A crippled Constitution

By Angelos Stangos

February 2015 looms as a turning point for the country as Parliament’s election of a new president will test the stability of the government and, by extension, that of the country as a whole. Just like a leap year that comes around every four years and adds another day to February, so the election of the president of the Greek Republic every five years presents the opposition with the opportunity to force snap elections. Whether there is a real need for this or not seems to be almost irrelevant as every party that has ever been in the main opposition in Greece feels compelled to say “no” to everything.

This is how it is traditionally done. It is what the people expect. To the opposition it appears to be the only way to speed up its ascent to government and that is what every opposition party has felt is the normal way to behave during presidential elections. It is clear that SYRIZA does not intend to become the exception to the rule. Its handling of the Public Power Corporation privatization issue as it tries to rally the votes it needs to trigger a referendum on it is effectively strategic planning so that it can later block the election of a new president and trigger snap national polls. The party is trying to rally 120 deputies to reject any candidate put forward to succeed Karolos Papoulias, regardless of who that person is. The government is also pursuing a similar strategy by trying to get together the 180 votes it needs to clinch victory for its own candidate, even though it has yet to announce who it will be.

What is abundantly clear is that such machinations completely undermine the institution of the presidency even though the president is head of state, albeit with limited powers. The political class has debased the presidential election into a power game between the parties, when the point of the constitutional procedure for the election is the creation for a broad majority. The Constitution, however, has been crippled by the behavior of the political class. In the 1975 Constitution, the president had a lot more powers than is the case today and general elections could not be triggered unless a candidate was rejected by MPs after three rounds of voting, with a majority of 200 in the 300-MP House required in the first round and 180 in the second and third. In the 1986 revision, prompted of PASOK, the president’s powers were significantly reduced. No one, however, thought to change the election procedure so that a simple majority of 151 were enough to elect a president whose only job is to preside. This simple change would have saved the country a lot of trouble.