Another two national elections are happening this Sunday, in countries on opposite sides of the world. There are big differences between them, but each was in its day a popular cause as it fought for independence against its larger imperial neighbor. Greece, however, had powerful friends and was assisted by British, French and Russian naval power; East Timor, on the other hand, was repeatedly and viciously stabbed in the back by its natural ally, Australia.
East Timor (sometimes called Timor Leste) is electing a new parliament; the old one, elected in 2018, ran a full term, but its history is complicated, even though the same prime minister, Taur Matan Ruak, has been in office the whole time.
Six parties won seats last time, three of them grouped at the time in an alliance: CNRT, the party of former president and veteran independence leader Xanana Gusmão (21 seats); Ruak’s People’s Liberation Party (PLP; eight seats); and KHUNTO (five seats). That gave them a three-seat majority in the 65-seat parliament, so they duly formed government together.
In opposition were Fretilin, led by the previous prime minister Mari Alkatiri, with 23 seats, and two small parties, the Democratic Party with five seats and the Democratic Development Forum with three. But Fretilin also included on its side the then president, Francisco Guterres, whose influence was thrown in the scale against CNRT. A complicated series of manoeuvres in 2020 resulted in the PLP and KHUNTO switching sides; CNRT went into opposition and Ruak stayed in office with a government now dominated by Fretilin.
Then last year, when Guterres sought re-election at the end of his term, he was defeated by a large margin by the other great independence veteran, José Ramos-Horta, backed by CNRT. In the interests of reconciliation Ramos-Horta then kept Ruak in office and resisted the temptation to force an early election, but he and Gusmão (who in the past have often been rivals) are now on the same side and working for a change of government.
That won’t necessarily be easy; although CNRT is likely to be the largest party, if its former allies stick with Fretilin it may struggle to put together a parliamentary majority. Voting is by d’Hondt proportional representation across the whole country, with a 4% threshold. Michael Leach’s preview at Inside Story is particularly informative.
Greece‘s election has a rather more sedate background, but the outcome is equally uncertain. The centre-right government of prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been in office since the 2019 election. His New Democracy party won 39.9% of the vote and 158 seats out of 300, a lead of 8.4% on its main rival, the left-wing Syriza.
According to the opinion polls, not much has changed; New Democracy has dropped maybe three or four points, and holds a lead of around seven points over Syriza, with the rest well back. But Mitsotakis’s task is much harder than last time because then he had the benefit of a bonus allocation of fifty seats to the party coming first. That bonus has now been abolished: in fact it was abolished by Syriza in the previous term, but the change only comes into effect this time.
That means the voting system is now just straight nationwide proportional representation (by a largest remainder method), with a 3% threshold. If that had been in effect last time, New Democracy would have won only 130 seats, and four left-of-centre parties would have won a clear majority between them: Syriza with 103 seats, the centre-left PASOK with 27, the unreconstructed Communist Party with 17 and the radical left MeRA25 (led by former finance minister and media favorite Yanis Varoufakis) with 11.
If the polls are right, it’s likely that those four will again amount to a majority, although there’s some doubt about MeRA25 getting over the threshold (it just made it last time with 3.4%). But that doesn’t mean that they’d form government together, or even co-operate at all: the Communists are notoriously resistant to collaboration with other parties, and there’s plenty of bad blood between Syriza and MeRA25, and between both of them and PASOK.
On the other hand, there’s nothing much available in the way of allies for New Democracy, either. The only other party to make it across the threshold last time was the far-right Greek Solution, with 3.7% and ten seats. It’s possible that New Democracy and PASOK could team up in a grand coalition, although it’s not certain that that would command a majority. Or Mitsotakis could try forming a minority government and gamble that the others would be unable to agree on combining against him.
But there’s a further complication. New Democracy has legislated to bring back the winner’s bonus in a modified (and slightly fairer) form, but that change in turn does not take effect until the following election. So if Mitsotakis comes out ahead but short of a majority, he may well feel it’s in his interests to force a new election straight away – and even if he doesn’t set out with that intention, it may end up being the only option (according to Politico it’s already been pencilled in for 2 July).
It’s fair to expect, though, that the voters wouldn’t be happy with this idea.
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