Greece constitutional referendum on electoral reform in sight?
While the constitutional consultation process proceeds sluggishly, media reports a government plan to call for a referendum on the country’s election law. Such a move would be against the spirit of the Greek constitution, which puts the parliament at the centre of any constitutional reform process and sets the conditions of amending the election law – writes Dr. Ioannis N. Grigoriadis.
The question of constitutional reform entered the political debate of crisis-ridden Greece rather unexpectedly in July 2016 at the initiative of the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced an ambitious and controversial constitutional reform initiative, which aimed to amend crucial aspects of the Greek democratic regime. The possibility of direct election and the reinforcement of the competences of the President of the Republic, the proliferation of constitutional referendums, the introduction of the constructive vote of no-confidence, and steps towards the separation of the church and state were only some of the proposed reforms. Moreover, Tsipras went as far as to announce the organization of some unprecedented deliberative procedures which would allow citizens to participate in constitutional discussions at the local level.
Despite these promises, little came to fruition in the following months. The establishment of ‘organizing committees’ throughout the country with the aim to discuss the constitutional amendments did not materialize, and public deliberation has been weaker than expected. A ‘dialogue committee on the constitutional reform’ was established consisting primarily of university professors. This committee launched in March 2017 an electronic consultation process. Following the end of the first phase, the committee issued an electronic questionnaire with questions pertaining to the content of the constitutional reform. All Greek citizens were invited to complete it. Following the submission of questionnaires, the committee is expected to draft and present a report by September 2017. Meanwhile, the Church of Greece also launched a series of public events in June 2017 with the aim to present its own views on the constitutional amendments. Despite these activities, it was true that the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government remained so preoccupied with the economic crisis and its negotiations with Greece’s creditors that it found it hard to put forward the constitutional reform project.
A potential referendum on the electoral system?
The SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government did, however, submit a bill on the introduction of proportional representation in Greek election law, which was approved by the Greek parliament on 18 July 2016. This law maintains the uneven distribution of seats among Greek electoral districts and the three percent threshold for a party’s entry into parliament. It eliminated, however, any bonus to the first party, thus making very difficult the emergence of a single-party government. The law also reduces the voting age to 17.
Nevertheless, the new electoral system will not be applied in the upcoming parliamentary elections, due to a provision of the Greek constitution, which under Article 54(1) states that: ‘the electoral system and constituencies are specified by statute, which shall be applicable as of the elections after the immediately following ones, unless an explicit provision, adopted by a majority of two thirds of the total number of Members of Parliament, provides for its application as of the immediately following elections’. In the parliamentary vote, the bill failed to secure the qualified majority of two thirds – that is 200 votes - necessary for its application in the next parliamentary elections, which must be held by January 2019. Accordingly, the next parliamentary elections would still be conducted under the current election law, first applied in the 2012 elections, which gives a bonus of up to 50 parliamentary seats to the party with the highest number of votes. While the law greatly facilitated the rise of the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government, the bonus system would likely benefit the chief opposition party, New Democracy (Nea Dimokratia), which has enjoyed a clear advantage in all opinion polls and could gain enough votes for a single-party government.
In light of this situation, a political manoeuvre, which could complicate the path of New Democracy to a single-party government, could take the form of a referendum initiative. Media reports in May 2017 claimed that the government was intending on revitalizing at least part of its constitutional reform agenda through calling for a referendum on the introduction of proportional representation as Greece’s permanent election system. Public ownership and control of utilities and the election of the President of the Republic are mooted as issues which may also be referred to a referendum. Defining the referendum question has always been a crucial advantage for governments calling for it. The government hopes that by introducing a referendum on a number of issues where it considered the Greek public opinion to be aligned with its own political views, it could recuperate some of the political capital it had relinquished because of its failure to bring an end to the Greek economic crisis. A strong referendum result could provide the government with a political argument against the constitutionally and legally defined constitutional amendment procedures.
Status of constitutional referendums in Greece
It is important to note at this point how the Greek constitution deals with referendums. While referendums may be held under certain circumstances, the constitutional amendment process does not anticipate referendums. Under article 44(2), ’the President of the Republic shall by decree proclaim a referendum on crucial national matters following a resolution voted by an absolute majority of the total number of members of parliament, taken upon proposal of the cabinet. A referendum on bills passed by parliament regulating important social matters, with the exception of the fiscal ones, shall be proclaimed by decree by the President of the Republic, if this is decided by three fifths of the total number of its members, following a proposal of two fifths of the total number of its members, and as the standing orders and the law for the application of the present paragraph provide. No more than two proposals to hold a referendum on a bill can be introduced in the same parliamentary term’.
Article 54, which precludes the application of changes to electoral laws to the immediate next election, was introduced through constitutional amendment in 2001, in light of previous cases of instrumentalization of the electoral law by the incumbent party with the aim to serve its short-term political interests. In spring 1989, for example, shortly before the expiration of the parliamentary term, the PASOK government under Andreas Papandreou introduced an election law which approximated proportional representation. Predicting a probable election defeat, Papandreou attempted to prevent a comfortable parliamentary majority for the then chief opposition party, New Democracy and its leader Konstantinos Mitsotakis. It took three parliamentary elections in June 1989, November 1989 and April 1990, before New Democracy, winner in all three elections, with 44.3, 46.2 and 47.3 percent of the vote, could establish a razor-thin parliamentary majority, following the third election.
In addition, the 1975 Greek constitution clearly considers the parliament to be the forum for all constitutional amendments. The amendment procedure of the Greek constitution is outlined in Article 110, and no room is allowed for constitutional referendums.
In view of the above, a possible referendum on the election law would contravene the spirit of the Greek constitution, which requires constitutional reform through parliamentary deliberation and produce a result, which would merely be advisory and legally nonbinding for the Greek government. Indeed, the advisory nature of referendums was used by the current government to justify its agreement with Greece’s creditors, despite the negative opinion of the Greek people expressed in the referendum of 5 July 2015 on bailout terms proposed by the Troika. Moreover, it could be interpreted as an act of political opportunism, a manipulation of the election law, and prove divisive in the Greek public opinion. The chief opposition party would likely attempt to deprive the referendum of political legitimacy by calling for a boycott. Abstention from the referendum could not only be linked to the advice of the chief opposition party but also because of outright disillusionment of large parts of the Greek public opinion with the SYRIZA-ANEL government and alienation from democratic institutions. If the turnout rate proves to be low, this could be used against the coalition government.
In view of the above, despite an indication that the government would want to organise a referendum as early as in autumn 2017, a referendum on the establishment of proportional representation as Greece’s constitutionally stipulated election law does not appear to be the most likely scenario in the upcoming months. Yet it could become one of the instruments of the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government in its effort to galvanise support among its shrinking electoral base on an issue that has been defined as a long-standing demand of the Greek left. Such a move is likely to further polarize the Greek political scene and add another unconstructive experience to the referendum of 5 July 2015. Using the constitution as domestic political leverage will not do service to the institutions of Greece or the quality of its democracy.
Dr. Ioannis N. Grigoriadis is Associate Professor and Jean Monnet Chair at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Bilkent University and Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).