Friday, 5 September 2008

Democracy, as seen on TV

The political hunting season opened with a bang on September 1, when Pasok released a video purporting to show New Democracy committing fraud in a parliamentary vote to amend the constitution.

The 16-minute video, released to the media, is an edited version of a one-and-a-half hour long vote as filmed by parliament's closed circuit television cameras on May 27.

Pasok's technicians used digital zoom and slow-motion repeats to home in on two phenomena: one of New Democracy's two appointed ballot receivers, MP Konstantinos Agorastos, is seen stuffing papers into his left jacket pocket at least twice; and a New Democracy MP who has no official role in the vote tally, Fevronia Patrianakou, is seen handing Agorastos a roll of papers one occasion and receiving papers from him on another.

It is impossible to discern from the video whether the papers Agorastos stuffs into his pocket, or those he exchanges with Patrianakou, are ballots.

Parliament Speaker Dimitris Sioufas said the video demonstrated "disorder" (ataxia), but denied there had been any fraud. "The voting procedure for the constitutional amendment on May 27 took place in an impeccable, irreproachable and completely transparent manner, " he told parliament members the day after the video was released.

But Pasok leader George Papandreou told a rally in central Athens on September 3, "We were shocked by the images of fraud in the sacred space of parliament."

Not everyone in the party agreed. Former culture minister Evangelos Venizelos said in parliament that it amounted to "a question of institutional, democratic and parliamentary order, " but "not a corruption of the result".

But Pasok spokesman George Papakonstantinou said the video was clear evidence of ballot fraud. "Pasok is not denouncing a faulty procedure; it is denouncing a corruption of the will of members of parliament."

Government spokesman Thodoris Roussopoulos called the video "the biggest gaffe (gafa) perpetrated by Pasok under George Papandreou."

"All the ballots were made public half an hour after the vote. You journalists had the opportunity to see how each MP voted. So we're talking about an open, completely transparent procedure, " said Roussopoulos.

"The vote was broadcast live on parliament TV, " said Sioufas. "And 75 parliamentary correspondents were here."

Quite apart from the reasons Roussopoulos and Sioufas point out, it is highly unlikely that New Democracy would have committed fraud for political and technical reasons.

The opposition had declared itself against the major amendments (only four minor ones were approved), so a New Democracy victory would have caused uproar. Pasok argues that New Democracy merely wanted to show that there was no erosion of discipline within its ranks.

Still, in order to commit fraud, an MP would have to steal another MP's ballot, because votes could only be cast on one of three ballot sheets printed by parliament's computer department. Each ballot had a serial number, the MP's name printed on both sides and was crossed like a cheque so that it could not be photocopied, Roussopoulos and Sioufas pointed out.

The perpetrator would then have to somehow squirrel the fake ballot into the hands of the vote receivers ­ who countersign the ballots ­ before the genuine article had been handed in, and somehow dispose of the latter.

At least one of the vote-receiving MPs would probably have to be in on the fraud, and it is unlikely that one of the three others would fail to notice. Of the four MPs, two - Ioannis Bougas from New Democracy and Thanasis Plevris from LAOS - stood outside the semicircular 'orchestra pit' beneath the podium and countersigned ballots. They then handed them in to Konstantinos Agorastos and Evangelia Amanatidou of the Left Coalition. So three parties were represented, making collusion implausible. A further two conservative MPs sat in the pit doing roll-call.

What, then, were Agorastos and Patrianakou doing handing papers to each other? Questioned repeatedly on the air, Patrianakou refused to say what those papers were. All she admitted to was to helping to sort out wrongly filled ballots.

The ballots were electronically scanned and thus subject to human error. The scanner would reject ballots if they were creased, or if MPs marked outside the yes box or no box, or failed to sign on both sides.

In those cases the procedure called for MPs to be called to vote again, using one of their two remaining ballots. A circular sent to them the day before the vote asked them not to leave parliament's debating chamber until the tally was complete ­ a request most probably ignored.

We suggest that Patrianakou has told the truth, but not the whole truth. She probably acted as a gofer, fetching new ballots from MPs who hadn't waited in chamber. The papers she gave Agorastos were probably the re-filled ballots, and the papers he stuffed in his pockets were probably old ones. She couldn't admit to her role on the air because it was strictly against regulations.

The media had their fun with the video, but forty-eight hours after its release political coverage had moved on to other stories. Pasok clearly overstepped the limits of credibility, but even this cheap trick got some mud in the government's eye.

What really ought to worry New Democracy is the word put out by Pasok that it was a New Democracy MP who, sometime in June, called its attention to the strange goings on in the orchestra pit.

For everyone else the lessons are simple. Parliament should have strictly enforced procedure. Patrianakou should not have inserted herself into a vote tallying procedure in which she had no institutional role; Agorastos ought to know that in poker and vote-counting you don't stick your hand in your pocket; and the next time Pasok decides to leave the chamber in disgust, it would look better if the party leave someone behind to report on things.

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