Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Beware Greeks bearing constitutions

Right, let's sort this out. According to Bruno Waterfield, as quoted by this blog (and elsewhere) yesterday, Prime Minister George Papandreou is unlikely to call that referendum because he will need three-fifths of parliamentarians to vote for it and that is highly unlikely to happen. According to the Grauniad, as quoted by EUReferendum, not so. A battle of hacks, with the Torygraph lining up in expertise against the Grauniad.

It would appear that Mr Waterfield consulted the 1975 text of the Greek Constitution, in which Article 44(2) says:
(2) After a decision taken by a three fifths majority of the total number of the members of the Parliament, in accordance to a proposition of the Cabinet, the President of the Republic shall proclaim by a decree referenda on national questions of crucial importance. After a decision taken by a three fifths majority of the total number of the members of the Parliament, following a proposition of the two fifths thereof, the President of the Republic shall proclaim by a decree referenda on bills passed by the Parliament regarding serious social issues, with the exception of fiscal bills, in accordance to the Regulation of Parliament and a law regulating the application of this Paragraph. The proposition of more than one referendum on bills in the same Parliamentary Term is prohibited.
Having read it through about six times I think I have understood what it says and, according to this, the Torygraph's expertise wins.

Then we find that a highly respected source says otherwise. In this paper, published by Democracy International we find the following paragraph:
National referenda are regulated by the Greek Constitution (Article 44(2)), which provides for two categories:

1) Referenda on “crucial national issues,” following a proposal by the government and
approved by the absolute majority of the Parliament, or

2) Referenda on passed laws regulating “serious social issues,” upon a vote by 3/5 of the Parliament following a proposal submitted by 2/5 of the Parliament. A maximum of two proposals for such referenda can be submitted during the same parliamentary
term (normally of four years), and they cannot concern the State’s fiscal issues.

What constitutes a “crucial national issue” or a “serious social issue” is a political question left at the complete discretion of the abovementioned organs of the State.
The authors then add that constitutional amendments are not subject to referenda [sic] and, in fact, none have been held since the restoration of democratic government in 1975.

A conundrum there and very typical of a dysfunctional Balkan state. Checking another text of the Greek Constitution, I find that, indeed, the paper is correct:
* 2. The President of the Republic shall by decree proclaim a referendum on crucial national matters following a resolution voted by an absolute majority of the total number of Members of Parliament, taken upon proposal of the Cabinet.

A referendum on Bills passed by Parliament regulating important social matters, with the exception of the fiscal ones shall be proclaimed by decree by the President of the Republic, if this is decided by three-fifths of the total number of its members, following a proposal of two-fifths of the total number of its members, and as the Standing Orders and the law for the application of the present paragraph provide. No more than two proposals to hold a referendum on a Bill can be introduced in the same parliamen- tary term.

Should a Bill be voted, the time-limit stated in article 42 paragraph 1 begins the day the referendum is held.
One would assume that in this case the reason for the proposed plebiscite referendum would be that it is a crucial national matter and an absolute majority, i.e. a simple majority of the total Members of Parliament would be sufficient. We have to assume that if some members do not vote or are away and the absolute majority is not attained, the proposal falls.

Reading through the text I noted that several Articles, including this one, were starred. Could they have been amended or introduced in 1986 when the whole Constitution was amended? Indeed so, as we find in this work (discovered by the Boss on the other side of the blogospheric divide).

The amendments to the Constitution were introduced after several years of political and parliamentary instability in Greece (surely not!). On pages 68 and 69 some of the details are elucidated. The main point from our perspective is that the President, on proposal from the Cabinet can declare a plebiscite if there is an absolute majority in Parliament for it.

That, presumably, is Prime Minister Papandreou's plan. There are a few obstacles in the way. One is the confidence vote this Friday, which he will probably win, if narrowly, especially if he plays the "heroic democrat and patriot" card. Then, presumably, there has to be that vote for a referendum and the need to get an absolute majority. That may prove to be more difficult. Then, of course, comes the referendum itself and the question of which is more convenient to the Prime Minister, a 'yes' vote or a 'no' vote.

What happens if the plan falls either at the first or the second hurdle and Mr Papandreou does not get to hold a referendum, being forced, instead, into an election he desperately does not want? Well, that remains anybody's guess but the President, allow me to remind readers, after consultation with the Council of the Republic can dissolve parliament in extreme circumstances. And that brings us back to that vexed question of the replaced officers.


  1. "..being forced, instead, into an election he desperately does not want? "

    But perhaps he does want it? If the people like the idea of a referendum and he offers one but is forced out by the opposition refusing one then he might just get re-elected with a manifesto promise of a referendum.

  2. Another possible twist. The problem is we don't know the people do like the idea of a referendum and we do know that he and his party are not popular. But it is a possibility.