For all of you who remember the events of the Asia Minor campaign (those who gave exams to enter University between 1982 and 1999 had to read extensively on the subject for Orientation History), the defeat of Eleftherios Venizelos in the 1/14 November 1920 elections constituted the pretext for the “allies” of Greece to abandon the country on the Asia Minor front – a fact that decidedly contributed to the tragedy of the Asia Minor disaster in August 1922.
The defeat of Eleftherios Venizelos. What defeat? Records show that his political line-up (“Liberal Party” and allies) gathered 375,803 votes (50.3%), whereas his opponents of the “United Opposition” (royalists anti-Venizelists) received 368,678 votes (49.4%). Yet the seats that each coalition collected in Parliament at the time were 110 for the Venizelists and 260 for the opposite side. What accounts for this terrible mismatch?
The answer lies in the voting system as it is defined by the relevant law. The voting system is no more than the mechanism of the correlating conversion of votes into relevant parliamentary seats. Not only are there more than one voting systems in the world or history but there are many different versions and variations to them; we will analyze them below to conclude with the one applied in Greece today, based on which the upcoming national elections of 20 September will be conducted – and we will not spend too much time on tiresome statistical details.
The basic voting systems are two: the proportional and the majoritarian.
The proportional voting system is that in which every political party/coalition receives an amount of parliamentary seats that corresponds to the percentage of votes it has gathered. For instance, in a Parliament of 300 seats, a party with 10% of the votes would receive 30 seats.
The majoritarian voting system is that in which the sum of seats in each constituency is occupied by the first in votes party/coalition, regardless of its percentage (this is called a relevant majority, in contrast to the absolute majority that depends on 50%+1 votes).
In between these two basic systems lies a plethora of other systems, which, in essence, are “mixtures” of the basic two with a large differentiation to the way of distribution of a country’s territories into constituencies – a fact that defines, to a significant degree, the end result in parliament seats. The more a country is divided into constituencies, the more any given proportional voting system results in a mismatching correlation of seats.
Let’s, however, stick to the basic parameters.
The Constitution of Greece (Article 54) states that: “The voting system and the voting constituencies are defined by law that is put to effect from the next incoming elections, unless its effect is designated directly from the next elections by an explicit decree that has been voted by a majority of two thirds of the sum of all members of Parliament.” This particular law was passed in order to avoid in the future what happened frequently in the past – for the government to change the voting system on the eve before the elections in a way that favored itself and hurt the opposition. Now, the constitutional legislator needs a large majority of parliament members (200 out of 300) in order for a modified voting system to be immediately put to effect on the next elections.
The current Greek voting system is the so-called “Pavlopoulos Law” (Prokopis Pavlopoulos being currently the President of Democracy); more specifically, it is Law 3636/08, which was not put to effect on the 04/10/09 elections (the ones after the law was passed) but on those of 07/05/12 (the ones after). According to the relevant bibliography, this voting system is categorized among the systems called fortified proportional (meaning it does, on one hand, maintain its proportional character but it also gives a boost to the first party).
Its basic algorithm is that 250 out of the 300 seats of Greek Parliament are proportionally distributed among the political parties/coalitions that exceed 3% of valid votes on a national scale, while the remaining 50 seats are given as a bonus to the first in terms of votes independent party or coalition, provided that the average percentage gathered by the parties to constitute the coalition surpasses in power that of the first independent party.
Let’s explain what all this means:
- Only the votes concerning political parties/coalitions are counted as valid. Protest (blank) votes are not counted as valid, despite the fact that relevant legislation by the Electoral Court in charge considers protest votes, in contrast to invalid votes, as an exercise of the right to vote.
- Therefore, the entry to Parliament limit of 3% is counted based on the sum of percentages gathered by political parties/coalitions only.
- From the above, we reach the following (logical but not mathematical) paradox: as the sum of percentages gathered by political parties/coalitions that do not manage to exceed 3% grows, the independence of the first party/coalition is enabled. How? For the first party to succeed in being independent (absolute majority of 151 seats of a total 300), it needs 101 seats out of 250 proportionally distributed (so that, with the addition of the 50 seats bonus, it can have a total of 151 seats).
(a) Let’s assume that the parties which did not enter Parliament gathered 5% in total. This means that the parties that did enter gathered 95%. If the first party has received 38%, it means that it is initially entitled to 38/95 out of 250 seats, which is translated into:
—- x 250 = 0.4 x 250 = 100 seats
100 seats + 50 (bonus) = 150 seats (missing independence by one seat)
(b) Let’s now assume that the first party has still received 38% but that the parties left outside Parliament reach a total of 10%. This means that the parties which entered Parliament have gathered 90% and so the seats of the first party are initially calculated as 38/90 out of 250, thus:
—- x 250 = 0.422 x 250 = 106 seats
106 seats + 50 (bonus) = 156 seats (relatively easy independence)
- Therefore, from all the above we can infer that voting for parties which do not stand a chance to pass the limit of 3% enables, in essence, the first party! And this happens because such a vote makes the fragment’s denominator smaller – the denominator from which the first party’s seat number is calculated at the phase of proportional distribution of 250 seats (none other than the sum of parties that enter Parliament). Likewise, the first party is enabled by protest/blank votes, which, on one hand, are not counted along with the party’s votes (as a quite funny common misconception proposes), yet would, in fact, complicate things should they go to another party.
- The decree that the first in votes coalition is entitled to the 50 seat bonus only if the average percentage gathered by the parties that constitute it surpassed in votes the first independent party (which means that the first party absolutely has to participate in the coalition, otherwise all this is mathematically impossible) is what actually discourages coalitions; and is owed to the fear that dominated ND during the 2008 elections that PASOK would unite forces with SYRIZA in the next elections.
You are probably wondering why we have to enter such complicated calculations and not be content with the fair and proportional distribution of seats, based on political parties’ percentages, no matter how small they are (in this line of logic, a political party with 0.3% of votes is entitled to 1 parliament seat). The counter-argument states that simple proportional system causes divisions in the political scenery and makes the formation of government – and, in extent, political stability – extremely difficult.
The answer to this, of course, derives from our country’s experience of the last 3 1/2 years, where, despite the formation of coalition governments (ND-PASOK-DIMAR June 2012 – July 2013; ND-PASOK July 2013 – January 2015; SYRIZA-ANEL January 2015 – today), political stability was not particularly compromised – and, all the while, an unprecedented (for the Greek political status quo) consent culture was established.
In conclusion, we would like to end this article with the information that, according to the current voting system, the sum of parliament seats for each political party is defined by the above mentioned algorithm (250 proportionally to parties above 3% + 50 bonus to the first party) and that the distribution in constituencies is calculated based on a rather complex mechanism, whose analysis is beyond the purposes of this publication. It is merely worth noting that, in order to accomplish the “balanced” final result of seats in a territory that has been divided into constituencies as much as the Greek one has (56 constituencies in total), in some cases, the decreasing numbers of parties’ percentages is not followed by a decreasing number of seats. A characteristic example in today’s Parliament is the distribution of seats in the Prefecture of Chania (4 seats):
POLITICAL PARTY PERCENTAGE SEATS
SYRIZA 43.1% 3
The River 12.2% 1
Golden Dawn 4.3%
In brief, we will say that this is mostly due to the fact that parties below 3% do receive seats in constituencies where they obtain the maximum absolute number of votes. For more details on any of the above, I am at your disposal through the platform.
For the sake of history, the disproportionate result of seats in the 1920 elections (mentioned in the first paragraph) happened on account of this simple fact: the voting system was majoritarian but the territory was divided into large constituencies (e.g., Crete, Thrace, Macedonia, Attica, etc.). The Venizelos party won (with a large difference – that they did not need) the constituencies that offered a few seats (Crete, Thrace, islands) while the anti-venizelists won by a small difference (that was adequate) Attica, which offered many seats (and so won all the seats…).
It is thus proven that voting system is not merely a statistical obsession for a few graphic personalities. At times, it is proven to be the very key to History.