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Greece - Political Parties

Since Greece became a republic in 1974 (following a 7-year dictatorship and the removal of the monarchy), the two main political parties, the liberal New Democracy party and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), have been governing Greece, at alternate times, except for the period from June 1989 through April 1990, when coalition governments were temporarily in power. Opposition parties include the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), the Radical Left Coalition (SYRIZA), and the right wing Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS).

Except during the junta regime of 1967-74, the electoral process has provided a relatively stable, if ill-used, structure for the exercise of democratic choice in postwar Greece. Elections are based on direct, universal, and secret ballot. Parliamentary and municipal elections are held every four years unless the dissolution of the Assembly necessitates an interim election. Voting is compulsory for all citizens aged eighteen and above, and nonvoters are subject to legal penalties.

The 300 members of the Assembly are elected from fifty-six local constituencies, which are represented by from one to thirtytwo seats according to their population. Candidates are elected under a unique "reinforced" proportional representation system. Since the 1974 election, 288 members of the Assembly have been chosen directly on the basis of constituency votes; these members must belong to a particular constituency and must compete for election. The remaining twelve seats are occupied by "national deputies," elected at large from party lists in proportion to the popular vote the parties receive. These deputies thus represent the entire country. Their position in the Assembly is largely honorary, although they have all the same functions as directly elected members.

In one form or another, the reinforced proportional representation system has been in force in national parliamentary elections for over forty years. The formula under which the October 1993 election was held was the product of the seventeenth revision of the electoral system since the 1920s. Virtually every Greek government has modified the prevailing electoral scheme to optimize its own prospects in forthcoming elections.

Parties must pass a 3 percent threshold in the vote to enter parliament. Not surprisingly, the electoral system that results from this process is consistently biased in favor of larger parties. The ostensible justification for such a distortion is that the imbalance helps to preserve stable party politics and, more important, stable one-party governments.

A parliamentary majority can be achieved and a government formed even if the winning party fails to secure a simple majority of the popular vote. This outcome is made possible by awarding extra representation (essentially a bonus) to the larger parties that obtain more than a minimum percentage of the national vote. The various reinforced systems applied since the 1920s vary only in the relative advantage that each version has bestowed upon the top two or three parties.

The electoral system of the mid-1990s, under which PASOK won the October 1993 election, illustrates these points. The 47 percent of the popular vote obtained by PASOK thus resulted in that party's gaining 57 percent of the seats in the Assembly. In 1990 the incoming ND party anticipated that the next election would continue its plurality with a reduced margin over the second party (PASOK). Therefore, Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis increased the bonus of the largest party (and, under some circumstances, of the third-ranking party, as well) at the expense of the second-ranking party. The new electoral system also stipulated that a party would need at least 3 percent of the national vote to gain parliamentary representation. As it turned out, ND fell victim to its own miscalculations when PASOK outpolled ND by 7.6 percent in 1993. Thus, Mitsotakis's change gave PASOK a substantial working margin in the Assembly when PASOK's 47 percent of the vote yielded the party 170 seats in the Assembly to ND's 111. By contrast, the previous version of reinforced representation had yielded ND only 150 seats in 1990 after it received exactly the same 47 percent share of the popular vote. Already in mid-1994, PASOK was considering another modification of the formula.

The reinforced proportional representation system has always been opposed by small parties, especially those on the left, to whom reinforcement had been an exclusionist instrument that minimized representation between the 1950s and the 1970s. Beginning in the 1950s, one of the principal demands of the left in Greece has been the adoption of a straight proportional representation system that would reflect the popular will more accurately in the Assembly.

As the fear of communism receded in the 1980s and 1990s, PASOK and ND reached a de facto consensus in favor of a system that would make representation more in proportion to the ballots cast but still would significantly favor the largest parties. In the 1990s, the principle of reinforced proportional representation appears to be a less urgent issue than it was in the 1980s. Since the return of civilian elections in 1974, the electoral system has provided relative political stability; of the eight national parliamentary elections held since that time, only the two held in 1989 failed, despite reinforcement, to produce a one-party majority government in the Assembly.

Ruling parties have often tweaked the RPR in order to improve their chances at the polls. Smaller parties have naturally opposed RPR, arguing that giving "bonus" seats to the big parties robs the smaller parties of opportunities to enter parliament. The 16 September 2007 elections were conducted under yet another "new" RPR electoral law passed by a PASOK government in 2003. This year, 260 seats of the 300-seat unicameral parliament will be proportionally distributed to the parties crossing the three-percent threshold. The remaining 40 seats go automatically to the party with the largest number of votes. According to the arithmetic, when the leading party captures a minimum 42.5 percent of the vote it can form a government without partners but with the thinnest of parliamentary majorities (151-153 seats).

Another electoral issue is whether the parliamentary candidates on a party's list should be nominated according to the preference of voters or according to a ranking determined by party leaders. Although it allows more direct public control of election results, the preference vote system is seen as undermining party discipline and enabling locally influential politicians to buy votes through the maintenance of patron-client networks. The existing election law calls for the preference vote, but in 1994 the leaders of both the major parties leaned toward strengthening discipline in their respective parties by installing a system based on the rank list.

There are more than two dozen parties, but there are only five that essentially contest the election:

  • New Democracy (ND): The party of Konstantinos "Kostas" Alexandrou Karamanlis was founded in 1974 by the PM's uncle, the late Constantine Karamanlis. ND ruled Greece in the immediate post-Junta years but went into decline in the 1980s under strong pressure from the socialists. ND defines itself as a neo-liberal party with a strong commitment to the EU, free markets, and transatlantic relations. Under the leadership of PM Karamanlis, it has attempted a series of reforms that have stirred vociferous reaction from the parties of the left.
  • Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK): Founded in 1974 by the late Andreas Papandreou, a Trotskyite professor of economics at Berkeley and other U.S. universities, PASOK had a meteoric trajectory in post-1974 politics and ruled Greece for over 20 years beginning in 1981. Early PASOK was bitterly anti-American, anti-NATO, and anti-Western Europe. Years in power moderated the party, and by the late 1990s it was attempting a "modernist" social democratic experiment but lost the 2004 election to ND. Now under the leadership of the late Papandreou's son Georgiou Andrea Papandreou, PASOK is still wracked by internal strife and has been unable to capitalize on ND's woes.
  • The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was formed in the 1920s and remains devoted to Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism. Traditionally controlling a minimum five percent of the Greek electorate, KKE has gained as desertions from PASOK replenished its ranks. Under General Secretary Aleka Papariga, KKE thrives on disruption and plays a front-line role in labor agitation and strike action in the public sector.
  • The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA, a Greek acronym of its composite parties meaning ‘the roots’) was formed in 2004 and brought together various disparate leftist factions, including former communists, ecologists, feminists, and other "anti-capitalists." SYRIZA is made up forces that left the KKE in the splits of 1968 and 1991 and “divorced” themselves from the communist movement. Synaspismos (SYN), the left-reformist party with origins in euro-communism, is the main component of SYRIZA, which is dominated by the Synaspismos leadership. A New Left opponent of the Stalinist KKE, SYRIZA claims it will never cooperate with other parties unless there is "meaningful convergence" on questions of policy according to SYRIZA's platform. Within SYRIZA, Maoist and Trotskyite groups which came to Syriza chiefly from within Pasok, constitute around 15 percent of the membership. These are the Trotskyite “Anticapitalist Political Group,” the Maoist “Communist Organization of Greece,” and the “Renewing Communist Ecological Left.”
  • The Democratic Left (DHMAR) split off from SYRIZA in 2010 in order to take a more pro-PASOK orientation. Democratic Left is a rightwing split of Synaspismos, the main party of Syriza. They are more closely aligned to the Social Democrats, while they reject cooperation with the Left in general.
  • The Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) was established by an ousted ND parliamentarian, George Karatzaferis, and promotes a nationalist, anti-immigrant, populist platform. Accused of racism, anti-Semitism, and sympathies with national socialism, LAOS has seen its political fortunes pick up among older, lower-income, lower-education, disaffected voters. Some polls put LAOS just over the three-percent threshold. Karatzaferis does not dismiss cooperation with other parties to form a coalition government. LAOS is a party of the extreme right posing as a populist party. It is part far right and part circus, with candidates ranging from fascist ideologues and Lepen admirers, to sexy pop singers, TV personalities and priests, diplomats and university professors to disgruntled ND politicians who didn't make their party's electoral lists. Presenting themselves as "the people's voice", they deny racist and xenophobic policies, but thrive on stale nationalism and immigrant-bashing and are quick to call any moderate voice on external affairsas treasonous. Their leader, Giorgos Karatzaferis is a journalist with his own tabloid TV channel. He has a portrait of Che over his office (he says he is a "revolutionary like him") and has promised to include the main parts of the communiques of the November 17 terrorist group's (the "Marxist-Leninist" armed group that was dismantled some years back though it still has admirers across the political spectrum) despite rejecting their "murderous deeds". ND is fighting him tooth and nail, with the socialists propping him up, given his potential to attract many of ND's far-right voters, pass the 3% limit on gaining parliamentary seats, and deny ND an outright parliamentary majority.
  • The Golden Dawn, whose symbol bears a close resemblance to the swastika, won 7 percent of the 2012 vote and will send 19 delegates to the 300 member parliament. Founded in the 1980s, Golden Dawn was on the fringe of Greek politics for years. Golden Dawn opposes not just the austerity plan, but also the "so-called Enlightenment" and the Industrial Revolution. As firecracker-wielding young toughs with shaven heads demonstrated outside, Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos announced from an Athens hotel that "the time for fear has come." Warning that "Greece is only the beginning," Michaloliakos promised to make war on "world usurers," referring perhaps to the International Monetary Fund, which has imposed strictures on Greece as part of a multibillion-euro bailout package.

People used the 25 May 2014 EU Parliament vote to protest against the prevailing economic policy - notably in Greece, where the radical left-wing opposition party Syriza was triumphant. Syriza won 26.6 percent of the vote, well ahead of the conservative New Democracy party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. Samaras had made himself deeply unpopular by implementing EU austerity measures aimed at stabilizing the Greek economy. Over the past five years, in exchange for billion-euro bailouts, Greece has been required to make stringent cuts, which have had a heavy impact on the population.

Syriza encouraged voters to treat the European elections as a referendum on this policy. The party's leader, Alexis Tsipras, said the result showed the Greek coalition government had lost its legitimacy, and called for fresh elections. This is unlikely to happen, but the result increases pressure on Samaras to demonstrate that his current economic policy is actually benefiting the people.

Syriza was not the only Greek party to have harnessed popular discontent over the EU's austerity measures. At the other end of the political spectrum, the openly neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn claimed over nine percent of the vote, netting it three of Greece's seats in the European Parliament.

On 17 October 2014 a Greek prosecutor recommended dozens of members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement, including 18 lawmakers, stand trial on a range of charges. Isidoros Doyiakos delineated the criminal activities of the group, including the murder of left-wing rapper Pavlos Fyssas, in a 700-page report released Thursday following a year-long investigation. The investigation was launched after the murder of Fyssas. Doyiakos described the openly xenophobic Golden Dawn in the report as a hierarchical organization that aimed "to propagate and impose its political beliefs and theories through violence." Doyiakos recommended that Golden Dawn leader Nikos Nichaloliakos, who was arrested following Fyssas' murder and remained in custody, be included among the party members facing criminal charges.

The trial over Greece’s far right Golden Dawn party leaders started 20 April 2015 in the absence of the main defendants. A total of 69 people were charged with operating as a criminal gang and carrying out a string of attacks against their opponents and migrants. The politicians denied all the charges. Golden Dawn founder Nikos Michaloliakos and 12 MPs on trial failed to show up. They were represented by their lawyers, who gave no explanation for their clients’ absence. The trial was adjourned until May 7. Hundreds of anti-fascism protesters as well as party supporters rallied outside the court.





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