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August 5th, 2019

The symbolism of the new Greek government

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Team

August 5th, 2019

The symbolism of the new Greek government

0 comments | 8 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

New Democracy, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, won the Greek legislative elections on 7 July. Zoe Lefkofridi and Sevasti Chatzopoulou write that although it is still too early to judge the new Greek government, there are already some clear indications of the trajectory it is likely to take in the coming years.

On 7 July, Greeks went to the polls for the sixth time in a decade. In 2009, Greece had switched from a conservative (New Democracy / ND) to a social democratic (PASOK) government, which collapsed under the sovereign debt crisis. After technocratic and care-taker cabinets, Greece went back to conservative (ND) hands in 2012, but in 2015 it experimented with SYRIZA, a radical left party new to power. Having promised to end austerity, SYRIZA ended up pursuing harsh economic policies demanded by the country’s creditors.

Most Greeks’ hopes were betrayed during the SYRIZA term due to the party’s lack of experience with power, the state apparatus, and the EU system, among other factors. SYRIZA’s defeat in July has been received with euphoria by those focusing mainly on the economic dimension of government alternation in Greece; this invites political scientists to engage in a fact-based reflection on what this election means for Greek politics. While it may be too early to assess the new government’s work, its first week in office gave some indication of what we can expect in the years to come.

What’s next?

First and foremost, the formation of the new cabinet brought about a dramatic fall in the percentage of female representation in government (from 25.5% to 8.9%). Within party organisations, women are indeed more hesitant than men to seek office when they perceive the party leader as supporting them less than their male colleagues. In response to BBC journalist Zeinab Badawi’s related questions, the new Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said that there were not many women “who were interested in stepping into politics these days”.

Comparative research shows that women’s interest in politics is affected by the governments’ promotion of gender equality. This is important to underline for a country scoring below the EU-28 average on the Gender Equality Index, where the percentages of elected female deputies remain well below one third of parliamentary seats. In the Hellenic Vouli, an assembly of 300 seats, only 62 are currently occupied by female politicians (19.3%): in detail, these are 14.5% of ND deputies; 27% of SYRIZA deputies; 18% of KINAL deputies; 33% of KKE deputies; 30% of Elliniki Lysi deputies; and 44.5% of Mera25 deputies. In other words, the government party brings the fewest women to the Parliament.

In his BBC interview, Mitsotakis admitted he was puzzled by this result, given that ND put a 40% quota for women on its candidate lists. The puzzle may be solved by looking at women’s positions on these lists as well as the number of contested seats in the electoral districts where women compete.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Credit: European People’s Party (CC BY 2.0)

A total of 12 out of 300 deputies are elected in a nation-wide constituency in relation to each party’s total electoral power. Party candidate lists for these 12 nation-wide deputies are ordered non-alphabetically; hence, the higher a candidate’s position on the list, the higher his/her likelihood of election. Out of the 12 candidates on New Democracy’s nation-wide list, five were women; only one of them, however, was placed in a winnable position (number 2 on the list); the rest occupied symbolic, non-winnable positions (numbers 7, 8, 10 and 11).

The remaining 288 seats are distributed across 59 electoral districts. The number of contested seats in each district depends upon the size of its population (based on data from the census of 24 May 2011). While large urban districts in Athens and Thessaloniki elect many seats (ranging from 9-18), there are many electoral districts that elect between one and three seats. Greek voters are allowed to give preferential votes but the number of such votes varies across constituencies, depending upon how many seats are contested. In districts that elect more than eight seats, voters can cast three preferential votes; in districts that elect between four and eight seats two preferential votes are allowed; in those districts electing up to three seats, voters can cast only one preferential vote. New Democracy’s female candidates failed to get elected in all districts with fewer than four seats, namely where voters could choose only one candidate. But in many lists where more than four seats were contested, at least one female candidacy running with New Democracy was successful.

Since the position of female candidates on party lists and the number of seats in the district, where they compete matter greatly for women’s representation, the introduction of party voluntary quotas should be accompanied by a sincere effort to have women run winnable races, otherwise it remains a purely symbolic measure. Unless Mitsotakis realises the responsibility of his own role – as party leader and head of government – in the promotion of gender equality, Greek politics is likely to stagnate at embarrassing low numbers of female representation, and women’s interest in politics is likely to deteriorate.

Secondly, arguing that the country is not “an unfenced backyard”, the new government cancelled a ministerial decision regarding the issuing of social security numbers (AMKA) to refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied refugee children, and non-EU migrants. This was a purely symbolic move because the circular the new government cancelled actually codified a law passed under the ND government in 2009. AMKA is necessary for accessing services in Health, Education and Labour. It established the basic procedures for a transparent legalised immigration system that respects and protects human rights and principles, while impeding other illegal forms of migrants’ employment.

At the same time, the new government pursued the merger of the Ministry of Migration with the Ministry for Citizen Protection (Public Order). This created discontent among human rights groups, as it reduces resources and downplays the importance of immigration policy. Symbolising the promotion of ‘exclusive solidarity’, these moves are likely to satisfy the anti-immigration sentiment of nationalists and xenophobes; however, they are also likely to encourage immigrants’ discrimination and exploitation.

Thirdly, the new government cancelled the founding of the Department of Law at the University of Patras. The justification was that, given the high numbers of unemployed lawyers, a fourth Department of Law is redundant. Though the foundation of such a department was decided by the Tsipras cabinet, the related request filed by the citizens of Patras dates back to 1998. Importantly, the outgoing cabinet’s decision foresaw that the total number of accepted students in the country would not increase; rather, successful applicants would be distributed among the country’s Law departments. Based on the new government’s approach, it remains to be seen whether the government will close more academic departments that produce professionals of sectors suffering from unemployment.

Last but not least, the new PM announced his determination to change the electoral law back to the classic model, thus abolishing simple Proportional Representation (PR) passed by the Hellenic Parliament in 2016. Besides symbolising the rejection of an important institutional change decided under the Tsipras cabinet, the issue has important repercussions for the future of Greek politics. This becomes clear when we explain the key features of the Greek electoral law, under which all electoral contests in the last decade (including the 2019 election) were conducted.

Why do the rules of the game matter?

Currently, the translation of votes into seats is regulated by an electoral law invented in 1958 that carries the label “reinforced proportional representation”. This label is deceptive because the system does not reinforce proportionality but the plurality party. Despite modifications, the key feature of this law is a generous bonus – currently 50 seats – given to the plurality party (note that the bonus is granted only to unified parties, not to electoral coalitions). The manufactured majorities that this system generates aim at strong, stable single-party governments.

In essence, the bonus enables large parties to build cabinets without cooperation and consensus with other parties in the system. Small parties become redundant in government formation and reside permanently in the opposition (or disappear). As a result, since the establishment of the Third Hellenic Republic and until 2009 (when the sovereign debt crisis began) executive power had been mainly in the hands of either New Democracy or PASOK. While discouraging party system fragmentation, “reinforced PR” has helped cultivate a highly adversarial political climate both between the big parties targeting executive power, and between big parties and small parties.

The disastrous consequences of large Greek parties’ aversion to cooperation and their lack of experience with compromise and consensus became manifest during the sovereign debt crisis. Contrary to other countries that were in similarly bad financial conditions, such as Ireland and Portugal, office-seeking parties in Greece failed to reach consensus on a common national plan that would help Greece recover. Parties targeting power (PASOK and ND) kept on accusing each other of wasting precious time, and bringing the country ever deeper into recession. Greeks sought to renew their political landscape and their political behaviour resulted in multiparty cabinets (in spite of the disproportional law aiming at single party governments). Electoral volatility was so high that no party managed to get a parliamentary majority in the contests that took place (2012-2015). Yet, the electoral law being unchanged, the political climate remained highly antagonistic.

While in government, SYRIZA brought to parliament a proposal for simple PR – the last time a simple PR system was used in Greece was 1989. Altering the rules of the game could change the Greek political party landscape towards more cooperation and consensus – elements desperately needed in a country with such financial and economic problems. As leader of the opposition, Kyriakos Mitsotakis strongly opposed this law. Though the simple PR law passed (179/281 votes) in July 2016, it failed to reach the threshold (200 votes out of 300 parliamentary votes in total) for immediate implementation and could only be applied to the election after next.

The July 2019 election was thus conducted under the old law. New Democracy, reaping the benefits of popular dissatisfaction with SYRIZA and electoral disproportionality, achieved the parliamentary majority necessary for a single party cabinet. Indeed, negative sentiments toward SYRIZA’s failures in government were more prominent than enthusiasm for New Democracy. Crucially, abstention reached a historical high (42%) despite compulsory voting (a mechanism known to increase turnout). New Democracy attracted voters from all camps (from left-wing SYRIZA to the Neonazi Golden Dawn), who wished to kick SYRIZA out. Due to the electoral law, small yet prominent party formations of the crisis era – such as the centrist pro-European POTAMI and Center Union, the patriotic right-wing ANEL and the Golden Dawn – vanished from the Greek political map. Though seemingly restored, the traditional two-party competition for executive power is still vulnerable.

The threat of simple PR adds urgency to Mitsotakis’ bid of speeding up privatisation of public services in order to lower taxes and “jump-start” economic growth. This is because, if the next election is conducted under simple PR, New Democracy is unlikely to win a parliamentary majority. The old model of representation has been key for the party’s access to power. But it has failed Greece: the most important political lesson gained during the crisis years was the need for cooperation and consensus among political parties. Thanks to the 50-seat bonus, New Democracy now possesses the majority to abolish simple PR. If it does, however, Greek politics is likely to remain highly controversial and adversarial; time will show what the consequences for Greek society and the country’s economy will be.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the authors

Zoe Lefkofridi – University of Salzburg
Zoe Lefkofridi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Salzburg.

Sevasti Chatzopoulou – Roskilde University
Sevasti Chatzopoulou is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Business at Roskilde University.

About the author

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Posted In: Elections | featured | Politics | Sevasti Chatzopoulou | Zoe Lefkofridi

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