How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In three consecutive votes, between 30 and 40 deputies of Greece’s Syriza party voted against a three-year agreement with the European Union to exchange a series of fiscal reforms and austerity measures in return for a bailout of over 90 billion euros. Their party leader, Alexis Tsipras, and a wide coalition of pro-EU parliamentarians supported the deal. In the end, the agreement passed with 230 out of 300 votes in parliament. It cost Tsipras his majority, though, because, after the vote, 25 parliamentarians defected from his party to create a new group, Popular Unity, which is now the third biggest in the Greek parliament.
After the defection, Tsipras was faced with several unappealing options. First, he could ask for a vote of confidence in parliament, which would force the dissidents to either accept his will or vote down the country’s first left-wing government, as Syriza calls itself. According to the Greek constitution, a vote of confidence is considered successful if the government receives a simple majority of those present but not fewer than 120 votes. Tsipras abandoned such plans, though, when the dissidents indicated that they would not vote “No” but would vote “Present,” as they have the right to do.
Second, he could legislate through summer sessions. Only some members of parliament participate in summer sessions. They are selected by the parties’ leaderships, and so Tsipras and the pro-EU parties could have picked only the parliamentarians who supported the bailout choices. Throughout the summer, they could thus get to the business of enacting some of the measures specified by the EU agreement. However, even Tsipras’ loyalists did not want to be on record voting for unpopular measures just before an upcoming election (most likely in October), so that idea was cast away.
Third, Tsipras could have tried to cobble together willing opposition parties into some sort of oversize coalition or else continue to govern with a minority. He decided against that option and resigned, for two reasons. The first is that the population wouldn’t really start to feel any of the negative impacts of the austerity and reform measures (tax increases, reduction of salaries and pensions) before the election, if the election was held quickly. The second reason is that Popular Unity would not have time to organize at the constituency level.
These maneuvers do not seem like enough to derail Tsipras’ plan to hold the vote on September 20. Even so, Meimarakis and Lafazanis will get their platform for criticizing him.
And so, on August 20, Tsipras resigned. Elections are planned for September 20. Not surprisingly, all of his opponents want the vote to be pushed back. For Tsipras, this is a race against time. If he can push forward with the election while he is still popular and before the harm he caused the Greek economy catches up with him, he will be better off. And it looks as though he can win on timing, but not without serious battle wounds. To understand how things will play out from here, it is worth looking at the government formation process in Greece and the country’s electoral laws.
The Greek constitution is very detailed on how governments can be formed. In article 37 paragraph three, and article 40, it regulates all the necessary procedural moves. Unlike in other countries, in which presidents, after a round of talks with party leaders, select a formateur (potential prime minister) who has the mission to form a government, in Greece the president is not given any choice. He has to assign the role of formateur to the first party (in number of parliamentary seats), then to the second, then to the third. Each has three days to investigate the possibilities to form a government, and if none of them succeeds, the president meets with the leaders of the parliamentary parties to examine the possibility of a political government. If this is not possible, then a judge from one of the three highest courts will become the prime minister of an interim government that is charged with organizing a new election at least 21 working days after his or her oath of office.
Tsipras (who is still the leader of the biggest party) announced his resignation on August 20 and turned down the investigative offer in order to save time. Vangelis Meimarakis, the leader of the second party, New Democracy, wants to draw things out and so is investigating the possibilities for a government to emerge from the current parliament. This is a numerical impossibility. Meimarakis surely knows as much but wants to run down the clock.
After his chance expires, Panagiotis Lafazanis, the leader of the third party, Popular Unity (the offspring of Syriza), will have his turn. He, like Meimarakis, has no chance of being able to form a government but has announced that he will spend his time meeting with social forces and advertising his agenda (which is the same thing that Tsipras did in January).
All these maneuvers do not seem like enough to derail Tsipras’ plan to hold the vote on September 20. Even so, Meimarakis and Lafazanis will get their platform for decrying the discrepancies between the electoral program that Syriza announced when it took office and the agreement Tsipras signed in July.
Greek electoral law will also play a role. The Greek system is built on proportional representation, with a three percent threshold for winning a seat and a bonus of 50 seats (out of 300) to the first party. Whereas most political science books list Greece as having a form of proportional representation, in reality, the large bonus turns it into a plurality electoral system. A party with 40 percent of the vote, after all, would get a majority of the seats. Not surprisingly, Greece has generally had single-party governments ever since the bonus law was introduced in the early 1990s. The exception (which may become the norm) came in 2015, when, even with the bonus, no party had a majority. (Tsipras’ party won 36.6 percent of the vote. With the bonus, it got 149 seats, two short of a majority.) Another effect of the 50-seat bonus is that postelection collaboration is difficult, if not impossible.
In the upcoming election in particular, there is a high level of voter mobility.A second important characteristic of the Greek electoral law is its electoral threshold of three percent. Threshold rules exist in many other countries; in the Greek case, it is meant to ameliorate somewhat Greece’s political instability, in which parties can readily appear and disappear on the scene.
There are currently eight parties in the Greek parliament: Syriza, now with 124 seats; New Democracy, with 76 seats; Popular Unity, with 25 seats; Golden Dawn, with 17 seats; Potami, with 17 seats; the Communist Party, with 15 seats; Independent Greeks (ANEL), with 15 seats; and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), with 13 seats. Waiting in the wings are parties that just barely missed the threshold last time around and new ones, including a centrist party. The key features of the Greek threshold are that it is very low—three percent deters few political entrepreneurs—and it is highly efficient—that is, it ultimately transfers lots of votes to the parties that clear this threshold. In 2015, the parties that did not pass the bar had won, collectively, 8.5 percent of the vote. This means that the parties that passed the bar received 21 additional seats. In other words, the electoral threshold, rather than bringing stability, multiplies uncertainty.
In the upcoming election in particular, there is a high level of voter mobility. In part, this is because Syriza reversed its economic course, which produced its own split. More important, though, is the electoral threshold. Because the upcoming election is less than 18 months after the previous one (January 2015), the parties themselves will form their candidate lists (usually, lists are “open,” giving voters the choice to select their representatives)—and there are several “homeless” parliamentarians up for grabs. They could make the difference between three percent and nothing.
In the center, PASOK is searching for coalitions with (what remains of) the Democratic Left as well as the party of its ex-leader, George Papandreou; success in these endeavors may determine its ability to hit the threshold. Similarly, whether Zoe Konstantopoulou (the president of the parliament) will be included on the Popular Unity lists is key. Konstantopoulou was appointed by Tsipras but opposed him on multiple occasions by voting “No” on bailout measures and by using her position to frustrate government plans to hold urgent votes that would clear EU deadlines. Another homeless parliamentarian is Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister who, despite the extremely high number of votes he received in January, is considered so toxic that no party has been willing to include him in their lists so far. The ultimate shape of the next parliament (the parties that will be included) could come down to the personal relationships that any one of these parliamentarians has cultivated.
ROCK THE VOTE
The rules of the Greek system constrain the likely outcomes of a September vote. To be sure, electoral polling has not yet started. Further, nobody pays attention to politics in August, so initial polls in the coming days will not be reliable. (There is also the question of the accuracy of Greece’s polling outfits; everyone expected a tie in the bailout referendum. In fact, 60 percent voted “No.”) Finally, this time, many parties will be right around the three percent threshold, which implies that no matter how accurate the polling, it will still be hard to assess the final breakdown of seats in the parliament.
That said, there are some pieces of the puzzle that we likely already know.
First, Syriza is aiming to win enough votes to build a single-party government. The chances of it achieving this goal are slim. Tsipras got just shy of a majority by winning 36.6 percent of the vote in January. Now he is going to lose some vote share to the left, since Popular Unity will be running on its own. He may even lose a percentage point or two to the right because of his governing record (he took on an overwhelming third debt in the three-year memorandum). Syriza is counting on the popularity of its leader, but his record of indecision, delays, and economic failure are things that both New Democracy and Popular Unity will point out. All indicators are that Syriza will pull in less of the vote than it did in the last election.
Even so, Syriza may be the first party (and get the 50-seat bonus), given that the time before the elections (assuming they do happen on September 20) is too short for New Democracy and Popular Unity to do too much damage to Tsipras. They will both show clips contrasting his electoral promises and his record, but it is not clear that it will be enough to dethrone Syriza.
With Syriza in the lead and New Democracy as the main opposition party, four other parties are very likely to be part of the political landscape: Popular Unity, Potami, Golden Dawn, and the Communist Party. Popular Unity is not likely to come out of the elections as strong as it was inside Syriza. The party publicly advocates departure from the euro and a return to the drachma, along with a possible departure from the EU. Those positions are unpopular with voters and are likely to reduce its vote share. Still, Popular Unity has some very prominent people in its ranks, and it is aiming for more, including Manolis Glezos (the most popular eurodeputy and a hero of the resistance against the German occupation) and Konstantopoulou.
The critical factor in any future coalition government will be Syriza’s attitude.The other three parties have established constituents: Potami’s agenda is to “bring reason” back to Greek politics. It holds firm to the constant political refrain of “Greece first” (regardless of implications of specific policies on the short-term interests of the party). Meanwhile, Golden Dawn is likely to stress the immigration problem, which has emerged as a major issue and could increase its vote share. The Communist Party has consistently stayed away from coalitions and deals with the other parties. It presents its political ideology as the only alternative and, as such, will do well with the people who always vote for the Communists.
The two parties that may not be part of the new parliament are PASOK and ANEL. PASOK is trying to expand its base by including major political figures and ex-ministers, such as Anna Diamantopoulou and Giannis Ragousis. It may even bring back ex–Prime Minister George Papandreou and include in its lists the old Democratic Left. If this policy is successful, it may preserve the party in the new parliament.
ANEL is in a more difficult position because, as a coalition partner of Syriza’s for the last seven months, it shares responsibility for wave after wave of economic crisis and for signing the newest deal, which the party had previously condemned. In a recent trip to his own district, the leader of the party, Panos Kammenos, was greeted with a barrage of eggs.
PARTNERS IN CRIME
If Syriza does win a plurality, its only possible coalition partner is ANEL (assuming that the party makes it into parliament). Tsipras has had too many sharp words for the others that voted for the EU bailout deal. He refused to form a large coalition government within the current parliament, and he has stated that he does not want to be associated with the corrupt political establishment. Of course, such statements will have to be reevaluated after the elections, but going back on them would be a solution of last resort.
If New Democracy was to some how win the plurality, it has as potential coalition partners Potami and PASOK (if it is in parliament). Such a pairing might seem like good news for the EU, but even that grouping has a major drawback. It would leave open the possibility of Syriza staying out of the way, criticizing the people who will be implementing the difficult conditions of the agreement that a Syriza government signed, and then coming back in the next elections.
In other words, the critical factor in any future coalition government will be Syriza’s attitude. For many years, it was an anti-EU party. This was how it won the January election against New Democracy and PASOK. Then, by default, it became a pro-EU, anti-drachma party as it aligned itself with the pro-EU parties to push through the bailout. Tsipras claims that he has not changed his attitude toward the political establishment and does not want to cooperate with these parties. Such statements may be simply defense against Popular Unity and be forgotten after the election. Yet if this attitude persists, the people in Europe who think that the upcoming Greek election may be bad for the economy (by extending paralysis), but will be part of a political solution, may have some rethinking to do.