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Why everything is at stake and yet nothing will be decided in today's Greek presidential election

- December 17, 2014

Democracy returns to Greece yet again, this time with a presidential election that will likely take three rounds to resolve this December. Photo Credit: Pinelopi Gerasimou/The Monkey Cage
Continuing our series of  Monkey Cage Election Reports, the following is a guest post from political scientists Akis Georgakellos of Stratego and Harris Mylonas of George Washington University.
On December 9th the Greek stock market experienced the largest drop within one day since 1987 (-12.78 percent, 7.9 billion dollars lost). This was the result of a government announcement that the first vote in the Greek parliament for the election of the president of Greece will take place on Dec. 17. According to the Greek Constitution, in order to elect a new president in the first round of voting a candidate needs to receive a super-majority of the votes of 200 out of the 300 members of Parliament, known as MPs. This is highly unlikely to happen. The second vote will take place on December 23rd and also requires a 200 vote majority. The third and crucial vote is scheduled for December 29th and requires 180 MPs to support the new president. If there is no president elected then the parliament has to be dissolved, the government will have to resign, and early elections will take place.
This all begs the question of why the Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, decided to call this vote two months early. One potential explanation is that Samaras believes that this Parliament can elect a president in the third vote. Others argue exactly the opposite, namely that Samaras cannot win and he is looking for a heroic and convenient exit — with a more manageable defeat in the next Parliamentary election compared to the one that he would face in March, and passing the buck of Greece’s continuing economic negotiations with the Troika (IMF, European Central Bank, and European Commission) to the next government.
In between these two extremes lies the plausible scenario that the government is hoping that the pressure from the negotiations with the Troika and concern about the future of the Greek economy will put pressure on enough parliamentarians to reach the magic 180 votes to elect a president. The MPs of two parties in the current parliament, Independent Hellenes and Democratic Left, are particularly worried since according to the polls they will not make the 3 percent threshold to enter the new parliament. So are many of the independent MPs. Nevertheless, as of now they oppose the government’s candidate for president.
Finally, it is also possible that Samaras is disappointed by the Troika and he is actually making this move in order to put pressure on the lenders abroad and not just on the MPs at home.
At this moment it is hard to know the prime minister’s exact thought process. But one thing is certain, the distance between the 155 MPs that voted in favor of the budget this past Sunday and the 180 that are needed to elect a president on Dec. 29 is significant. The messages coming from the independent MPs are mixed but the opposition parties have clearly stated that they will not support the candidate proposed by the government. The dive in the Athens stock market has also been difficult to decode: some see it as a sign of the markets predicting instability; others see it as welcome pressure that may generate the necessary parliamentary majority to elect a president and lead to more stability.
The government’s candidate for president, Mr. Stavros Dimas, is a politician who is widely appreciated with a long experience in Brussels, but the fact that he belongs to the traditional core of the center-right New Democracy (he’s a former Minister, father of a New Democracy MP, and a close friend of the prime minister) does not make him look like someone who will make it easier to create a cross-party coalition.
At first glance, one could argue that this choice looks like one of “surrender.” But there are those who believe that Dimas is a candidate that can be elected, either because his moderate profile does not polarize or because the candidate’s personality is not that important in this election.
But there is also a more “complex” scenario, in which another candidate will replace Dimas during the third round of voting, a candidate who could easily win the votes of independents and other ambivalent MPs. Such a move could ultimately generate the momentum required to gather 180 votes in the time between the 23rd and the 29th of December. With this move, MPs who may find it difficult to withstand the pressure if they were to declare their intention to vote for the president may be able to do so during this last stage of the process. The latter possibility is indicative of the political climate in contemporary Greece where MPs and parties openly accuse other MPs of engaging in suspicious transactions and vote-buying. In general, pressure on the swing-members is very intense.
We are counting and recounting the MPs in order to predict the number that will emerge on Dec. 29: 180 elects a president, anything less leads to a Parliamentary election. The truth is that no one can predict exactly how the market and society will react in the period between votes and how this may ultimately affect the outcome of the third vote. If a president is elected, the current coalition government will remain in place and a government reshuffle will ensue that will naturally include some of the MPs that decided the result. The Constitutional review process — which ironically involves the article that describes the provisions for the election of the president of the Republic —w ill also continue. The Parliamentary elections will be pushed toward the end of the 4-year term in 2016, unless an earlier election date is set as part of an agreement to assemble the 180 votes for the election of a president.
But if we end up with the 121 MPs blocking the election of a president, Parliamentary elections will take place in early 2015. If this happens, then the left-wing party SYRIZA will most likely win the election, but it is unlikely that it will be able to form a one-party government. Thus its leadership already has an eye on post-election collaboration possibilities. This means that a prolonged period of governmental instability could ensue and yet another round of parliamentary elections might follow – just like it happened in 2012 – with all that this implies of course for the Greek economy. If SYRIZA forms a government, the number one question will be whether it will keep its declarations and radically change the current policy or not. While negotiations with the Troika are pending, it will not be easy.
One thing is for sure: the winter holidays will have a political flavor in Greece.