Greece changes electoral law, then changes it back

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 21st April 2023

Greece is holding their 2023 elections on 21 May, following protests and delays caused by the deadliest rail crash in Greek history on 28 February. The crash won’t be the only thing that might impact the results. Recently there have been some interesting twists to how the Greek voting system works…

Bonus seats in the Greek parliament

Greece’s Hellenic Parliament (sometimes called the Voulí) has 300 members who are elected using a Majority Bonus System (known there as ‘reinforced proportionality’). This is where most seats are elected by proportional representation, but the party that wins the most votes gets a fixed bonus block of 50 seats.

To start winning seats parties need to win more than 3% of the vote nationally. The voting system has three components – 12 seats cover the whole country and are elected based on national vote shares of the parties. 238 MPs are elected across 56 constituencies, most elect more than one MP each, but seven cover small islands and elect just one. Finally, 50 bonus seats are awarded to the party that has won the most votes in total. The purpose of this bonus is to make it easier for the largest party to hold a parliamentary majority, with a majority guaranteed if a party gets to around 40% of the vote.

In addition to voting for a party list, voters are able to indicate between one and four preferences (depending on the size of the constituency) for individual candidates on that list. The candidates with the most preferences are elected, though party leaders automatically come first. Officially voting is compulsory, but it is not enforced and turnout has fallen to around 60% in recent elections.

Greece’s current new electoral system

However, the Majority Bonus System will not be in use this time. In 2016, the Syriza government introduced a bill to replace it with a fully Party List PR system. They were successful, but in Greece, unless changes to electoral law are endorsed by a two-thirds supermajority, they do not apply to the next election. As such, that election (2019) was held under the previous majority bonus system.

The wholly List PR system will be largely similar to that of the List PR element of the previous Majority Bonus System. Instead, 288 seats will be elected in the constituencies and the 12 nationwide seats are retained.

But this won’t just be the 2016 system’s first outing, but its last as well. Syriza lost the 2019 election, with the subsequent New Democracy-led government reinstating a Majority Bonus System, though one with slightly different rules. As New Democracy also could not secure a supermajority, the changes are similarly delayed by one election (scheduled to take place in 2027).

Political parties in Greece

Since 1974, Greece has continually maintained a moderately multi-party system, with parliaments typically dominated by two or three large parties and filled out with a few more small ones. Until 2012, the social democratic Pasok and the conservative New Democracy were the dominant pair – usually holding at least 90% of seats between them and presiding over alternate single-party majority governments.

The smaller parties that filled out parliament alternated over time, but by the mid-2000s, there were three regulars – the long-standing Communist Party of Greece (KKE), the left-wing populist Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) and the right-wing populist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS).

But the 2008 economic crisis hit Greece particularly hard, with this having a significant impact on Greece’s party system. In the May 2012 election, Pasok and New Democracy fell to just 32% of the vote between them. Syriza saw a particular boom in their support and finished second place. Right-wing parties also saw a boost with the nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL) and extreme-right Golden Dawn (ChA) also winning seats.

After a short period of instability, Greece and its party system were able to stabilise by the end of 2015. A Pasok-New Democracy coalition had further torpedoed support for the former, but the latter recovered to poll in the 30s again – a level which Syriza also managed to climb to, replacing Pasok as the main party of the left. After the September 2015 election, Syriza formed a stable coalition with the Independent Greeks.

By the time of the 2019 election, support for the far-right had largely receded, with Golden Dawn falling out of parliament without having achieved anything. New Democracy returned to power with a majority, with Syriza solidifying its position as main opposition. Recent polls have suggested that Pasok, now part of the wider centre-left Movement for Change (Kinal) alliance, is set to become a clear third party, though some way short of challenging their replacements.

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