Greece – The importance of presidential elections

On Monday, Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, announced that there would be an early presidential election. Instead of the scheduled election in February 2015, the first round of voting would take place on 17 December. The election has been called in the context of the renewal of Greece’s financial bailout by the EU, ECB and IMF troika.

The president of Greece is elected by parliament for a five-year term and is one of the weakest presidents in Europe enjoying only residual powers. This is already a sign that the call for an early presidential election is merely part of a bigger political game that is being played. The election is not designed to install a new head of state with the legitimacy to exercise decisive leadership in Greece’s times of trouble. Indeed, PM Samaras proposed the name of a 73-year old former EU Commissioner as his preferred presidential candidate.

Instead, the election is being held in the context of a government that has only a very small parliamentary majority, that is facing a new bailout agreement, and that risks losing office to the anti-austerity opposition.

The key element lies in the process for electing the president. As noted above, the president is elected by the single house of the Greek parliament. At the first two ballots a two-thirds majority is required (200 votes), whereas at the third ballot a three-fifths majority is necessary (180 votes). Crucially, if no candidate reaches this figure at the third ballot, then the legislature is dissolved and the process begins again except at the third ballot under the new parliament a simple plurality is required, thus guaranteeing a successful election. As a general rule, parties collectively and deputies individually do not wish to see the legislature dissolved. Partly for that reason, three presidential elections in Greece have been decided at the third ballot, thus avoiding a dissolution. In 1990, though, a newly elected parliament was so split that a new election suited the various parties. When the presidential election went to the third ballot, the three-fifths majority was not found and new parliamentary elections were held. Only after the legislative election was a president successfully chosen.

Faced with these rules and aware of his slim majority, PM Samaras is using the election to engineer the equivalent a vote of confidence in his own government and the future of the bailout process in general. As things stand, the government has the support of 154 deputies in the 300-seat parliament. Even if the government were to win the support of the 24 independent deputies there, it would still require a small number of votes from anti-austerity deputies to elect the president at the third ballot.

The logic of bringing the presidential election forward is that if a president is elected, then the government will also have demonstrated that it has enough support to pass a revised bailout package and the further tough conditions that will be imposed on the country. However, if it proves impossible to elect the president, which is what analysts predict, then there will be an early parliamentary election. Currently, the anti-austerity opposition leads in the polls. However, there are undecided voters and by forcing the issue PM Samaras hopes that the stakes will be so high that he will be returned to office and will have enough support to pass the new bailout agreement.

There is a further element to the situation. A couple of hours prior to announcement of the early presidential election on Monday, the government received a two-month extension to its original bailout package. Therefore, if a president fails to be elected now and a parliamentary election is held in January, it will take place prior to the finalisation of the new bailout agreement. This means that PM Samaras will not have to defend the agreement at the election, but will be able to campaign on the basis of what he will insist on in the agreement. The PM’s fear is that if the presidential election were held as scheduled in February after the new bailout had been agreed and if, as expected, no president was elected at that time, then the parliamentary election would take place in a much more difficult context for the PM and the chances of defeat would be much greater.

In short, the early the presidential election is being seen as a sort of parliamentary referendum on the forthcoming bailout. The PM is using the rules of the presidential election to manoeuvre himself and his party into the most favourable political context possible. Of course, even if there is a parliamentary election in January, it is entirely possible that PM Samaras’ party could lose, but the PM is calculating that bringing the date of the presidential election forward is the least worst option in terms of engineering his government’s political survival.

In comparative terms, this is an interesting instrumental use of presidential elections to help the  incumbent government.

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