The Greece constitutional reform process: Towards direct democracy and secularism?

By Dr. Ioannis N. Grigoriadis, 24 August 2016
Photo credit: Ancient Greece - Mr. Donn
Photo credit: Ancient Greece - Mr. Donn

The Greek government has initiated a constitutional reform process which would involve unprecedented levels of public participation and enhance the majoritarian features of Greek democracy while not threatening the official status of the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, the proposed reforms are unlikely to be adopted and may simply deflect attention from continued controversial austerity policies - writes Dr. Grigoriadis


While Greece has been undergoing a profound economic, political and social crisis since 2009, a discussion on amending the Greek constitution has now taken centre stage. The SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government, in power since January 2015, has initiated a number of significant constitutional reform proposals. If successful, the reforms would not be the first amendments to the 1975 Constitution introduced in the aftermath of the 1967-1974 military regime. A comprehensive revision took place in 1986, and two less extensive ones in 2001 and 2008. As the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government had to abandon its anti-austerity election program and sign a memorandum agreement with Greece’s creditors, the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), launching the constitutional reform process appeared as an opportunity to, at least partially, reconfirm SYRIZA’s leftist  political leanings and change the political agenda to its benefit.  

Strengthening ‘direct democracy’ in the constitution through the introduction of the referendum as a key political instrument is indicative of the overall intentions of the government to give a majoritarian hue to the democratic process, which would reinforce the 1986 constitutional amendments led by the then PASOK government, itself a left-leaning party. Nevertheless, the rigid nature of the Greek constitution, the necessary involvement of two different parliamentary compositions in the amendment process, and the declining approval rates of both coalition partners make the success of the constitutional reform process unlikely. 

The Greek Government Proposals

Following weeks of speculation about the content of the SYRIZA-ANEL constitutional amendment proposals, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced his government’s proposals in a press conference on 25 July 2016. The announcement has kick-started a long and rather unusual constitutional consultation process in Greek history. An ‘Organizing Committee’ would be established in September to undertake countrywide open dialogues. The exact composition of the committee, in particular the representation and influence of opposition groups and non-governmental entities, is unclear. First, discussions on constitutional amendments would be held at the municipal level with professional associations, chambers of commerce, non-governmental associations and citizens. The outcome of these discussions would be evaluated through assemblies in the thirteen regions of the country. A special website would be established to allow citizens to submit their proposals, agreements and objections. At the end of the consultation process, in spring 2017, the ‘Organizing Committee’ would collect the inputs and submit a report to all political parties, which would then move on with the constitutional amendment procedure.

The proposed reforms affect fundamental aspects of the Greek Constitution. Tsipras divided his amendment proposals under five chapters: regime architecture reforms; reinforcement of direct democracy; reinforcement of the rule of law; state-church relations; and social rights.

Reforms to government structure   

One of the most important reforms that Tsipras suggested was constitutionally fixing proportional representation as the Greek electoral system. Under Greece’s current electoral system, the first (winning) political party gets a bonus of up to 50 seats. An electoral system based on proportional representation has been a historic demand of the Greek left. Moreover, while the provision helped SYRIZA fall only five seats short of the absolute majority with 35.5 percent of the vote, the prospect that the right wing ‘New Democracy’, the major opposition party, is most likely to be first in any upcoming elections provided a strong incentive for introducing proportional representation. Following the German example, Tsipras suggested the introduction of a ‘constructive vote of non-confidence’. This would mean that the parliament could not vote down a government, as is now the case, without simultaneously agreeing to vote a successor.

In addition, the possibility – for the first time – of direct election for the President of the Republic would be introduced. The President would be elected by the Parliament if a qualified majority of two-thirds in two consecutive votes were reached. If these votes prove fruitless, then the people would directly elect one of the first two candidates that emerged from the parliamentary vote. Tsipras also suggested a ‘within reason’ enhancement of the competences of the President of the Republic ‘with the aim to reinforce his regulating, stabilizing and guarantor role, without this touching the core of the parliamentary system’. Examples included the ability of the President to address the Parliament for an ‘important reason’, to call a meeting of the Political Party Leaders Council, an unofficial body consisting of the leaders of the parties represented in parliament, or to refer approved bills to a special consultative body, exclusively consisting of judges, to evaluate their constitutionality.

Tsipras also introduced the idea of a fixed tenure for members of parliament suggesting that no member of parliament can be elected for more than two consecutive parliamentary periods or eight consecutive years. In contrast to the current constitutional framework, to be appointed as Prime Minister - with the exception of caretaking ones - one would have to be a member of the parliament. This would have rendered impossible the appointment of Lucas Papademos, who was not a parliamentarian, as Prime Minister in November 2011.

Reinforcement of direct democracy

Tsipras proposed a series of amendments intended to make referenda a crucial element of Greek democracy. First, he suggested that any treaty transferring sovereign competences of the state would have to be ratified through referendum. A major innovation was the introduction of referendums by popular initiative. A referendum on a ‘national issue’ could be initiated by 500 000 citizens; one million signatures would suffice for a referendum to reject a bill approved by parliament - with the exception of budgetary bills, or to  initiate legislation on any matter. Currently, referendums on ‘crucial national issues’ may only be held following a decision of the absolute majority in parliament.

Reinforcement of the rule of law

Tsipras suggested the establishment of a new consultative body, exclusively consisting of High Court judges which, under exceptional circumstances and following a proposal of the President of the Republic, the government or 120 members of the parliament, would advise on the constitutionality of laws and bills within a very short deadline. Currently, Greek courts may only decide on the constitutionality of laws in the context of specific cases and do not have the power to review laws and bills in the abstract. Tsipras also proposed the abolition of parliamentary immunities, with the possible exception of offenses directly linked to delegated duties. This would be followed by an amendment of the law on the immunity of government ministers. The extremely generous provisions of the Greek constitution on ministerial immunities have led to widespread public discontent in the rule of law. Tsipras also promised consultation and public debate on the parliamentary control of ‘independent authorities’, such as the Ombudsman office and the Radio-Television Council, as well as the increase in their numbers.

State-Church relations

Tsipras also ambiguously referred to the thorny issue of state-church relations. He promised a clear safeguard of the religious neutrality of the state while recognizing Orthodox Christianity as dominant religion ‘for historical and practical reasons’. 

Social Rights

Under the chapter of ‘social rights’, Prime Minister Tsipras suggested a clear ban on lifting public management of water and energy - in effect proscribing any privatization in these sectors, safeguarding collective negotiations as the only means for the definition of wages, and introducing arbitration as a mandatory means for the resolution of relevant labour disputes.

A Critique of the Proposals

The proposals of Prime Minister Tsipras contributed to the reinvigoration of the constitutional debate, which had already started in the context of the economic crisis. In June 2016, a group of constitutional law experts and businesspersons suggested through the publication of a small book a new constitution for Greece. There have been dissenting views on critical aspects of the constitutional reform proposals. In particular, the suggested proposals on referendums and ‘organizing committees’ have been met with strong opposition from leading constitutional law experts and politicians. Evangelos Venizelos, a former deputy prime minister and professor of constitutional law, accused the SYRIZA-ANEL government of ‘undermining Greece's parliamentary democracy’. The proposals have been criticized as ‘unconstitutional’ and as creating a ‘facade of democracy’. 

While several comments could be made about the implications of the constitutional reform proposals for Greek politics and policymaking, this piece mainly dwells on two particularly controversial points:  the majoritarian features of the Greek constitution and state-church relations. 

Tsipras’ emphasis on referendums and paving the track for the direct election of the President of the Republic were the two most important proposals pointing at the reinforcement of majoritarianism in Greek democracy. Nevertheless, the experience of the 6 July 2015 referendum that shook Greek politics, divided Greek society and produced a result which the Tsipras government failed to respect may advise not only against the proliferation of referendums as a political instrument, but even against their use within the limits of the current constitution. The polarized nature of Greek politics has been considered to be one of the key reasons for the failure of the Greek political system to respond to the crisis that has befallen upon the country since 2009. While other countries that were similarly hit, such as Ireland, Portugal and Spain, could address the crisis through coalition governments that took unpopular reform decisions and were able to reverse the recession, Greece was caught in a vicious circle of populist promises by leading opposition parties that minimized public tolerance towards unpopular reforms and facilitated their rise to power, but made a complete reversal on promises inevitable once in power. This further undermined trust in Greek politics and complicated Greece’s return to economic growth and political stability.

Tsipras had generated optimism about his intentions to separate the Orthodox Church from the state, when he and several of his ministers refused to take a religious oath before assuming government duties in January 2015. Yet the policies of the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government did not deviate from mainstream views about state-church relations. Protecting and even advancing the privileges that the Church of Greece has enjoyed even under the current harsh economic and social conditions point at the fact that the SYRIZA-ANEL government is not committed to a secular breakthrough. The inherent contradiction in seeking religious neutrality while recognising a specific religion as dominant is in line with Tsipras’ policies and practice since it took office. The instrumental use of the secularization agenda on ‘harmless’ issues such as the oath, while accruing the political benefits of cooperation with the Church of Greece has emerged as the true SYRIZA-ANEL policy on state-church relations.  In fact, forestalling the separation of church and state appears to be a crucial issue for the right-wing Independent Greeks, the junior partner in the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition.  

Considering the declining fortunes of the coalition government, the SYRIZA-ANEL constitutional amendment proposals may not be realised. Any constitutional amendment will require the approval of the current parliament and the one after the next elections, by an absolute majority in one and a three-fifth majority in the other. Opposition parties whose endorsement is essential to meet the qualified majority necessary for the success of the process have declared their intentions to vote against the government proposals or submit their own. It seems that the whole initiative is more important for its agenda changing features, as the government aims to deflect attention from its austerity policies, rather than a real chance for addressing the shortcomings of the Greek constitution.

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).

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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