Understanding Greece's electoral system

Given the likelihood of a close result to today’s General Election in Greece, and the near-certainty that no party will have an overall majority in the new Parliament, we hope the following guide will be useful.

Greece's electoral system is based on an electoral law, and is not prescribed in detail in the Constitution.  The current law provides a proportional system for electing 250 out of 300 of the MPs. Any party not reaching the 3% legal threshold has its votes excluded, and the calculation of who-gets-what among the 250 seats is based on the respective percentage share of the “cake” once the sub-threshold parties are excluded. 

The last 50 seats (until the 2012 election it was only 40 seats) go to the party that has won a majority or (if no overall majority) a plurality of seats.  Any party that reaches 40% of the popular vote is thus provided with an absolute majority in Parliament.  In the 2012 General Election, the conservative New Democracy Party – whose share of the vote was only a little greater than Syriza’s (30% to 27%) – gained this large bonus.

What happens if no party wins an overall majority of seats, even after the 50 extra places are allocated?  Ironically, the President of the Republic must then play the key constitutional role – ironic since the bringing forward of this General Election was due to PM Samaras’s attempt to bring forward the election (by Parliament) of the next President, to succeed current incumbent Karolos Papoulias (the 84 year old veteran PASOK politician) whose mandate expires in February.

Article 37 of the Greek Constitution provides (our emphases):

1. The President of the Republic shall appoint the Prime Minister and on his recommendation shall appoint and dismiss the other members of the Cabinet and the Undersecretaries.

2. The leader of the party having the absolute majority of seats in Parliament shall be appointed Prime Minister. If no party has the absolute majority, the President of the Republic shall give the leader of the party with a relative majority an exploratory mandate in order to ascertain the possibility of forming a Government enjoying the confidence of the Parliament.

3. If this possibility cannot be ascertained, the President of the Republic shall give the exploratory mandate to the leader of the second largest party in Parliament, and if this proves to be unsuccessful, to the leader of the third largest party in Parliament. Each exploratory mandate shall be in force for three days. If all exploratory mandates prove to be unsuccessful, the President of the Republic summons all party leaders, and if the impossibility to form a Cabinet enjoying the confidence of the Parliament is confirmed, he shall attempt to form a Cabinet composed of all parties in Parliament for the purpose of holding parliamentary elections. If this fails, he shall entrust the President of the Supreme Administrative Court or of the Supreme Civil and Criminal Court or of the Court of Audit to form a Cabinet as widely accepted as possible to carry out elections and dissolve Parliament.

So we cannot rule out the possibility that no party will be able to form a government – which would mean that today’s election will be swiftly followed by new elections.