Much excitement in the European press today as Greece’s left-wing, Eurosceptic and anti-austerity Syriza has come two seats short of an absolute majority in the Greek parliamentary election, allowing them to form a coalition with the right-wing, Eurosceptic Independent Greeks. Yet Syriza won only 36.3% of the vote, giving them 49.7% of the seats. And together the two parties have only 41.1% of the vote. How did this happen?
The answer is Greece’s electoral system, the slightly optimistically named ‘reinforced proportional representation’. In this system 250 of the 300 seats in parliament are decided using a proportional list system. The other 50 seats are awarded as a bloc to the party that wins the most seats. This system was designed to produce a single-party majority, which it did in every Greek election it was used in (it wasn’t used in 1989 and 1990) from its inception in 1974 until 2012, despite only 1974 seeing a party winning an absolute majority of votes. Popular votes as low as 41.5% (for PASOK in 1996) were enough to produce majorities of 24.
The financial crisis resulted in a mass fragmentation of Greek voting patterns, meaning that in the two elections of 2012 no party won a majority. As in Britain the party system has fragmented and new parties have arisen. This has been more extreme than in Britain. The Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) has gone from being the dominant party of Greek politics, winning 43.9% in 2009, to winning just 4.7% yesterday.
As in Britain, the two-party system which ran Greek politics is dead and unlikely to ever return. Yet the system continues to over-reward the largest party for little sensible reason. Syriza is clearly Greece’s most popular party and deserves to have a large amount of power, but a percentage point more and it would have been able to run a single-party government on less than 40% of the vote. While Syriza deserves to govern, 37% of the vote would not be enough support to suggest it should have total decision-making power.
Greece needs to feel united, not polarised, and that’s the danger of its current system which seeks to create artificial majorities out of pluralities.