’t need the 50 seats for a majority anyway.  This is because in order to receive the 50 bonus seats, if a group party is made up of five groups, it’s total votes are divided by five; then that number is compared to the numbers of the single parties.  The number must be higher than the single party receiving the most votes in Parliament.

Let’s assume that New Democracy and Syriza’s numbers were switched in the May 6 election.  That means that ND had 16.8% of the vote and Syriza had 18.8%.  One would assume that Syriza would then get 108 seats, and ND 52.  But in fact, Syriza is a group party comprised of 12 member groups.    So what would have happened is that Syriza’s number, 18.8%, would have been divided by 12, and then compared to ND’s 16.8%.  18.8/12=1.6%.  In this case, ND would still receive the fifty bonus seats.  Syriza would get 47 seats, and ND would get 92 seats, even though Syriza received enough additional votes to justify ND getting more than twice Syriza’s seats in Parliament when the names are switched, as on May 6.  If Syriza had won the election on May 6, they would have received fewer Parliament seats then they received for coming in second place.

This serves as perhaps the most extreme version of vote extortion.  It is almost impossible for Syriza to form a government, because it can never receive the 50 bonus seats, unless no other political party receives more than a few percentage points of votes.

That’s fair, according to Greek electoral law.

However, what’s fair and what’s right are not always the same thing.  And that was proven by the week following the elections, when the party leaders tried to form a coalition government between themselves to get a simple majority.  Even if Party 1 and Party 3 joined together, they still had only 149 seats, but no other party in Parliament (3, 4, 5, 6, 7) could be convinced to join them in power, since it was so obvious that Party 2 should be in power.

After days of arguing about it, the president of Greece announced that there was no way to make a simple majority, or even come close with the “tolerance” of the other parties, and the only solution was for everyone to vote again.

But how can that be a solution?  Won’t everyone vote for the same people all over again?

Several things will be different this time around.  For one thing, voters will no longer be voting for individual candidates, but for parties as a whole.  When a new election takes place within 18 months after the previous one, Greek electoral law dictates that each region’s winning candidates are selected by the winning party, rather than by the voters.  This is unlikely to change the election results dramatically, since most parties simply rank their candidates by how they did in the first election.

Aside from that procedural change, the real and confounding difference is that many of the smaller parties, especially the ones that didn’t manage to enter Parliament at all, will be looking to hook up with each other in order to increase their votes and hit the 3% minimum.  We may see, for example, several of the pro-business center-right parties, like Democratic Alliance, Creativity Again, and Action band together.  Individually, these three parties received 2.55%, 2.15%, and 1.80% of the vote.  Simply added together, their total would be 6.5% – more than the number of votes received by Democratic Left, one of the most key players in the coalition discussions this past week.

However, that’s not exactly how it works.  Some voters who voted for Action may not like Democratic Alliance enough to vote for the trio.   That sort of defection will cost the trio votes.  But the bigger question is:  how many voters who liked these parties, but didn’t want to “throw away” their votes, will be willing to vote for the party now that is almost certain to enter Parliament?  That should swell the numbers nicely.  Who did all those people vote for in the last election?  Maybe some of them didn’t vote at all, but surely some of them gave their vote away to the Big Two party that they hated least.  In this case, that would be New Democracy, or Party 1.  If Democratic Alliance, Creativity Again, and Action do in fact band together, they will pull almost all their new votes from New Democracy; even with everything else begin equal, it is likely to be enough to push New Democracy’s numbers below Syriza’s, making Syriza Party 1 – not that it will do Syriza any good, since ND still gets the bonus seats.

And of course, these new banded together parties will be group parties – and that means that they aren’t competing with the two big parties, ND and PASOK.

All parties, except ND and PASOK, are doomed to compete amongst themselves, but never with ND and PASOK, for true governance of the Greek Parliament.  Although PASOK took a beating in the May 6 election, with only 13% of the vote, it is still in a better position than Syriza over the long haul, because it can rebuild itself and vie for the fifty bonus seats, which Syriza cannot.

Why would the two big parties write a law that makes participation in the government as anything beyond a fringe party impossible for any party except New Democracy and PASOK?  I wish someone from ND or PASOK would explain this to me in a way that I can understand.  Because every explanation I come up with makes me fear I may be becoming cynical….

As we go to new elections on June 17, it will be interesting to see how voters can possibly resolve these impossible dilemmas.  There is no way to vote in Greece such that New Democracy or PASOK will not control the Parliament over the long term.  Greece is not a plural democracy, despite claiming to be one.  Greece is in fact a two-party system that tolerates a minority of fringe parties in order to diffuse popular discontent with the two big parties, and to conceal the true nature of its Parliamentary system.  It strikes me as very unlikely that the current electoral law can be twisted in any conceivable way that represents the actual will of the Greek people – yet the electoral law is written in such a way that it cannot be changed prior to an election – unless 2/3 of Parliament – a two-party system Parliament always elected under standing electoral law, mind you – votes to change it.  Any changes to electoral law only go into effect in the second election after the law change.

There has been a lot of rhetoric out of the EU lately about respecting the Greek democratic process.  What the EU politicians are not saying is why they respect this particular Greek “democratic” process.  Now that you know, you might read their statements in a different light.

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13 thoughts on “Greek election: undemocracy in action

  1. Well, that’s clear then! I always knew it was complicated, but I hadn’t realised it was quite that bad. In a way, I’m surprised that anyone bothers to vote at all, if there is no chance of ever (in the foreseeable future) of getting rid of those who bear such a responsibility for the mess in which the country finds itself. I can fully understand why the EU politicians might respect this particular democratic process!

    • There is a lot of confusion about the 50 bonus seats and group parties situation. For one thing, these are brand new laws and haven’t ever had to be “used” before – this is the first time that the two big parties polled so badly. Many people just don’t know about the group party problem. My husband told me that he wasn’t sure if it even applies to Syriza, that maybe there was a court ruling or something that made Syriza an exception. I would love to see something like that (official) but haven’t.

      And it goes without saying that it has NEVER been discussed on the Greek TV news….

  2. My head is spinning !!! Thanks for the explanation Heidi.
    The group party rules re extra seats seem particularly unfair – especially as they were clearly made law by the 2 old main parties who would benefit most. I guess we are all cynics on that one! If small parties have grouped together to act as one party …. surely they are now ‘one party’! Let us know if you do find out if Syriza (as the 2nd party last election) are an exception. Do they have a party website/blog where you can ask them? or your local candidates? You would think it is in their interests to clarify this point to the electorate – either way it would encourage more people who would choose them to do so if they voted differently last time, or didn’t vote.
    That is, of course, if change & Syriza are what the people want.

    • I believe – though I’m not sure – that if a group party wants to declare itself a single party, it can do so – however, it must do so BEFORE the election process starts. Since Syriza didn’t, there was no way they could have got the 50 seats on May 6. But there is a chance that Syriza may do that now, before the next election. I don’t know if they will want to – after all, the entire concept of the Syriza party in the first place is that it brings together multiple viewpoints/political groups – that’s it’s entire purpose for being and has always been. So it will be interesting to see what they do. I asked S (my husband) about it after I posted this post and he said that he thinks they will go to court to declare themselves a single party. I don’t know if they will, but I certainly would understand if they “sold out their own ideology” to do so. I’m not sure what the deadline on that would be – I’m definitely not an expert and I’m struggling to understand all this stuff as it becomes relevant.

      What happens in the next few weeks will be fascinating I think. I am pretty sure that we will see a quite different campaign season this month, compared with last month.

  3. Such an interesting article, thank you for taking the time to explain this. It does make you a little dizzy trying to figure it all out, and I suppose “making it confusing” is part of the whole thing.. otherwise everyone would REALLY understood how fixed/much of sham it truly is..it’s actually quite sickening.

  4. This is a really informative article. It will be quite a game changer if Syriza Party will go to court and declare itself a ‘single party’. The investors better tighten their seatbelt and follow this development closely. Thanks!

    • I think it’s a done deal. So Syriza will have a chance at the 50 bonus seats. Incidentally, New Democracy and Democratic Alliance paired up and decided to do it as a single party (for obvious reasons) so there’s no chance that ND will be a group party.

  5. From what I can understand, PASOK and ND are now polling a combined 35-40% of the votes. Meanwhile, SYRIZA looks set to become the most popular party in terms of votes.

    If that is true, PASOK and ND will easily form a majority in parliament if ND gets the extra 50 seats.

    - Will such a government be legitimate if the anti-austerity parties actually get more votes and SYRIZA becomes the largest party in terms of votes cast?

    - You said on May 17 that it is against SYRIZA ‘s philosophy to declare itself a single party to get the 50 extra seats. But then you said on May 23 in a comment that SYRIZA’s transformation to a single party is a “done deal”. Can you clarify a bit what SYRIZA intends to do. Is it legally possible for them to become a single party?

    • #1 – it will be a completely legal government. Will it be perceived as illegitimate… I don’t know. I suspect it will not last very long. To expect such a government to last a year is asking a lot.

      #2 – yes, I believe they have already declared themselves a single party. Nevertheless, they are made up of a slew of small parties which consider themselves separate entities and that hasn’t changed. I think it is just a matter of semantics really to take advantage of the stupid electoral law – they haven’t received any sort of backlash from their voters for that move. When New Democracy and Democratic Alliance joined up a few days ago, they also declared themselves a single party, despite Democratic Alliance making it clear that they still “exist.” They “put themselves on ice” in order to qualify for the 50 bonus seats.

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