The paradox of nearly absolute majority under proportional representation


The Greek parliamentary elections of 21 May 2023 gave the clearest result ever recorded in the almost 50-year history of the Third Hellenic Republic, with the exception of the first elections in 1974, after the fall of the seven-year military junta when the New Democracy (ND) - newly founded successor of the centre-right - prevailed over the Centre Union by a margin of about 30%. In last month's elections, the evergreen ND won by more than 20% over SYRIZA, the party of the radical left that soared to the top of the electoral polls in 2012-2015 and governed the country in 2015-2019.

Konstantinidis elections

However, unlike the 1974 result, which led to a broad parliamentary majority for ND, last month's result did not provide ND with the absolute majority it coveted and consequently - given the previously announced refusal of all parliamentary parties to participate in a coalition government - the country called a new election for 25 June 2023. The reason for the difference in the substantive political outcome of two similar election results is the use of a different electoral system. In 1974, as for most of the last fifty years, the country used different versions of enhanced proportional representation systems, unlike the recent election, in which pure proportional representation was applied, resulting in the failure of the first party to win 151 seats despite having collected 40.8% of the popular vote.

An external observer would be impressed by the high percentage of the first party under proportional representation, as in European countries where the system is used constantly, there is a greater dispersion of votes, which obliges the first party -most often- to cooperate with one or more smaller ones in order to achieve a parliamentary majority or even the formation of a minority government. Not having the experience of simple proportional representation and having repeatedly heard ND call simple proportional representation a "trap that we need to get out of the way quickly" and SYRIZA whisper that ideally it would like to form a coalition government, but with no plan on who his partners might be, voters ignored the peculiarity of the electoral system and voted exactly as they would have done under the more familiar system of enhanced proportional representation that rewards the first party with seat bonuses. They chose, in other words, between the two largest parties, bearing in mind that one of them would form a one-party government. And their choices were asymmetrically reflected in favour of ND.

However, the proposed interpretations of this asymmetry differ considerably. On the one hand, the success of Nea Dimokratia in presenting itself as the only reformist force in the country that can ensure political stability, economic growth and a “careful combat” against social stereotypes is put forward as an interpretation. On the other hand, the electoral outcome is perceived as the complete failure of SYRIZA to present itself as a coherent and prepared governmental alternative that is able to balance the ever-demanding social demands with the state's capacity to respond to them. In other words, the proposed interpretations are based on different answers to the question of whether the May 21st vote was positive or negative.

As is often the case in the interpretation of socio-political phenomena, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Indeed, Nea Dimokratia has succeeded in the last four years in presenting itself as the government under which taxes were reduced, tourism increased, many public services were digitized and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community were expanded. It succeeded in shifting the blame for the shortcomings of the public health system during the pandemic that claimed the lives of a disproportionately large number of mostly elderly people compared to other European countries, for food prices higher than in other European countries and for the tragic train accident of 28 February 2023, which revealed public negligence in the maintenance and operation of the network, far from itself - sometimes talking about the insidious virus, sometimes about the energy crisis and sometimes about the indifference of ordinary railway employees - ND managed to present itself as a positive political force. Its electoral plan was served by the party leader himself with due care, without mistakes and cacophony. However, would the result have been the same if the pandemic crisis and the energy crisis had not allowed it to adopt a policy of subsidies for every single social group? The significant increase of the ND share of the vote in popular districts of Attica, where it was traditionally weak, testifies to the value of the subsidy policy that it generously pursued in parallel - however empirically incongruous this may sound - with the reduction of taxation. Can we consider the subsidy policy part of the positive reformist image of ND that ensured its victory?

On the other hand, SYRIZA has indeed failed to demonstrate its readiness to propose an alternative public policy programme that would address the pathologies in the functioning of public services, tax evasion, and inequality of opportunity. It failed to convince that its positions had been properly costed and, furthermore, it failed to show that the different voices within the party would eventually align - if SYRIZA were to return to government - with its published proposals. Its election campaign failed to focus only on its leader, giving space to many other persons, who often expressed contradictory positions, reinforcing the image of an unprepared and unreliable opposition. Nevertheless, would the result have been the same if SYRIZA had not faced intense competition in its home turf from PASOK - the once-stalwart ruling party that it essentially replaced after 2012 by exploiting the wave of anger against the memoranda (MoUs) - and from smaller parties on its left that accused SYRIZA of giving in? The refusal of any cooperation on the part of these parties vis-à-vis SYRIZA invalidated any plan to form a government with a centre-left orientation. Can we blame the collapse of the partnerships on the negative image of SYRIZA that took away a potential victory?

The interpretation of the broad victory of Nea Dimokratia lies somewhere in the middle of the two opposing positions. ND won the positive vote of the economically dynamic strata that benefited from its economic policy, but it was also supported by the weak and credulous strata that accepted its generous subsidy policy. SYRIZA lost due to its negative image as a programmatically inadequate and politically unstable party, but was not helped by its political environment in the formation of an alternative to ND, an element absolutely necessary for the electoral game of pure proportional representation. Combined, these trends led to the electoral triumph of ND - with a significant expansion of its electorate in terms of its social and political characteristics - and to the massive and almost panicky exodus of SYRIZA voters in all directions.

The next electoral battle - which will take place under the traditional system of enhanced proportional representation - is expected to confirm these trends, giving ND the desired absolute parliamentary majority. The focus of interest is on SYRIZA's competition with PASOK for the second place - as the results of May 21st put the two parties at a distance less than that between the first and the second party, a battle reminiscent of the one in 2012, when the rising SYRIZA was rapidly absorbing a large part of PASOK voters. Secondly, what attracts interest is the possibility of two smaller parties that did not surpass the 3% threshold in the May elections entering parliament, an ultra-conservative party supported by anti-vaccinationists, opponents of the Prespa Agreement and deniers of the right to abortion, and a one-person-centred party of the radical left demanding reparations for victims of the German occupation. If the two parties succeed in gaining seats, the parliament is expected to include a total of seven parties, as the participation of the communist KKE and the far-right Hellenic Solution party in the parliament that will emerge from the next elections is taken for granted.

In any case, the parliament that will emerge from the next elections will be a body completely subordinate to the executive, as the structure of the Greek political system leads to the over-concentration of power in the government and especially in the Prime Minister. Given the fragmentation of the opposition into several parties, the power of the government and the Prime Minister is expected to be - on a symbolic level - even greater. It becomes obvious that the experience of the purest system of proportional representation ever used in Greece not only did not push the electorate towards adopting a different model of political power distribution, but will ultimately reinforce institutional centralization.