Taking advantage of the Greek electoral law

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 21st August 2015

Greece will return to the polls on September 20th. This is the third nationwide poll this year, after an earlier election in January and a referendum in June. It is also the fourth general election in 3 years, after two were also held in 2012.

I have blogged here before about the Greek electoral system’s odd attempt to force artificial majorities out of pluralities by giving 50 bonus seats to the largest party, and how, in the face of an increasingly fragmented environment this has largely failed.

But the Greek electoral law is full of little oddities, and one of them may explain Alexis Tsipras’ decision to call this early election. Since agreeing to the terms of the latest EU bailout, Tsipras has had to deal with the increasingly rebellious pro-Grexit Left Platform faction of the party. That faction controls enough seats that rebellions affect the government’s majority, making government difficult.

Tsipras publicly stated he was seeking a majority both to secure a mandate from the people for the bailout, with the intimation that the big election win polls indicate (an absolute majority) would give him.

Yet, there may well be another reason for Tsipras’ gamble, and it lies in a quirk of Greece’s electoral law. Greece’s electoral system is usually described as an open-list system. In this system voters are presented with party lists of candidates, of which they must select one and may mark a ‘cross of preference’ against candidates that they prefer. Seats are assigned on a proportional basis to the party lists and then those seats are assigned to the candidates who win the highest numbers of preference votes.

But when an election is called less than 18 months after the prior one then the lists are closed – meaning that voters can only vote for a party, with no choice of candidates. Instead seats are still assigned proportionally, but instead on the basis of ordering from the political parties themselves. This provision, like much of the Greek electoral law is a check against instability.

This means that Tsipras, in his position as leader of Syriza will have huge amounts of influence on which Syriza MPs are re-elected. No surprise then that 25 Left Platform MPs announced they were forming a new party today.

Tsipras thus hopes to assemble a group of more compliant MPs through patronage.

Yet a truly representative system will give voters the chance to choose from several candidates from one party, giving them the opportunity to vote for candidates of different factions, or on characteristics (if they want more women MPs, for instance), or to reward them for good constituency service, or perhaps, if they just like them best.

In Britain, this can be seen in the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used in Scottish local elections and in Northern Ireland, which goes one better than Greece’s open-list system by allowing voters to transfer their votes between parties, rather than in First Past The Post, where voters are given the choice of just one candidate per party.

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