What the Greek election tells us about Europe

A political consensus shattered.

Greece is infamous for its earthquakes and the political earthquake caused by yesterday’s elections will have far reaching consequences.

As the final results are coming through it is evident that the political consensus that ruled Greece for the past 35 years has been shattered. The bi-polar political system that enjoyed vast support in electoral contest after electoral contest has been defeated. No party has managed to secure as much as 20 per cent of the vote.

The two political parties that have dominated government and managed the county’s fortunes since the end of the junta in the mid-1970s have been obliterated. The Conservatives struggled to reach 19 per cent and the Socialists have been pushed to third place with some 14 per cent of the vote. As a result a radical Communist party has become the second biggest political force in the country and, put together, all communist parties have won about a third of the vote.

Seven parties in total will enter parliament, delivering a very fragmented political landscape. Worst of all, a fascist party -- regularly linked to racist attacks -- has been handed 21 seats.

The fallout is clear and immediate. The majority of Greeks have voted for parties that reject the terms of the bailout agreed only a few months ago. With it they reject the policy of austerity and the economic stagnation it is causing. As a result the lending arrangements that form part of the bail-ut and keep Greece afloat are put in question, together with the country’s ability to pay its way and remain within the Eurozone and the EU.

The fragmented and inconclusive verdict delivered at the polls yesterday makes it very hard for a government to be formed. The two main parties do not have the votes to create a stable coalition. Meanwhile, the anti-bailout parties range from the far right to the far left , rendering an anti-bailout coalition impossible.

Consequently the country faces 11 days of political haggling between seven very diverse political forces. The possibility of another round of elections cannot be ruled out. All this creates a sense of instability and uncertainty at a time when the country needs leadership.

But the fallout goes beyond the narrow borders of a country in the south-east corner of Europe. Its Eurozone partners and the markets alike are looking closely, fully aware that a possible Greek default will have devastating effects for the European banking sector and a Greek exit from the Eurozone will undermine the process of European integration.

But the repercussions of the Greek vote go further than that. This is a damning verdict for the policy of austerity that has become dogma across the EU. Greeks remain pro-European, the vast majority of the parties entering parliament support the country’s place at the heart of the process of European integration. What they reject is the political and economic orthodoxy that currently governs the EU.

They are not alone. The result of the Greek parliamentary elections should be seen in conjunction with the result of the French presidential election and the British local elections.

In every electoral contest voters opted for politicians and political parties that advocate a different kind of remedy for Europe’s economic malaise. There is a rejection of conservative political and the neo-liberal economic policies that have dominated the political discourse in the past few years and a preference towards growth-producing policies of public investment.

But there is also a rejection of an EU that seems more pre-occupied with bailing out the banking sector than creating jobs for its people. A healthy banking sector is imperative for a the health and wealth of the European economy but the sentiment as expressed by left-wing victories in Greece, France and Britain is that the EU should work for its people first.

Young Greeks and Spaniards locked in long-term unemployment, young Brits unable to afford their own home feel disappointed and disenfranchised, so much so that some of them are turning to extreme, nationalist and xenophobic parties.

But the victories of pro-European parties across Europe over the past few days show that the people of Europe have not abandoned the idea of European unity. They send a message though that they want an alternative political and economic model to govern the fortunes of their continent.

It is now imperative for European leaders to abandon short-sighted and fragmenting economic policies, based on national remedies of competitive austerity, and pursue pan-European solutions that will integrate the European economy further, invest more at the European level, creating economies of scale and providing the EU as a whole with the opportunity to pull its recourses together and invest in research and education, high-end technology, green energy, telecommunications infrastructure and all the elements of the economy of the future that will pull the continent out of the current state of economic stagnation.

The EU and its members are at cross-roads, they have the choice between breaking apart and going back to the pre-war model of nationalism and nation-state conflict or pushing forward together, creating a stronger, more unified EU that can provide collective solutions for the common problems faced by its peoples.

The magnitude of the challenges we face demands unity and common purpose. We have the vehicle to deliver the solutions that will benefit Europe as a whole. It is time we make the most of it.

 

A couple walk passed and election poster of the Democratic Alliance party in Athens, 3 May 2012. Credit: Getty Images

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.