The socialist opposition, Pasok, has thrown down the gauntlet by declaring that while it supports Papoulias on substance, it will trigger a general election by not voting for him next February. Papoulias is a Pasok former foreign minister who enjoys enormous popularity, so Pasok leader Yiorgos Papandreou's position has raised eyebrows. The 151 ruling conservative MPs would need to build a two-thirds majority (200 MPs) to elect him in two voting rounds, or a three fifths majority (180 MPs) in a third round.
If New Democracy fails to garner the votes, article 32 of the constitution allows for a further three voting rounds under a new parliament, which means a general election. Given Pasok's recent lead of anything between two and five points in the polls, it expects to win either outright or as senior coalition partner. After that, Pasok says, it would re-elect Papoulias in a fourth round (again requiring 180 MPs), a fifth round (requiring 151 MPs) or a sixth round, which selects the stronger of two candidates.
New Democracy did this once before, in April 1990, deliberately triggering the fall of an ecumenical government to assume one-party rule and elect its elder statesman, Konstantine Karamanlis, as president. The difference is, New Democracy did not state its intention.
Is Pasok being refreshingly candid or is it abusing the constitution? Greece's top legal scholars have argued both ways.
Athens University's Yiorgos Kasimatis, who was involved in drafting the 1975 constitution, is of the opinion that a party can only reject a presidential candidate on the basis of his character and suitability (interview in To Paron, July 12). Panteion University's Dimitris Tsatsos agrees (interview in Kathimerini, July 19). Both think that Pasok is abusing the constitution; but their criteria are as much political as legal.
Kasimatis advised Andreas Papandreou to remove the presidential power of dissolving parliament in the 1986 constitutional revision. That removed the biggest threat to the dominance of the executive. Tsatsos is against the election trigger that remains in article 32, which allows an opposition party to undermine the parliamentary majority. (Presidential elections have, since 1975, always taken place between general elections, and have therefore loomed over every democratically elected government). In other words, both Kasimatis and Tsatsos hail from an a priori position that parliamentary democracy must be as unfettered and functional as possible.
Athens University's Nikos Alivizatos takes a different view. He does not think that Pasok is abusing the constitution. He thinks that the clipping of presidential power in 1986 left the opposition veto as “the only institutional counterweight to the excesses of prime-ministerialism. In other words, the only check on what [Alexis de] Tocqueville called 'the tyranny of the majority'.” (Interview in Kathimerini, July 26). Like his colleagues, Alivizatos interprets the constitution using political as well as legal criteria. He does not believe parliamentary democracy needs to be strengthened but balanced, and describes the Greek polity as “the most centralised parliamentary system in Europe.”
Alivizatos has previously argued for creating a judiciary counterweight to executive power. He favours stripping the cabinet (effectively the PM) of the authority to appoint the presidents of the Supreme Court, the Council of State and the Court of Audit, the country's three highest courts, and allowing the judiciary to produce its own leaders. Other constitutional experts share Alivizatos' suspicion of concentrating so much power in the hands of the ruling party. The late constitutional expert Yiorgos Papadimitriou, for instance, supported giving parliament's Audit Committee, made up of politicians and senior judges, more sweeping authority to investigate the finances of politicians and parties.
The public dialogue among experts has not answered the question of whether Pasok is acting unconstitutionally, but it has opened up the larger question of whether the constitution is flawed.
Five years of conservative rule have proven Alivizatos right in political terms. New Democracy's impressive track record of financial scandals indicates the need for authorities independent of the body politic. Where those authorities have existed, New Democracy has abolished them to protect itself. Who can forget the disgrace that was the abolition of the independent authority against money laundering last year, just as it was about to produce a damning report on bonds the conservative government issued in 2006? Suggestions have now been made that the government's greatest source of power, the budget, be taken out of the political realm and drafted by an independent financial authority.
Even without New Democracy's appalling lack of transparency and accountability, though, the Greek system is far too centralised. In a non-presidential system, where the executive springs from and controls the legislative branch of government, one set of checks and balances is already done away with. In the absence of a bicameral parliament, another set is done away with. When MPs vote the party line and party leaders are given power over the judiciary, it is difficult to see where dissent will come from except from the back benches, and we have a weak backbencher tradition.
So who will be the government's conscience? The media are a flawed court because the preoccupation of newspaper owners is often to leverage corporate benefits from the system rather than to foster a tradition of objective journalism. As Alivizatos points out, we do not have universities and think tanks wealthy and independent enough to speak truth to power. At times, it seems as though the 1975 constitution did away with vasilevomeni dimokratia (monarchic democracy) only to introduce a self-styled dimokratiki vasileia (democratic monarchy). Like the frogs of Aesop's fable who asked for a king to replace the log in their pond, we have received a stork.