Electoral Law Games in Search for a Majority Government: The Greek Election of 21 May in Seven Questions

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For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome Dr Theofanis Exadaktylos, from the University of Surrey, in the UK.





1. Why now?

The term in office of the New Democracy government under PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis that started in 2019 would be coming to an end this autumn. Elections were declared slightly earlier for 21 May.


2. What is at stake?

The elections are held under the electoral law voted by the previous Syriza-led government (2015-19). In the meantime, yet another one has been voted (see below), but as a safety clause, new electoral laws only apply from the second election following the ratification of the law, rather than the immediate one.

A long-standing promise by Syriza, the new electoral law is replacing the enhanced majority proportionality rules with a simple proportional allocation of seats in parliament. The idea behind this move was the increase of proportionality in parliament and giving grounds for coalition governments. Why was this important? According to public opinion polls, no party is set to muster enough votes to have overall majority in parliament. Therefore, the parliament emerging out of the 21 May election is likely to force big parties into coalition negotiations, with smaller parties gaining a pivotal role as regulators of government policy.


3. Who is likely to win?

According to the latest polls, the liberal-conservative New Democracy, under the leadership of current prime minister Mitsotakis, is likely to be the first party in vote share followed by Syriza. Their difference may not be electorally significant, but it will mean that New Democracy will receive a mandate to form a government first. They are likely to approach the once-strong Pasok, which has been reduced to a small political force following the Greek financial crisis back in 2010. The question will be whether New Democracy and Pasok together will be able to secure 151 out of 300 seats for a majority under the new electoral rules or will require a third small party to support them. Following the failure of all possible avenues to form a government, a fresh election will be declared. The twist in this instance, is that this will be conducted under the new electoral law voted by New Democracy in 2020 that reverses Syriza’s simple proportionality and grants the first party in votes bonus seats in parliament for every 0.5% of the vote share above 25% and up to 50 bonus seats.


4. Who will enter parliament?

Beyond the two big parties mentioned above, Pasok and the Greek Communist Party, two more parties may be likely to make an entrance but are polling close to the minimum threshold of 3%. These are DiEM25 led by former Syriza finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, and the right-wing Greek Solution – both represented in the current parliament. Their support base is quite volatile and minor events and scandals can drive voters away or towards the more mainstream parties. The considerable percentage of voters who are still undecided are likely to determine the fate of smaller parties depending on the polarisation of the electoral debate in the coming days. These voters may also determine the ability of the first party in votes to form a coalition government. Statements of support or refusal to cooperate with the first party (whichever this may be) have been made by almost all small parties. New Democracy, if declared the winner, is likely to push for a fresh election to benefit from the electoral law it voted on in 2020, rather than force a coalition with unlikely partners.


5. What are the issues at hand?

  • The economy


The economy remains a priority issue considering the after-effect of the Greek financial crisis, the cost-of-living crisis and the energy prices pressures. The Greek economy, despite the post-pandemic booming effects from tourism and other investments, remains on thin ice and requires any government to maintain a path of fiscal discipline and push forward unfinished reforms in public administration and public spending. Suggestions by the DiEM25 leader that they would not be afraid to abandon the euro, close the banks and introduce a new currency, created frictions in the left-wing arena of the Greek party system, cutting out a potential Syriza ally from a future government.


  • Immigration


Still affected by migration flows from the east, Greece has been at the spotlight for pushback processes and for failing to protect human rights of undocumented immigrants who cross the Aegean Sea in search for asylum. Alongside a general fatigue about the inability of the Greek state to accommodate and process immigrants and asylum seekers, migration issues have heightened xenophobic and racist sentiments, polarising the political debate to the benefit of the right-wing side of the political spectrum.


  • Foreign policy


Greek foreign policy is mainly affected by two actors: Russia and Turkey. The war in Ukraine has damaged the previously good relations with Russia both in terms of investment and tourist flows. Greece rightly decided to side with Ukraine following the common declarations by the EU. Some Syriza voices still view Russia favourably and that has been criticised in public debates. Second, the outcome of the concurrent election in Turkey will either see the continuation of an aggressive warmongering narrative if Erdogan wins, or the emergence of unknown parameters in Greek-Turkish relations if any other candidate wins. Both scenarios are damaging as Greek foreign policy actors will need to maintain a high level of alert in the rhetoric coming from Turkey.


  • The environment


Climate change has moved up in the public agenda much like anywhere in the world. For Greece, climate change means extreme heat in the summer with highly likelihood of wildfires erupting and water shortages, especially on tourism-popular islands. The previous election outcome was judged on the failure of the Syriza government to prevent the death of several citizens from a wildfire near Athens due to poor crisis management and services coordination. The impact of wildfires is frequently felt in the wintertime when extreme weather conditions cause severe flooding and potential casualties.


  • Corruption and public failures


A few weeks before the election was due to be announced, a tragic rail accident took place in the valley of Tempi in Central Greece in March. A freight train travelling south collided with a passenger train travelling north at full speed resulting in over 50 people dying and many more seriously injured. Most casualties were people under 25 years of age as the passenger train carried university students back to Thessaloniki following a long weekend holiday. The train accident exposed not only the insufficient infrastructure of the rail network in Greece, but most importantly issues of corruption and public failure both by Syriza and New Democracy to modernise the signalling system and to take advantage of EU funds and investment, the persistent favouritism when hiring staff in the public sector and the absence of solid health and safety standards in public transport. The unjustified death of young students has negatively affected the dominance of New Democracy in public opinion polls pushing the difference with Syriza to shrink and favouring a diffusion of preferences towards smaller parties.


6. Who to look out for?

Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis is fighting to secure a second term in office and so far, he has managed to remain untouched by political fires, still featuring as more popular and more fitting as prime minister in the eyes of the public.

Syriza leader, Alexis Tsipras is trying to restore his party’s electoral base following a series of failures during his term in office and to manage his own party officials, who have been engaging in polarising strategies in public.

Pasok leader, Nikos Androulakis is trying to re-establish the party as a deciding force in Greek politics and a threat to single-party governments – if this election round fails to include Pasok as a coalition partner, its percentages are likely to shrink further as voters will align with the two bigger parties.

Former Golden Dawn deputy leader, Ilias Kasidiaris, has led an offensive from prison where he is serving a sentence for forming a criminal organisation and as an accomplish to homicides led by Golden Dawn members. The Supreme Court forbid him from leading his new party Greeks – essentially a recast version of Golden Dawn – in this election and banned the party from running for office. It will be interesting to see where these supporters will find a new home, especially in a scenario that suggests a repeat election.


7. Why should Europe care?

Instability in Greece has the potential of affecting the EU as a whole considering two factors: one from an economic point of view, the previous experience with the Eurozone crisis which almost led Greece to bankruptcy is one the EU wants to avoid repeating, so they would like to see some continuity in economic policy and financial discipline; second from a foreign policy point of view, Greece is a key player in maintaining the geopolitical balance in the south-eastern Mediterranean basin and a buffer in the united front against Russia, so preserving a strong ally in the region is key for EU foreign policy.