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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Greece's snap parliamentary election of 2007 - trial by (wild) fire?

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Voters in Greece go to the polls on Sunday, September 16, 2007, to choose members of the unicameral, 300-seat Parliament - the Vouli - in an election that's being held six months ahead of schedule.

Since the re-establishment of parliamentary democracy in 1974 after seven years of brutal (and incompetent) military rule, Greek legislative elections have been carried out by a "reinforced" proportional representation system - reinforced to favor the largest party at the expense of the remaining parties, making the system less (as opposed to more) proportional. Nonetheless, the electoral system has been changed about a half-dozen times over the course of the last three decades (most recently in 2004), with successive changes imposed by the party in power according to its perceived advantage.

In its latest incarnation, the winning party will receive a majority bonus of 40 seats, regardless of its margin of victory over the second-placed party, while the remaining 260 seats will be initially distributed by the largest remainder method of proportional representation (PR) on a nationwide basis among parties polling at least three percent of the vote - a remarkably straightforward procedure, particulary when compared to previous electoral systems, in which the "reinforcement" of PR was brought about by incredibly cumbersome mechanisms that even electoral experts had a hard time figuring out. Elections to the Hellenic Parliament (Vouli) and Electoral Panorama have further information on Greece's past and present electoral systems.

Since 1977, Greek politics have been dominated by two major parties: the conservative New Democracy (ND) and the left-wing Pan Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). Under Greece's reinforced PR system, the winning party has nearly always obtained an absolute parliamentary majority, and the two parties have alternated in power during the past thirty-three years, with ND holding power from 1974 to 1980, 1990 to 1993 and 2004 to the present, while PASOK ruled the country from 1981 to 1989, and again from 1993 to 2004. There have been no coalition governments in Greece since 1974, save for a few months in 1989 and 1990 during which no party held an overall legislative majority (precisely because the electoral system had been modified to make it more proportional).

Historically, Greek politics have been characterized by a strong dynastic streak which has persisted to this day: the current leaders of ND and PASOK - Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis and Georgios Papandreou - are the nephew and the son of their respective party founders and longtime leaders, Konstantinos Karamanlis and Andreas Papandreou; as if that were not enough, Georgios Papandreou's grandfather (also named Georgios Papandreou) was the main political rival of the elder Karamanlis in the early 1960s. Moreover, Greek politics are highly personalistic, and political leaders have sometimes come to personify the parties they lead (as was very much the case with PASOK under Andreas Papandreou). That said, neither ND nor PASOK are personalist parties in any sense of the term.

Besides the two major parties, Greece has several minor parties: the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) are both to the left of PASOK, while the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) stands to the right of ND. LAOS has yet to secure legislative representation, but KKE has been continously represented in Parliament since 1974, while SYRIZA and its predecessors - the Coalition of the Left, the Movements and the Ecology and the Coalition of the Left and Progress (to which KKE once belonged) - have been in and out of the Vouli since 1989.

Like present-day Spain (but unlike many Western European countries), Greece hasn't had a liberal/centrist party of significance standing between the two major parties since the demise of the Democratic Center Union (previously the Center Union) following its relatively poor third-place showing in the 1977 general election. Thus, like Spain's Partido Popular (PP), New Democracy spans the center and the mainstream right (although unlike PP, ND has no competition from regional nationalist parties). Nonetheless, at times there have been tensions between the party's conservative and liberal elements.

In the same manner as Spain's Socialist Party (PSOE) under Felipe González, PASOK started out assuming a radical stance, but once it achieved power the party implemented relatively moderate (if sometimes costly) domestic policies. However, unlike González and PSOE in Spain (which had moved away from Marxist positions following that party's 1979 congress), Andreas Papandreou's rhetoric remained distinctly leftist and anti-Western. More importantly, his government pursued an independent (and in the eyes of the U.S., very prickly) foreign policy, although Papandreou never took Greece out of NATO - contrary to what his party had advocated before taking office.

Under the leadership of Konstantinos Simitis and Georgios Papandreou, PASOK has sought to present a more moderate image over the years, but the party remains somewhat to the left of most Western European social democratic parties. At the same time, it should be noted that the strict austerity policies carried out during Simitis' tenure (1996-2004) allowed Greece to enter the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), and replace the drachma (Greece's national currency) with the euro in 2001.

Although Prime Minister Karamanlis and New Democracy were initially expected to easily secure re-election, the government has come under heavy criticism for its allegedly inadequate handling of a series of devastating wild fires last month. In fact, opinion polls suggest a very close outcome in which neither ND nor PASOK may win an outright parliamentary majority in next Sunday's vote, with the smaller parties holding the balance of power in the next Vouli (at the time of writing, it is likely KKE will return to Parliament, while SYRIZA and LAOS are hovering just above the three percent barrier). If such an outcome comes to pass, it may give the phrase "trial by fire" a whole new meaning.


The New Democracy government of Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis won a second term in Sunday's legislative election, but its parliamentary majority has been drastically cut from 30 seats to just four.

According to Greece's Ministry of the Interior National Elections 2007 website, preliminary results of Sunday's vote (with all voting stations reporting) were as follows:

New Democracy (ND) - 2,995,494 votes (41.8%), 152 seats
Pan Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) - 2,727,837 votes (38.1%), 102 seats
Communist Party of Greece (KKE) - 583,818 votes (8.2%), 22 seats
Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) - 361,213 votes (5.0%), 14 seats
Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) - 271,763 votes (3.8%), 10 seats
Others - 220,142 votes (3.1%), no seats

The election, which had a 74.1% voter turnout rate (slightly down from 76.5% in 2004), was a major setback for PASOK leader Georgios Papandreou, who lost to Prime Minister Karamanlis for the second time in a row, in what became the opposition party's worst showing in thirty years.

Both ND and PASOK lost ground to the three smaller parties, which fared well in the election. The rightist LAOS, which had won no seats in 2004, overcame the three percent threshold and secured parliamentary representation, while the far-left KKE and SYRIZA had their best results in nearly two decades, with the combined KKE-SYRIZA share of the vote matching the result polled by the Coalition of the Left and Progress in the June 1989 legislative election. The new electoral system also worked to the advantage of both leftist parties, and the new Vouli will have the largest number ever of parliamentarians to the left of PASOK since the re-establishment of democracy in Greece in 1974.

Meanwhile, Karamanlis' new government will have the smallest parliamentary majority since 1990, when New Democracy won exactly half the Vouli seats but was able to form a government with the help of a center-right parliamentarian (who subsequently joined the party), and managed to hold on to power for three-and-a-half years despite its very small parliamentary majority. While historical precedent suggests Karamanlis' government may prove as well to be durable, the lingering prospect of a further early election could nonetheless hamper its performance.