the TV told me to be happy that we have a government again

I admit it. I’ve been hiding under a Cyclopean rock.  I started this blog because I wanted it to be a positive, upbeat place, and positive and upbeat are not great words to describe me these past few weeks.

Greece has a government now. A government almost identical to the government it has had for the past several years decades. Is there a reason why things should have changed? Is there a logical, common sense reason why voters might have chosen a different party to form a government – a party that has not been the direct and foremost cause of the domestic factors leading to the crisis? Apparently the answer to these questions is “no, we’re happy with those parties. They represent us well. We trust them. Their leaders are honest, ethical, above corruption, and clearly work for the best interests of the Greek people.”

I don’t have the right to vote in Greece, so at least I am spared the additional frustration that voters for other parties feel, of having cast their vote into the black hole of New Pasocracy.

As a permanent resident, tax-payer, and lover of Greece, however, I share in the same frustrations that most people, everywhere on the political spectrum, feel: the quaintness of voting in a political realm when decisions are being made, just up above, in the banking realm.

And so Greece has sworn in a prime minister who has pledged to continue to do everything exactly as before, when everything before failed comically. It’s been reported that his top pick for the all-important Minister of Finance is the president of Greece’s largest private bank. The government was formed by a coalition with (whom else?) PASOK, and with the small Democratic Left party, a party that serves very little purpose except to absorb the anger that voters felt against the government and then collaborating with the government, essentially nullifying the “protest vote” that they campaigned for. What does a coalition with PASOK and Democratic Left mean? That some members of PASOK and Democratic Left will be in cabinet positions… just not any of the members that anyone actually voted for; the members will be unelected party members. Even the ND cabinet members will be – it has been reported – so called “technocrats,” a Greek word that means “rule by experts” (i.e., unelected bankers and the like).

ND and PASOK campaigned, and came to power, on the platform of “renegotiating the agreement with the Troika.” While the campaign was going on, European political leaders and the German press sent constant inappropriate messages toward Greek voters, telling them that they must vote for these parties. (Inappropriate because voting in a national election is a domestic matter.) But as soon as the government was formed, the message changed dramatically: “no renegotiation is possible. You can ask all you want, but the answer is ‘no’.”

The nice thing about the campaign season, despite the annoying ads, is that people say nice things. Candidates make promises that people want to hear. Bad stuff is put on hold. But now the elections are over and, for the first time in two months, they’ve started again with the constant news reports on the new austerity measures starting in July. S is expecting another pay cut. We’ve lost our prescription drug coverage, but the number removed from the paycheck for health insurance hasn’t gone down at all. We just found out how much we owe (yes, owe – for the first time in our entire lives, we owe) for income tax – and it’s a four digit number.  A kind of large four digit number.  Every last one of those four digits is more than we can afford. But we have to pay it, because if we don’t, we get fined even more. And eventually thrown in jail.  [We owe even though we made much less than the year before.  It’s because the standard deduction was reduced to much less than half of what it was before, and pretty much all tax write-offs and credits were eliminated; there are also several new taxes that were added.  Everyone in Greece is dealing with this same thing right now.]

I have nothing but disgust and distrust for the new government. Their campaign tactics repulsed me. The demography of their voters (retirees for the most part) doesn’t impress me. They are proven failures, every one of them. There is no hope for Greece with this government. False hope would have been better than no hope.

It might seem hard to believe that in Greece in 2012, people would actually vote for “politics as usual,” but it isn’t. There are two explanations: 1) the Greek public was the victim of a campaign of terror launched by the old political parties, the European political and banking community, and the mass media (although only the media were really honest about doing it); and 2) old people tend to be conservative. Greece has a lot of old people.

I did, however, see one small glimmer of hope. I have a friend in Thessaloniki who voted (like everyone in my generation) for Syriza. So did his two brothers. His parents – retired now, one from coal mining and one from working in a factory, who went to Germany to find work after the war when Greece was destroyed but Germany was booming, and who have remained illiterate throughout their lives – have voted for ND in every election since ND was formed, for reasons that they themselves cannot articulate. This year, for the first time ever, they didn’t. They couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a different party, but they decided to stay home. “This is your future… you have to decide,” my friend’s father told him. Despite this gesture, Thessaloniki – due to a last-minute terror campaign by a local ND politician – experienced a massive increase in elderly voting, and was the only major city in Greece that voted for ND – even after voting for Syriza in May.

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news bites from Greece

Have you been keeping up with the news in Greece?  I’ll fill you in on some of the stories that are playing big here.

– This morning on a TV talk show, the representatives of several political parties were debating/discussing, as happens constantly on Greek TV.  All very unremarkable, until the representative of the fascist/neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, Mr. Ilias Kasidiaris, started cursing Ms. Liana Kanelli, the representative of the Communist Party; then Ms. Rena Dourou, the representative of Syriza, made a reference to the pending criminal charges (robbery, illegal weapons possession, etc.) against Mr. Kasidiaris – he reacted by throwing water at Ms. Dourou.  When Ms. Kanelli objected, saying “get out of here,” he turned on her and beat her up – literally – punching her multiple times in the face, all on camera.  Then he took off.

The police are looking for him, with a warrant for his arrest for assault.   The news reports are repeating that Mr. Kasidiaris can be arrested, because he is only a candidate for Parliament at the moment, and is not currently covered by Parliamentary Asylum.  (However, it should be noted that Parliamentary Asylum protects members of Parliament from being charged with white collar crime, not assault, so the media is being irresponsible on this point.)

You can see the video here.  The Golden Dawn representative is the man in the lower left who is talking at the beginning.

Unemployment numbers were just announced for March 2012:  21.9%, a new record.

– A new movement has started in Greece.  If you have a relative who has recently died of cancer, turn in their leftover chemotherapy drugs because there are a lot of cancer patients who can’t get chemotherapy anymore.   Many sick people – chronically and acutely – are unable to find the drugs they were prescribed at any pharmacy or hospital – they simply aren’t available at any price.  And those who can locate them, despite those drugs being covered by the insurance that they have paid for, must pay cash in full, on the spot – “or die,” as they remind us on the news.

– The new tax laws require that any homeless person, living on the street, with €0.00 income for tax year 2011, eating from trash cans, handouts, and free Church soup kitchens, and no personal possessions (property, automobile, etc.), will owe €116.25 for income taxes for 2011.  If that money is not paid, the tax evader can go to prison.  In Greece, income taxes are determined based on what it costs to live in Greece – and only secondarily on what your employer reports that you made.  If you make less than what the government thinks it costs to live in Greece, you are charged the tax rate for the “cost of living,” not your actual income. This has the effect of taxing the very, very poorest people at a higher percentage rate than the wealthiest Greeks – in fact, at a rate far over 100% of their income.

– 70% of Greeks will owe taxes this year, instead of getting a tax refund – but even so, there is a rumor circulating that those who are owed a tax refund won’t be receiving it.  Time will tell….

– One of the new parties, Creativity Again, recently joined up with Action, a like-minded party led by a long-time politician.  Creativity Again sought votes under the slogan “Politics Without Politicians.”  The party is starting to implode as members are turning on each other. It was considered almost certain that Creativity Again-Action would get the 3% minimum vote to get into Greek Parliament but that is now looking unlikely.

– Remember the HIV-positive prostitute scandal that was used by the government to try to deflect attention from the economy?  It has been reported that 15 of the men who were their customers and asked to be tested have been found HIV positive.  Furthermore, several of the illegal brothels that were closed down during that scandal have reopened.

– A political commercial for New Democracy has caused a huge stir throughout the country.  The ad is here:

In the ad, a 4th grade (my guess) teacher is sitting at his desk while a student is standing at the blackboard with a pointer.  The teacher has written the names of several European countries on the board.  He reads off the names while the student points to them.  “Portugal, Spain, France… these countries are in the Eurozone.”  A wise and world-weary little girl asks, “And Greece?  Why isn’t Greece in the Eurozone?”  The teacher can’t answer as he struggles with his internal feelings of guilt and despair.  The girl insists.  The camera shows the accusatory faces of other children.  The ad ends with script reading “We don’t play with our children’s future.  Greece needs a responsible proposal.  We move forward – Responsibly – Determined.  New Democracy.”

The ad was panned from every direction.  Terrorizing people for votes.  Exploiting innocent children to play a political game.  Showing the teacher – who, under austerity, would have lost about half his income – as feeling guilty for his vote, presumably for Syriza (all of this is implied of course).  Saying nothing about the New Democracy program at all.  It is widely believed that this ad will work against New Democracy in the upcoming election.  New Democracy seems to suffer from very poor judgment, or poor ‘market research’ at least, in this election.

… and that’s what’s happening here in Greece these days!  I don’t know how much of this made it onto the international news, so… maybe you heard it here first!

supermarket politicians

Tonight I stayed up late to watch a program on TV that I was very much anticipating.  Alpha channel, which is one of the less serious channels, but has recently in the past month or so tried to realign itself as a serious/newsy channel, has in so doing chosen to focus on the more “populist” issues.  At this point, the most populist issue in Greece is probably the high cost of food in the supermarket.  It’s easy to talk about the euro currency, illegal immigration, and unemployment, but what really matters to people is if they can get spaghetti on the table for dinner tonight.  With that in mind, they came up with the idea to ask two average moms to share their experiences at the supermarket: how much they have to spend, what they need to buy to get through the week – and then ask the representatives of four political parties – four candidates for Parliament – to shop for those items with €50.

So we meet Liana, a mom of an 8 year old and an 12 year old, who makes €360 per month as a cleaner; her rent and utilities alone are over €400/month; and Anna Georganta, a mom of three who has been unemployed for some time (and no longer receiving benefits but continuing to search for work) and whose husband is, like mine, an employee of the Greek government; he was making €160 per month for the past six months but recently started making €400 per month.  They don’t have €50/week to spend on food – Anna says she goes to the supermarket once per month and spends about €70 – but they decided to give the politicians a break and give them the €50 that studies say the “average Greek” has to spend on food and household goods for a family of four, per week.  Anna got teary-eyed when she talked about how lucky she felt that her children went to a school that provided snacks to the children, a new and very rare concept in a country where schools don’t serve meals – in Anna’s children’s school, they started serving snacks after they had problems with hungry children passing out in class.

The list was not luxurious.  There were no eggs, meat, or fruit – items well out of reach of the average Greek, if that €50 figure is correct.  It included basics like potatoes, pasta, tomatoes, cucumbers, condensed milk, flour, oil, and soap.   (Why condensed milk?  Apparently they water it way down for their kids.  I didn’t know about this trick.  I don’t drink milk myself or I would try it!)

New Democracy was represented by the weepy Adonis Georgiadis, who mentioned several times that he felt personally ashamed for the state of these moms.  At one point he told Liana that she, and others like her, were today’s heroes.   Her bitter response was “I don’t know if we’re heroes… or if you’ve turned us into this.”  He seemed – was it real? or just an act? – to be deeply affected by the exercise.  He seemed overwhelmed by the supermarket itself, as if shopping while mentally keeping a budget was too much for him.

PASOK was represented by Katerina Batseli, former Minister of Agriculture, a frowning woman who made it clear from the first moment that this would be very easy for her, because she does the shopping for her family and this is all a load of propaganda anyway.  She was the only one who ignored the directions to buy the things on the list, and just bought the stuff that she wanted to buy.  The moms were not impressed – they estimated that her shopping would feed their families for three days, when the assignment was for seven days.  She seemed shocked when the moms said that they needed to be completely vegetarian; she seemed to think that a chicken, at the very least, was necessary.  She came off as having absolutely no clue, and was immensely unlikeable.  She was a very bad choice; even Georgiadis, who is practically a caricature of himself, was much more likeable.

The Ecologist Greens were represented by Ioanna Kontouli, who appears to be the only member of that party who ever appears in public, and who mentioned several times that her own monthly salary is €1300, but that any day that could be reduced to the amount that Anna and Liana live on.  She ended up in tears, group-hugging the moms and promising to exchange phone numbers so that they could set up a currency-free barter system to feed the moms and kids of Greece.  The look on Anna’s face seemed to say “how do I tell her that we don’t have a telephone number to give her?”

The Independent Greeks party were represented by the actor Pavlos Kontogiannidis, the only one who seemed to find humor in the situation of nice people whose children were obviously going hungry.  Anna had mentioned during the intro that she can’t shop with her children, because she doesn’t want them to see all the food they can’t have, and she can’t get them the things they want, like chocolate, because that means she can’t afford pasta, and chocolate won’t keep them full.  So Kontogiannidis bought some chocolate bars for her kids, saying that he would pay for them out of his own pocket.  Anna had the grace not to say anything, but I wanted to reach through the television screen and choke him.

After the shopping trip, where they all made it through spending €50 plus or minus €10, they all convened for a typical political discussion panel back at the studio with, surprise, Anna the mom in attendance.

The journalist leading the panel asked the politicians why, when salaries have been reduced sometimes to a quarter or a fifth of what they were before, when we haven’t had an increase in sales tax in the past year, prices on food and household goods – supermarket stuff – have gone up, not down.  Only Ms. Batseli tried to answer – she tried to give an economic explanation, blaming increases in the price of fuel, various taxes, including business and sales tax, and other “factors.”  When she was called out on the issue of cartels, which have a long history of price fixing in Greece, she – as former minister of agriculture and therefore the person in charge of breaking up the cartels – didn’t have anything to say.

While the politicians bickered, Anna the mom came across as the most balanced individual in the room – she was dignified and remarkably articulate, staying on topic while appearing knowledgeable on political and economic issues.  She wasn’t angry, desperate, or even irritated with the politicians – even when talking about the pain involved in paying her income taxes this year.  One almost got the feeling that she was used to listening to a bunch of people arguing with each other – maybe her three children prepared her for the panel.

Ms. Kontouli brought up the idea of barter again on the panel, suggesting that she as an engineer could offer her services in exchange for, say, Anna to clean her house.  Ms. Batseli cut her off to suggest that if that happened, sales tax would have to be extremely high to cover the fact that fewer goods would be taxed, and tax revenue would be extremely low.

Of course, the discussion fell apart into the usual bickering and yelling over each other that characterizes every political panel on Greek television since the beginning of time.  Anna sat quietly on the end and watched, head cocked to the side, while they argued over ideological minutiae, blameshifting, off-topic issues like the rate that Spain was able to borrow money today, and lines like “you dare to point your finger at me?”

Anna, mom of three, had the last word, when asked what she expected for the future:  “I’d like to live like a human being.”

Greek election and the IMF

Greece is still reeling from the recent interview of Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, published in the Guardian on Friday.  In the interview, Lagarde is asked if she’s telling Greece that it’s “payback time,” to which she replies “that’s right.”  She now famously compares crisis-stricken Greece to villages in Niger where children only get two hours of school per day and share “one chair for the three of them.”  In her comparison, she says she has more sympathy for Niger because “I think they need even more help than the people in Athens.”

Fair enough.  It would be hard to argue that point – after all, who can forget the food crisis in Niger a few years ago which killed thousands, and again in 2010?  But Lagarde’s statement about Niger, “I have them in my mind all the time,” begs the question:  what does Lagarde’s organization, the International Monetary Fund, have to do with Niger anyway?

Although it can be hard to find good information about the food crises in Niger, the BBC reported (and it is generally agreed) that the main cause of the 2005 food crisis (I think we’re not supposed to use the loaded word “famine”) was not crop failure, locusts, or drought, but rather the high cost of food.  Niger is the poorest country in the world, so when neighboring Nigeria pays higher prices for food, Niger exports its food, reducing local food supply and driving up prices.  If it didn’t export food, Niger – even at the worst of the crisis – would have been able to feed its people without international aid.

But why would Nigeria pay higher prices for food?  Nigeria itself was also under the IMF and due to IMF imposed structural reforms, their food prices had skyrocketed.  Although this affected Niger the most, other countries, including Cameroon and the Ivory Coast exported more food than usual to Nigeria.

Niger, like Greece, had a corrupt public health care system which provided doctors, nurses, and hospital care for children and adults.  The IMF required Niger to change to a privatized health care system under the austerity measures program.  Now, according to the BBC:

It has a policy, encouraged by the Western world, of privatised health care so that it costs $14 (£8) for a mother to get a baby a medical consultation. That means almost no-one in the country can afford to see a nurse or a doctor.

It’s hard to think of a more effective way of reducing health care costs for the country – with international aid organizations picking up the tab for what health care there is, the government would no longer have direct health costs to pay for.  This is one of the policies that the IMF uses in Niger that it has been trying to get in place in Greece.  This week, one of the biggest news stories in Greece is the flow of Greek doctors – trained at Greek taxpayer expense at Greek universities where they didn’t pay tuition – to work in Germany, where there aren’t enough doctors.

Since the start of the crisis in Greece, the sales tax (VAT) has been increased several times, with goods such as milk and flour being taxed higher than ever before.  The price of electricity has gone up sharply, and I’m not even talking about the new taxes added to the electricity bill.

Johanne Sekkenes… believes that the IMF and EU pressed too hard to implement a structural adjustment programme. … Under the letter of intent signed between the IMF and the government, [they] agreed to extend VAT to milk, sugar and wheat flour, and reduce VAT exemptions on water and electricity consumption.

The quote above isn’t about Greece – it’s about Niger.  Niger – despite having reserves of uranium and gold – owed a lot of money, so they called in the IMF, which, in exchange for agreeing to lend them money, forced them to sign on to a raft of austerity measures.  Included in these was a measure against allowing the distribution of free food aid to starving people, in order to keep food prices high and not “flood the market” so to speak, which would cause food prices to come down.  The same logic was applied to sell off the government’s food reserves.  (At the time, the IMF claimed that these reports are overstated and/or misleading.)

The strongly anti-IMF WSWS says:

After he was elected to a second term last December [2004], President Mamadou Tandja imposed a 19 percent VAT on basic foodstuffs at the behest of the IMF. Part of the same economic package involved the abolition of emergency grain reserves. The tax was imposed despite the fact that the price of basic foods has risen between 75 and 89 percent over the last five years. At the same time, the sale price of livestock—the main income of the country’s nomadic herders—has fallen by 25 percent.

Traditionally, the IMF has pushed governments to privatize – i.e., to sell things owned by the people as a whole, and force the government to give the money from the sale to the IMF to pay down loans.  That’s because the IMF works in countries that are cash-strapped, and their austerity philosophy leads to the destitution of the people.  Once the people are destitute, there is not much tax revenue, so the best way for the government to pay back IMF loans is to sell off public services, land, and resources.  This month, Greek tax revenues are 30% below what they’re “supposed to be.”  While it’s easy for Lagarde to say

“Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax.”

Even more than she thinks about all those now struggling to survive without jobs or public services?

“I think of them equally. And I think they should also help themselves collectively.” How? “By all paying their tax. Yeah.”

it sounds as if she doesn’t see the connection between massive salary cuts, five years of recession, and high inflation on food on the one side, and lower tax revenue on the other side.  When 60% of the shops have gone out of business in a town, business tax revenue will go down.  When a person who used to have a job now is unemployed, income tax revenue will go down.  When 90% of a person’s income goes to pay rent, electricity, and heat, sales tax revenue on food and goods will go down.

(I also wonder if she knows that Greeks’ taxes are withheld from their salaries, just like everywhere else.  S and I filed our obscene 2011 taxes yesterday.  On the news they’ve said that anyone who is owed a tax refund will be unlikely to receive it.  Does she really want to talk about the Greek tax payer right now?)

When the IMF told the government of Malawi to sell part of its grain reserve in 2002, and then thousands of Malawians died of starvation, the IMF’s response was that the Malawi government didn’t give the IMF an accurate report of how much grain they really needed.

According to the Guardian, the same media outlet that interviewed Lagarde on Friday, Malawi spent 20% of its GDP in 2002 servicing its debt – “more than it will spend on health, education and agriculture combined.”

The new agreement that Greece signed with the IMF and the EU this spring guarantees that service on its debt is Greece’s first priority – before spending money on public health, education, defense, or anything else.  It’s been reported that Greece has already used all the money they had put aside for natural disasters – we were shaken awake at 3am a few nights ago to be reminded that Greece is a very seismically active place; and who can forget the forest fires in Greece in 2007?  Not to mention the several very active volcanoes.

Anyway, I’m not here to criticize the IMF’s policies in Africa – and I’m not accusing Lagarde of lying when she claims to lose sleep over Nigerien children.  I’m just mystified that she would say those things just three weeks before the Greek election.

In the last Greek election, on May 6, the major issues were “more of the same vs. change” and “illegal immigration.”  The party in power received 13% of the vote, answering the first question, and the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party got into Parliament for the first time ever with 21 seats, answering the second.

In the new election, coming up on June 17, the major issues are shaping up to be “austerity vs. growth” and “toeing the EU/IMF line vs. national sovereignty.”  The two old parties, PASOK and New Democracy, represent the austerity and EU/IMF side, and the Syriza and Independent Greeks parties, represent growth and national sovereignty.

Recent polls are all over the place.  Some put ND ahead of Syriza, others put Syriza in front of ND.  The only thing they all have in common is that it will be a very close race.  The IMF and the EU have gone way out of their way over the past week to send the message to Greek voters that New Democracy, Syriza, and PASOK are all lying when they all say that Greece can renegotiate its terms with the EU and the IMF.  PASOK claims it can get the IMF/EU to agree to extend the terms of the pay-back by a year.  New Democracy claims it can get the IMF/EU to agree to “renegotiation of terms.”  Syriza claims it will simply trash the entire agreement.

The question for Greek voters obviously isn’t which of those three they want.  The question is which party they trust to do what the voters want.  Clearly PASOK and New Democracy know that they can’t win by saying “we want to stick to the terms of the agreement,” because that was roundly rejected in the May 6 election.  However, voters should pay attention to the voices coming from the EU and IMF.  They are claiming that they will not allow any renegotiation of any terms.  That means that PASOK and New Democracy won’t be able to do what they claim they will do.  Syriza may well do what it says – who knows.  But New Democracy, if it wins, will have to follow the terms of the agreement – that’s what Lagarde is saying.

And that’s why, I think, New Democracy and PASOK protested so loudly when Lagarde said those things.  They need for the EU/IMF to shut up for three more weeks so they can get elected and continue the austerity path.   With interviews like that, not only does she undermine the parties she wants us to vote for, but she pushes voters toward Syriza.

What on earth was Lagarde thinking?

PASOK president Evangelos Venizelos:  “Nobody should humiliate a people during a crisis and I call on Mrs Lagarde, who insulted the Greek people with her attitude, to rethink what she wanted to say.”

Lagarde’s response was heartwarming:  she clarified that when she said “all these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax” when asked about how she “demands measures she knows may mean women won’t have access to a midwife when they give birth, and patients won’t get life-saving drugs, and the elderly will die alone for lack of care,” what she really meant were rich people.

All those rich people who don’t have access to a midwife when they give birth.

 

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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