Unless something pretty spectacular happens, Greece is at risk of going through a major experiment in political anthropology over the next few years, having to learn whether the country can be governed under a system of simple proportional representation. Greece has never managed to function under such a system without ending up in trouble and eventually looking for powerful leaders and other electoral models.
Greece has never had the culture of consensus found in northern Europe and local politics has always been a zero-sum game. The politicians of old were more experienced and knew how far the country could fall, yet they repeatedly made a mess of things because they could not communicate. Today’s politicians are unaware of the risks involved and their game is all about crushing the opponent. Institutions, meanwhile, are used as tools in this game of power.
Now we are likely headed into the most toxic and polarized elections that Greece has seen since the restoration of democracy after the 1967-1974 dictatorship. Chances are that there won’t be a shred of consensus left on the shattered political landscape the day after.
There are also, of course, practical issues involved. Let’s consider local government. Anyone who has sat through a municipal council meeting in a major city can be excused for thinking that they’re watching some television reality show rather than a meeting of elected officials. Shouting, violence and chaos are all in a day’s business for extremists and every decision is influenced by myriad petty interests. A local strongman can impose his point of view without causing too many waves. Under the new system, though, the country’s next mayors will know that it is mathematically impossible for them to form a majority on the council.
The government is trying to put a positive spin on its true intentions and make voters believe that somehow we’ll turn into Swedes overnight. The cynical truth is that they believe this will help them crush the candidates of the opposing New Democracy and PASOK parties on a local level. They think they will fight among themselves and not run in parliamentary elections, if they take place in May. A pretty ingenious idea indeed. The only problem is that it will create chaos in local government and citizens will be left wondering why no one’s picking up the trash or the streets aren’t being properly lit.
The simple proportional system is also in the pipeline for national elections and if the increased majority needed to change the electoral law back into the current system is not found, it will be hard to avoid political turmoil. Certain intellectual friends of mine insist that this change will be good for the country because parties will be forced to cooperate and seek consensus. I don’t know where they get their optimism from, but I hope they’re right.