16/09/2007 - Analysis
Nearly 10 million Greeks are being called to ballot on 16th September in early elections. On 16th August last Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis (New Democracy, ND) asked the President of the Republic, Karolos Papoulias to dissolve Parliament and convene elections six months ahead of the planned schedule (March 2008). According to the Constitution the elections must be held 30 days after the dissolution of Parliament.
Although it had been demanding elections since February the main opposition party, the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) criticised the method used – the announcement was made by a government spokesperson and not by the Prime Minister, "an unprecedented event" according to PASOK spokesperson Yannis Ragousssis – and the date set for the elections, which it believes too soon. The head of government justified the date saying that the future government had to have time to define the 2008 budget. The choice of 16th September "is linked above all with the first budget that will be defined after the Commission has lifted the excessive deficit procedure against Greece; the government has to put a draft budget to parliament by 1st October," declared Costas Caramanlis. The Prime Minister also believes that a long electoral campaign would "upset the Greek political arena and have a negative impact on the economy."
Falling back on early general is a relatively usual occurrence in Greece. Costas Simitis (PASOK) was the last head of government to have requested the dissolution of Parliament in March 2004. In the subsequent election, New Democracy defeated the Panhellenic Socialist Movement after 20 years of almost uninterrupted rule.
The Greek Political System
The Vouli (Parliament) comprises a single chamber of 300 members, elected by proportional voting for four years in 56 constituencies. In 51 of these 288 MPs are elected from lists ranging between 1 and 32 candidates. The 12 remaining MPs called "national representatives" because they represent all of Greece – principally an honorary position – are elected using the results produced by each of the political parties nationally. The electoral system of enhanced proportionality guarantees a 70% level of representation for the political parties who have the right to sit in Parliament. Any political party winning at least 41% of the vote is guaranteed to have the majority in Parliament. Finally, a party has to win at least 3% of the vote to be represented in Parliament.
Four political parties comprise the present Parliament:
- New Democracy (ND), the party holding the majority founded in October 1974 by former President of the Republic (1980-1995) and Prime Minister (1955-1963 and 1974-1980), Constantin Caramanlis, uncle of present Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis; 165 MPs;
- the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK), the main opposition party founded in September 1974 by principal Andréas Papandréou. Nationalist and populist under the presidency of its founder PASOK gradually became a European social democrat party, notably under the management of former Prime Minister (1996-2004) Costas Simitis. Led by George Papandréou, the founder's son, the party has 117 MPs;
- the Communist Party (KKE), a party founded in 1918 on the base of the Socialist and Workers Party, is anti-European and is led by Aleka Papariga; it has 12 seats;
- The Left and Progress Coalition Forces emerged in 1989 rallying the former left wing of the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement, some Communist sympathisers, ecologists and other leftwing supporters; it is led by Alecos Alavanos with 6 seats.
Issues at stake in the General Elections
Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis has requested a new term in office as Head of Government on the part of the Greeks so that he can continue the structural reforms started in March 2004. "Three and a half years ago you asked us to bring the country out of economic stalemate and to create conditions for a better standard of life. We have really worked hard, not everything has been set right, but progress has been made and major reform has been undertaken. Greece will not stop and it will not turn back. We are looking to the future in the interest of all Greeks. We want a better life for every citizen. Our aim is peace, development and progress. We want to continue on the road of reform for a more successful State, a stronger economy and better social cohesion. We want to move forwards rapidly," maintained Costas Caramanlis during a TV appearance on 17th August.
"The government invites all Greeks to clarify the country's future by renewing its confidence in the government providing it with a sound mandate for the next four years. Voters have to choose between change and reform on the one hand or a return to the past and the mishaps which the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement's policy led to," maintained government spokesperson, Theodore Roussopoulos in a speech announcing the early general elections.
The Prime Minister can indeed use his government's excellent economic results as backing. The GDP growth rate is greater than 4%, the public deficit has been reduced to below the 3% threshold demanded by the Stability and Growth Pact established by the EU, lying at 2.6% in 2006 (against 7.8% in 2004 and 5.5% in 2005), the unemployment rate dropped from 11.3% in 2004 to 8%. "Our country has stabilised its public finance. The economy is in full swing. We have created over 200,000 new jobs, improved competitiveness and boosted exports and the tourist sector," maintained Costas Caramanlis.
Recently the government succeeded in winning parliament's approval for an increase in civil servants' retirement pensions, the payment of a 1,000 euro sum to the unemployed and families whose income is below 6,000 euro, the retroactive increase of judges' salaries and the establishment of a minimum retirement pension of 600 euro just before parliament went into recess on 2nd August.
However, several structural reforms requested by the EU authorities have still not been started such as for example the reform of retirement pensions and some privatisations. "The government has finished the work of its first term in office. Given the new period and the challenges before us we must have a new mandate. The major stake of the next term in office is the reform of the Welfare State. We require calm which will be easier to achieve after the elections, notably with regard to retirement pensions," stressed Economy and Finance Minister Georges Alogskoufis. Foreign Minister and former Mayor of Athens (2002-2006), Dora Bakoyannis, maintains that an electoral victory "would allow us to achieve what we promised to do."
The Prime Minister has also said that he would be committed, during his second term in office, to putting an end to corruption, a scourge in Greece. The country lies 54th (24th within the EU) in the Corruptions Perception Index established worldwide in 2006 by the world's main NGO dedicated to fight against corruption, Transparency International. When he became Prime Minister in March 2004 Costas Caramanlis promised zero tolerance vis-à-vis corruption. At present observers of the political arena, agree to say there is still much to be done.
"I am anticipating victory," maintains the opposition leader, George Papandréou, who adds that "the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement is ready to rule." Former Foreign Affairs (1999-2004) and present chairman of the Socialist International George Papandréou has been requesting early elections since February accusing Costas Caramanlis's government of corruption and incompetence. "It is time to turn over a new leaf. The citizens know how to judge and compare and their response is clear: we have had enough of trickery, incompetence and a mentality oriented towards plundering the State. The time has come to take another road with a project for Greece. We should stop the decline. We shall always be on the front line in terms of the country's and the citizens' problems, which we are ready to face. We are going to set right the breaches in equality opened up by Caramanlis's government thanks to a fairer distribution of revenue, to provide the Greek citizen with security, hope and perspective. We shall guarantee development which respects and relies on the environment and which is supported by education and a modern, efficient social State," declared George Papandréou when the early election date was announced.
"Calling for elections proves that the king is naked," stressed the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement spokesperson, Petros Efthymiou, who repeats that the Prime Minister is showing "his state of panic and insecurity." "Over the last three and a half years there has been no reform in any sector," he said; in its electoral programme New Democracy could not repeat "the promises it has made in 2004 and which it has not honoured."
If it wants to win the general elections on 16th September the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement must however count on a trend of rejection of the present government which does not seem to be emerging for the time being. The party will also have to convince voters that it is a real alternative to the present government. The Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement's electoral programme adopted in March focuses on "a fairer distribution of wealth" and promises an increase in pensions and social aid.
Recent polls are a comfort to the ruling party: the difference between New Democracy (ND) and the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) is estimated at 2.5-3 points. In addition to this most Greeks believe that Costas Caramanlis is the best person to lead the government far ahead of George Papandréou.
However the ruling party's lead has been reduced somewhat over the last few months after several politico-financial scandals tarnished the government team. In addition to this the authorities' management of the terrible fires that have ravaged Greece all summer has been the source of severe criticism on the part of the population.
But according to political analyst Yannis Loulis this should not influence the elections. "The population's general feeling is that another government could not have done better." "Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis believes that the overall political environment and the polls provide him with a certain edge over the PASOK which he intends to put to good use as quickly as possible because he cannot be sure of maintaining this over a long period of time," explains Théo Livanios, an analyst at the Opinion Institute. "As long as the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement does not present more of a threat, it is in Costas Caramanlis's every interest to bring the elections forward. For the time being it is clearly the Prime Minister who holds the psychological advantage," declared political analyst Georges Sefertzis.
New Democracy (ND) seems set to stay in power after the general election on 16th September. A short period of one month remains for the electoral campaign, the results of which are not a forgone conclusion.
Results of the General Elections on 7th March 2004 in Greece
Participation rate : 75.6% (it is obligatory to vote in Greece)
Source: Greek Home Office