The presidential election paradox

A few days ago, speaking with a visiting colleague who neither works in Europe nor covers events here, I suddenly felt how much we Greeks take for granted some things that should have worried us earlier, how our carelessness often leads us into unnecessary difficulty.

We were talking about the Greek economy and political developments. “I don’t understand,” my colleague said. “To elect a president who has no real powers the country may have to hold parliamentary elections, in the middle of the government’s term?” I had already mentioned the possibility of political deadlock if no party or coalition garnered enough parliamentary seats to be able to govern, and what this would entail for the economy. I had no answer. I thought only of how the protagonists of public debate – primarily politicians, followed by journalists and experts of constitutional law – had not pointed to the absurd constitutional situation in which a government may take the toughest decisions on the basis of a one-seat majority but is brought down if it cannot secure at least 180 votes in the 300-seat Parliament in favor of a presidential candidate.

It is a nice thought that our president should serve as a symbol of national unity and not as the candidate of just one party. It would have been even better, though, if our constitution had foreseen today’s situation, in which the opposition has committed itself to not supporting any candidate and is pushing for early elections. The opposition has every right to do so, under the Constitution of 1975 (after the monarchy was abolished). The president’s functions then were far more important, before the constitutional reforms of 1986. The question is: Does the noble target of electing a “unifying” president justify the danger stemming from the failure to do so?

President Karolos Papoulias’s second term ends in March and it is too late to think of how things might have been. Already we see how the possibility of early elections is poisoning the political scene even further. Accusations of attempted bribery of members of Parliament are hurled back and forth; the government is trapped between creditors’ demands and its fear of the political cost of agreeing to them; the economy, which has been suffocating for years, is forced to keep holding its breath.

The monthly poll of political trends conducted by Macedonia University for Skai Radio and Television, which was presented yesterday, showed that from October to November support for the two main parties remained stable (with SYRIZA getting 27.5 percent and New Democracy 20 percent). Interestingly, though, the percentage of people who want the current parliament to elect a president grew from 43 percent in October to 46 percent in November, while those who want the president to be elected by the next parliament dropped from 49.5 percent to 46 percent. Citizens’ unease is growing, because those who should have worried earlier were indifferent.

The paradox is that despite the turbulence over every presidential election, no government has fallen because of this. Once again, Greek politicians appear unique in achieving the impossible. It’s the simple stuff that they mess up.

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