In a sudden move, the Greek coalition government decided to change the rules for the upcoming European elections, abolishing the existing party list system and replacing it with the direct election of MEPs, triggering anger from opposition parties, EurActiv Greece reports.
The European elections to be held in May alongside local elections will be a key test for the fragile coalition government, which is under pressure to confirm that a recovery has taken root after six years of recession.
The latest polls show the main opposition Syriza party in the lead against the centre-right New Democracy, while support for the junior coalition partner Pasok is down to just 4% from 43% when it won the national election in 2009.
A leap forward for democracy
“In the country where democracy was born, we decided the election of our MEPs with the most democratic way, by abolishing the party lists and introducing the direct election,” the Greek interior minister, Yiannis Michelakis, told EurActiv Greece.
The centre-right minister added that “the citizen should have the first word,” especially at a time when the European Parliament is set to decide on matters that will directly affect citizens’ everyday lives.
“While the EU is at a difficult crossroads amid the worst socio-economic situation for decades, the election of the most capable representatives in the European Parliament is more critical and important than ever before,” Michelakis continued.
Marietta Giannakou, a centre-right Member of the European Parliament from the ruling New Democracy party, agreed. “Such a procedure will activate the citizens; it will revive the dialogue and the interest in participating in European politics. I was always in favour of the direct election of MEPs in the European Parliament,” said Giannakou, who is affiliated to the European People’s party (EPP).
“The direct election of MEPs is a democratic leap”, agreed Greek MEP Giorgios Koumoutsakos, another New Democracy MEP, on his personal account on Facebook.
- Syriza: The last effort of this government to survive
The main opposition Syriza party said in a statement that the proposed changes to the voting system were an attempt to “save a government that is collapsing under the weight of its failure”.
Konstantinos Barkas, a Syriza Member of Parliament, told EurActiv Greece that the Samaras-Venizelos coalition was trying to mitigate the expected magnitude of their defeat at the upcoming EU elections.
“Being aware that the difference is huge and taking into account all the secret polls, they come up with various tricks to reduce the intensity of the defeat in the European and local elections,” he said.
- Socialist front divided
On the other hand, it seems that the MEPs of the socialist Pasok party are divided over the government’s decision.
Speaking to EurActiv Greece, Greek MEP Marilena Koppa (Socialists & Democrats), said the direct election of MEPs would undoubtedly help Pasok and hinder the newly-established ‘58 Initiative’, a new centre-left movement formed by a group of professors, economists, businessmen and artists who pledged to fill the widening political gap in the centre of the political spectrum left by the collapse of the social democratic Pasok Party.
The '58 Initiative' has wide support from the major media conglomerates but enjoys little recognition and acceptance among the voters who supported Pasok in the past.
“Pasok has an organised base and well-known political team across the country,” said Mrs Koppa. “This is not the case with the '58 Initiative' members”.
Socialist MEP Spyros Danellis, although not opposed to the direct election of MEPs, sees a backroom deal between the two ruling parties on the issue. Pasok got the direct vote that could possibly help it elect a few extra MEPs at the next election, he said. For its part, New Democracy can expect to win votes from the extreme right by abolishing the ‘Ragousis Law’ which allows foreign citizens who are legal residents in Greece to vote in local elections.
Danellis thinks that political parties “could have opted for a more democratic management of the issue by holding internal party procedures, as Syriza did”. He believes that the single constituency system that will be created “favours low quality TV personae” like the ones who were elected in the “current extremely degraded national parliament”.
“In this very crucial period of time, we cannot have quality discounts in the European Parliament,” he warned.
Anna Diamantopoulou, a former EU Commissioner and former Member of the Greek Parliament for the socialist Pasok party, was also sceptical.
“100 days before the EU elections the leaders of New Democracy and Pasok without any consultation with their partners, preparation and any kind of procedure within their parties, decide in a very cynic way the change of the election law”, Diamantopoulou said in a statement.
“Of course it is better for an MEP to be elected by the citizens and not be appointed by the party leader but in other European countries, where the MEPs are also directly elected, the candidate MEPs are announced 8-12 months before the elections,” she continued.
Crisis-ridden Greece took over the reins of the European Union on 1 January with a record low budget dedicated to its EU presidency of €50 million set as the “absolute maximum” the presidency is planning to spend in the forthcoming six months.
While analysts have predicted Greece will require more aid, albeit on a smaller scale than previous bailouts totalling about €240 billion, the troubled country has vowed frugally to spend considerably less than other countries' presidencies.
Greece takes the helm of the EU at a critical time, just months before the end of the current European Parliament. This means that Greece will have less than four months to deliver on complicated dossiers, rather than the full six months.
The main presidency priorities are the European Banking Union, growth and jobs, migration and a European maritime policy.
- 25 May: EU elections in Greece, coinciding with local elections