[MGSA-L] Hitchhikers’ Guide To Greek Politics

June Samaras june.samaras at gmail.com
Mon Nov 7 12:07:30 PST 2011


''It is important to note here that Greece has exactly zero experience
and tradition in consensual politics, let alone in

   November 2, 2011, 11:20 AM ET

Hitchhikers’ Guide To Greek Politics
By Matina Stevis


It’s possible that you already know more than you ever thought you’d
learn, or cared to learn, about Greek politics.

Yet here we are again, with the Greek political situation directly
impacting the rest of the euro zone and affecting trading and market
sentiment well beyond the Old Continent.

Which is why this post may be of use to you. It’s by no means
definitive or exhaustive, but it seeks to address a few issues that
may shape news coverage of Greece over the next few days and weeks.

What does the Greek constitution say about referenda, early elections
and coalition governments? Second, what does the formation of a
“government of national unity” mean in the Greek context: Is that
attainable, and if so, would it last?

The rules of engagement

The Greek constitution is open to interpretation with regard to the
referendum, outlined in Article 44. This says that a referendum bill
on a national or social issue, formally presented by the president of
the Republic at the behest of one or more of the parties (in this case
the government), must get an absolute majority–151 of 300 votes–in
parliament to go ahead.

However, the constitution points out that if the subject-matter of the
referendum is fiscal, the majority requirement is raised to
three-fifths, i.e. 180 votes.

In order for the referendum result to be heeded, turnout must exceed
40% of the electorate.

The phrasing of the referendum question is thus critical. It will
presumably be worded to  make the case that it’s not on a fiscal issue
so as to bypass the constitutional obstacles.

A bill must outline all the relevant details (question phrasing,
timing, etc) before a referendum can take place. In this case, the
legislation is due to hit the parliament floor soon after the vote of
confidence, expected on Friday.

Antonis Manitakis, a prominent Greek constitutional specialist, told
us that the government would have to phrase the question of the
referendum in a manner that would justify it belonging to the
“national-interest” category. In his opinion, a question like that
would likely be about euro membership.

However, he did note that the opposition, which has been vehemently
resisting the idea of a referendum, does not have legal or
constitutional recourse to challenge the phrasing of the question. His
assessment is that the opposition will first try to defeat the motion
for a referendum in parliament.

Given recent dissent by the ruling party’s own members, this may just
kill the referendum idea at birth. If however the referendum is
cleared by parliament, the only recourse for opposition leader Antonis
Samaras would be to play with the 40% threshold, which is
constitutionally mandatory to make the outcome of the vote valid.
According to Mr. Manitakis, Mr. Samaras will urge his party’s voters
to simply not show up to vote. Other parties may do the same.

This would mean that even if the referendum were to take place, the
40% turnout threshold would be threatened and any outcome could be
declared void.

Greek government spokesman Ilias Mossialos said that a committee to
decide on the functional and design details of the referendum would be
formed “very, very soon.”

With regards to elections: they can take place three weeks after they
are called at the earliest. This means that, if Prime Minister George
Papandreou decides to call a snap election or his government de facto
loses its parliamentary majority, it will take at least three weeks to
take the country to the ballot box.

The sequence of events is set off by a visit by the prime minister to
the President of the Republic –his name is Karolos Papoulias. The
latter’s role is largely ceremonial.

In the case of an attempt to form an emergency government of national
unity, the president of the Republic convenes a summit of the leaders
of all parliamentary parties. In the current Greek parliament, there
are five parties represented: Ruling PASOK (Socialist), opposition New
Democracy (conservative), KKE (Communist), LAOS (nationalist
right-wing) and SYRIZA (leftist). The leaders’ names are,
respectively: George Papandreou, Antonis Samaras, Aleka Papariga,
Giorgos Karatzaferis, Alexis Tsipras.

Note that since the national election of 2009, two of these parties
have been split. SYRIZA has lost its europhile wing, led by Fotis
Kouvelis; New Democracy has lost its more liberal wing, led by former
foreign minister Dora Bakoyiannis.

The president, having convened the leaders’ summit, will ask them to
attempt to form a coalition government of national unity. And then the
fun begins. Mr. Papandreou has been referring to the upcoming
referendum, which won approval by his cabinet in the wee hours today
in Athens, as an ultimate act of faith in vox populi, an act of the
highest democratic caliber.

What is Greece’s experience of referenda?

The country has held seven in modern history: in 1920, 1924, 1935,
1968, 1973 and 1974. Two of them were “sham” ones: the 1968 and 1973
ones were brought forward by the colonels’ junta in a bid to claim

 Two were about the role of the monarchy in Greece. In 1946 Greeks
voted in favour of the king staying on in the country. On the
contrary, in 1974, they voted in favour of getting rid of the king and
moving to a constitutional democracy.

The chimera of national unity governments

European leaders have long lamented the inability of the two main
Greek political parties to reach some form of consensus to back the
austerity programs endorsed in exchange for the bailout(s) received.

European and especially International Monetary Fund lenders want
assurances that even if the current Greek government were to collapse
overnight, the new guys wouldn’t tear up the script and demand a
wholesale renegotiation of the agreements.

The reason the IMF is particularly interested in this is that it is
not, by its own rules, permitted to keep credit lines alive to
countries that do not have a guaranteed medium-term funding stability.
Greece certainly does not.

But let’s turn to this much-invoked “government of national unity”.
Several PASOK MPs, including heavyweight Vasso Papandreou (no relation
to prime minister), have in the last few days asked for the formation
of such a miracle-government that will oversee the approval of the new
bailout deal and maintain some form of stability in the country until
the next election.

It is important to note here that Greece has exactly zero experience
and tradition in consensual politics, let alone in coalition-building.

In an electoral system that is built to perpetuate strict
bipartisanship, and in a country where the divide between left and
right runs deep and the rhetoric makes it sound like it runs even
deeper, only once in recent history has such a government been formed.

That was back in July 1974, when, under Konstantinos Karamanlis–uncle
of another  Greek prime minister with the same name–centrist and
right-wing politicians came together to keep the country from sinking
into the abyss after the collapse of the colonels’ junta, whose rule
lasted seven years.

That didn’t go very well. In the first three weeks of that government,
Greece was unable to assist Cyprus against  Turkish invasion, leading
to the occupation of the “sister” island’s northern part, which dogs
United Nations negotiators until this day.

The coalition eventually collapsed in November 1974.

Fast-forward to June 15th 2011, a few short months ago, and you will
recall another 48 hours of high Greek drama. It was the day when
George Papandreou called Mr. Samaras, his former school- and
college-mate, and asked him to find a solution of “common acceptance”
for a national unity government.

Mr. Samaras said he’d do it only if Mr. Papandreou stepped down as
prime minister. Mr. Papandreou said he’d do it. And then he changed
his mind. This too led to a vote of confidence in the Greek

In short, it’s clear that a government of national unity will not be
easy to put together. This may well be what Mr. Samaras wants right
now, perhaps as well as Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos and other
prominent PASOK members. The horse trading, negotiations and threats
that emerge from Greece in coming days and weeks may not help calm
nervous financial markets.

June Samaras
(For Books about Greece)
2020 Old Station Rd
Canada L5M 2V1
Tel : 905-542-1877
E-mail : kalamosbooks at gmail.com

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