Greece swings rightward

Voters in Greece yesterday elected a new parliament (see my preview here), but prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has decided he doesn’t like it and will ask for another one. For the country that gave us the word “democracy”, it’s not a good look. (Official results here.)

Greek opinion polling also seems to have some problems. Four years ago the polls consistently understated support for the then-governing left-wing party, Syriza, which, although it lost the election, scored a better-than-expected 31.5%. This year, the error was larger and in the opposite direction: Syriza’s vote plunged to just 20.1%, despite polling that had put it in the high 20s, netting it just 71 of the 300 seats (down 15).

Mitsotakis’s centre-right party, New Democracy, led the field as expected, but did better than the polls had suggested, gaining slightly on its 2019 result: up 0.9% to 40.8%, for 146 seats. That’s tantalisingly close to a majority; in 2019 it won 158 seats, but 50 of those were a bonus allocation for the first placegetter, which has now been abolished (more about this in a moment).

Only three other parties cleared the 3% threshold: PASOK (centre-left), with 11.5% (up 3.4%) and 41 seats (up 19); the Communists, 7.2% (up 1.9%) and 26 seats (up 11); and the far-right Greek Solution, 4.5% (up 0.8%) and 16 seats (up six). But another three only just fell short: the far-left MeRA25, which fell from 3.4% to 2.6% and lost all its nine seats, and two far-right parties, Course of Freedom and Victory, each with 2.9%.

So New Democracy’s tally of seats is inflated slightly by the fact that a lot of votes – about 940,000 of them, or 16% – were wasted on parties that failed to reach the threshold. Even so, it’s a remarkably strong result for an incumbent government, suggesting that reports of the death of the centre-right have been somewhat exaggerated. (It may also, disturbingly, be a sign of support for its inhumane policies towards refugees.)

But it’s not so good that Mitsotakis is entitled to a majority when the voters chose not to give him one. His reported claim that “The people wanted the choice of a Greece run by a majority government and by New Democracy without the help of others” is exactly the opposite of the truth: if the people wanted his party to have a majority they were perfectly capable of voting that way. They didn’t. His opponents have a clear majority of both votes and seats.

Mitsotakis proposes to rely on the fact that in the last parliament he legislated to reinstate (in a slightly different format) the 50-seat winner’s bonus. But amendments to the electoral law, unless they’re supported by a two-thirds majority, only come into effect after the following election – a very sensible provision, which stops governments doctoring the rules to their own advantage. So the winner’s bonus didn’t apply this time, but if another election is held straight away, it will, and on yesterday’s figures that would give New Democracy a substantial majority.

In my opinion this is an outrage. Governments should not be able to just keep having elections in order to get the result they want. Yet the media coverage seems to treat it as nothing remarkable, often not explaining the change in the rules and giving the impression that this is just like a normal two-round voting system, instead of a whole new unnecessary election.

Can it be stopped? Other parties first have to be given a chance to form a majority government, and it’s theoretically possible for the other four parties to do so between them. But none of the other three would co-operate with the far right, and even the Communists and centre-left would be most unlikely to work together. In practice, New Democracy can prevent any other government from being formed by refusing to participate in a coalition, and a fresh election is the only alternative.

The voters will have the chance to show their displeasure, most likely on 2 July. It’s unrealistic to expect that enough of them would change their vote so quickly as to deprive New Democracy of the lead, but under the new system it will not get the full 50 extra seats if it falls short of 40% – 35%, for example, would give it a 40-seat bonus. If there are fewer wasted votes this time, it’s possible that might still leave it short of a majority, and having wasted everyone’s time and money Mitsotakis would still be obliged to negotiate for a coalition.

More likely, however, the prime minister will get away with his stratagem and govern with a minority of the vote. Democracy will be the loser.


Note: Although it’s six hours ahead of Greece, East Timor’s election infrastructure isn’t as good, so its results are yet to appear (you can check for them here). We might look at them later in the week.


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