Nothing to see here: Athens is now closed to democracy

There are two kinds of deficit that have taken hold in Greece: the economic one, and the democratic deficit created by government spin and five years of austerity and authoritarianism.

The Greek capital will be closed for the day, nothing to see here, move along. From Panepistimio to Mets, two of the borders of the historic center of Athens, it’s about two kilometres in a straight line. From Acropolis to Mouson Avenue, it’s almost six. These are the borders of the area of Athens where a curfew has been declared for today (see map below). To get a sense of the scale, think of an area in London from Westminster to Holborn and from Marble Arch to Bethnal Green Road. 

From nine in the morning till eight at night, the centre of Athens will be under lockdown. No protests or assemblies allowed. This decision (taken by the Chief of the Greek Police no less - not an elected official) was deemed necessary because the German Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, will be visiting Athens. To ensure that nothing will hinder Schäuble’s route, or tarnish his eyes with images of dissent, the road that leads from the airport to the Greek Parliament will also be closed while he is on it.

The area of Athens where protests and assemblies are banned today

It is of course not the first time that such measures, which might be called extreme, have been taken in order to provide maximum security for a visiting German official. It was only last October that the Greek capital had to be flooded with riot police, and another curfew imposed, in order for the ungrateful masses of protesting Greeks to be kept at bay for Angela Merkel’s visit. It was the same when riot police were used to stop a small village from protesting the destruction of its natural environment, imprisoning anarchists without trial for longer than the law allows or shutting down public institutions (like say the state broadcaster) on a moment's notice without a vote in parliament. It is not, of course, incompatible with democracy to take away basic rights from a people, in order to show your benefactors (be they businessmen or governments) how grateful you are. The Greek coalition government knows very well where its lifeline comes from. 

But one can’t help but ask - as both the German and the Greek government alike have been declaring lately - if the Greek “success story” is true, why is such protection (usually reserved for dictators and conquerors) needed at all? Wolfgang Schäuble is certainly none of those things. At his very worst, Wolfgang Schäuble might accept the odd DM 100,000 cash donation from the occasional arms dealer and be forced to resign from the leadership of his party, just like he did back in 2000. It is but a flesh-wound.

Maybe it’s because a lot has changed since then. Most of all, the very nature of the political system we call “democracy”. Greece’s Troika of lenders (comprised of the EU, the ECB and the IMF, but spearheaded financially and ideologically by Germany), in their efforts to close the country’s financial deficit, has created and perpetuated a most despicable, and harder to close, deficit: one of democracy. 

Instead of an open forum, like the one my country supposedly gave birth to, where everyone gets a say, the version we’ve been witnessing in Greece is more of the “elections during which German newspapers publish articles in Greek, warning voters not to vote for left-wing SYRIZA” kind. This is the version where meetings need to take place behind closed doors, and visiting politicians need to be kept away from the unruly mobs who seek to stain the beautiful fairytale of hardship, punishment and reward the virtuous Angela Merkel desperately needs on her way to the German elections to be held this September. 

We shouldn’t go very far as to why this protection is needed though. The privatisations programme has brought the Greek government nothing but shame. Unemployment now stands at more than 28 per cent, and an expected drop of more than 70 per cent in tax revenue during the month of June is predicted to blow a hole in the budget of almost a billion euros. All of these things threaten the government’s spin. 

Greek and German politicians refuse to acknowledge this. Yiannis Stournaras, the Greek Minister of Finance, declared in a more than straightforward way that “there is no problem, we’re seeing improvement”, despite the Troika’s damning report on the progress made. A multi-bill that pushes through “necessary” reforms (namely cuts, lay-offs etc) has been rushed through the parliament, and voted by a slim majority of 153 out of 300 MPs. The only success the government has to show from the negotiations with the Troika is a reduction in the VAT on services which will apply from August, but already restaurant owners have said that it won’t change prices, as they have absorbed damages from the 10 per cent hike in previous years.

When faced with these tough questions, ministers of the government, like Nikos Dendias on the BBC’s HARDtalk a couple of weeks ago, stick to their line and claim we’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel. But it takes heavy policing, the closing down of tube stations, the enforcement of a curfew unlike any a democratic country should witness, and tight control of all mainstream media for this spin to take hold. It is this very behaviour by both the Greek and the German governments that provokes the Greek people to take to the streets. A call for a gathering in Panepistimio has already been sent out for this afternoon. 

Greece cannot afford luxuries, both literally and metaphorically. No matter what happens, whether riots, demonstrations or absolutely nothing takes place, the impression left behind in this instance is pretty clear: there is no room for democracy, freedom of expression and democratic procedures in this state of constant emergency. And if the Greek budget shows a primary surplus this year, itself highly unlikely, the democratic deficit created by these past five years of austerity and authoritarianism will take generations to close.

A protester's placard during this week's general strike in Greece. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

Getty.
Show Hide image

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.