Shaking up Greece’s democratic system

Nicos C. Alivizatos is professor of constitutional law at the University of Athens. One would expect that a discussion with him about his latest book (“What Democracy for Greece After the Crisis?” – in Greek – published by Polis) would focus on very specific issues, such as the revision of the Constitution, the separation between Church and state and the introduction of a more stable electoral system. However, it turns out that the crisis has also had an impact on his own certainties. For the first time since the fall of the country’s military dictatorship in the early 1970s, Alivizatos sees a need to mobilize and defend fundamental values such as democracy and the rule of law.

You start your book by stressing the need to restore the true meaning to terms such as violence, reform, junta and so on. Does the current economic, social and institutional crisis pose a challenge to a constitutional expert such as yourself?

It is a huge challenge because many of the past certainties have been overturned. The Greek Constitution speaks about the right to education, health and housing, but when these are turning into a dead letter, it makes you wonder what your job is all about. Nevertheless, I believe that when you are dealing with certain fundamental concepts – above all, democracy, liberty, the freedom of choice – you need to be precise or the conversation will simply become too laden with ideology for us to be able to coexist.

Who in your opinion can participate in the debate about democracy, institutions and constitutional review? I see you have excluded the far-right and the anti-systemic left from this discussion. Could you be more specific?

I would be happy to say that it would include any party that belongs to the so-called constitutional arc.

Who are they?

In Italy, where the term was first used after the war, it implied all the political parties that opposed fascism – from the Italian communists to Christian democrats. In Greece, things are a bit more complicated. First because the Greek communists of KKE were never like their Italian counterparts. A part of KKE appeared to condone some degree of violence and it was half-hearted in its recognition of democratic principles. Secondly, certain strands inside the main opposition party [SYRIZA] are willing to provide political cover for violent acts.

But can this debate take place without including the main opposition?

Of course not. I think that the main opposition is key to this. I want to believe that the majority in the main opposition party, including its leader Alexis Tsipras, do have respect for the rules of the democratic game which, above all, means condemning all forms of violence.

You are clearly against plans for a constituent assembly [with a power to review the country’s constitution] as proposed by key SYRIZA figures. Could you explain the main reasons for that?

Because if you go through the changes they propose, you will see that there is no reason to convene a constituent assembly simply for symbolic reasons. Making the next parliament a constituent assembly would come with a great deal of cost and insecurity.

You have fiercely criticized the Greek Constitution, saying it is too wordy. Nevertheless, you also say drafting a new one would be a mistake. What are you afraid of? Is it perhaps that feeling of emergency that would damage domestic stability and the nation’s image abroad?

Both of these, but most importantly I do not trust Greek politicians. If we decided to make the next parliament a constituent assembly, the average politician would, under pressure from vested interests, include all sorts of preferential provisions. I would like to see a constitution half the size. But the cost of making a new one is so great that I feel I need to back two or three specific changes which must happen in order to avoid social turmoil.

For example?

The laws on ministers’ responsibility and parliamentary immunity.

What about a law that prohibits a deputy from being a minister at the same time?

We could give it a try, although I am not totally convinced about that.

Does the introduction of a new electoral law have to be included in the Constitution?

In my opinion, it would be a mistake. We need to be flexible. Of course there must be some guarantee that any changes are not taking place in order to serve political cronies, but we must not obstruct changes when conditions are changing.

You have said you are in favor of a new electoral law more in line with German standards. Is it not contradictory that although you are in favor of concessions, you do not think that a system of simple proportional representation would be more suitable in today’s circumstances?

You are right. Prima facie there appears to be a contradiction. My personal view is that in Greece there is a tradition of majoritarianism that we cannot simply erase. People in Greece are OK if the biggest party, with slightly over 40 percent of the vote and a big difference from the runner-up, can form a government on its own. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But this is quite different from the present situation, where a party that has garnered some 28 percent of the vote can rule alone thanks to the bonus of 50 deputies granted to the biggest vote-getter.

In your book you argue in favor of reducing the number of deputies from 300 to 200. What is the reason for this?

It would be a symbolic gesture. After all, politicians are often accused of not shouldering enough of the cost. At the same time, Greece ought to be more in line with the European average. At 300 MPs, the Greek House has the biggest ratio of population-to-deputies in Europe.

Interestingly, you seem to skim over the key issue of the separation of Church and state. Why is that? Is the timing not right?

For me it’s a major issue. I have dealt with it for years, since the identity card controversy in the 1990s to the 2005 human rights bill when the late Archbishop Christodoulos threatened to excommunicate us. The issue is still on the agenda, but not a top priority right now.

But many bishops seem to behave in an intolerant manner. Anthimos of Thessaloniki attacked the Gay Pride parade while Amvrosios of Kalavryta often sounds like a Golden Dawn spokesman.

The Church must isolate them and promote others, less prominent, who do charity work.

But do these clerics not hijack the Church’s overall image?

The media are also to blame here. However, I cannot hide my disappointment that the Harvard-educated archbishop of Mesogaia led a campaign against the creation of crematorium in the Markopoulo area, east of Athens. And I am not even talking about building a mosque.

You are generally very laconic in your proposals for constitutional revision. You obviously deem that it is not the Constitution that is flawed but its implementation. How can we improve the effectiveness of institutions?

Only through politicians’ patriotism – in the most noble sense of the term. They must stop putting partisan interests before anything else.

Are you finally optimistic that people’s growing skepticism toward institutions will ease and that citizens will gradually regain trust in their operation?

I cannot predict the future. A change of mentality is nevertheless necessary. It would help if some politicians were put behind bars – not as a result of witch-hunting but with respect for the rule of law. Some will have to pay in the end.


Another big issue is the handling of Golden Dawn. Is there room to ban the neofascist party? A party cannot be outlawed under the existing constitution. Could this happen by means of new legislation?

One question is whether you can ban opinions, loathsome as these may be, such as praising Hitler or denying the Holocaust. My view is that there is no such tradition here and thus any such effort in Greece could derail and degenerate into persecution of opinions and beliefs.

Let me just remind you that most of the states that have introduced such legislation – France, Germany and Austria – did so right after the war. As a result, Greece’s anti-racism bill should not contain such provisions. But it should be very hard on that youth who goes out and slashes an immigrant’s face or anyone who insults an immigrant and threatens to throw him into the sea. You must be really hard on these people.

What about banning Golden Dawn?

We have had a bad experience when it comes to banning political parties. Let me remind you here that KKE was illegal in Greece until 1974. Even threatening to outlaw a party for seeking to overturn democracy “via treacherous and not necessarily violent means” – to use a phrase by the late Constantinos Tsatsos – could have undesirable consequences.

It could backfire, you mean?

Yes. Mind you, deputies would not lose their parliamentary seat [if the party were banned]. If you could use the arsenal of criminal law and prove that they operate as a criminal gang, sending young kids out to beat people up or kill, you could deprive them of their electoral rights and parliamentary status.

There seems to be some level of foot-dragging on the part of the justice system. Take for example the recent allegations against [Golden Dawn MP and spokesman Ilias] Kasidiaris [in connection with the mugging of a student in 2007].

I do not know the details in this case. But I would like to see what will happen in the other case against Kasidiaris [where he slapped KKE MP Liana Kanelli three times after he threw a glass of water over SYRIZA party member Rena Dourou during a TV interview last year]. Sure, he has not been charged with felony but I am interested in seeing the reaction of the judges. We should not fool ourselves, judges are people like us. During the mugging trial, the court room was packed with Golden Dawn supporters.