Once again, Greek politics are a focus of global attention as voters head to the polls for a snap parliamentary election on Jan. 25. Observers are especially interested in the implications for economic policy, but this is also an opportunity to reflect on certain fundamental problems with the structure of Greece’s electoral system that help explain the country’s dysfunctional politics. Greece is the only country in the eurozone where the economic crisis has ignited such a deep political crisis, far worse than in Portugal, Spain or Ireland. Yet the Greek public isn’t naturally prone to polarization. Opinion polls since 2010 show a steady public preference for political cooperation, coalition governments and less frequent elections. Unfortunately, flawed electoral laws open a chasm between voters’ wishes and political outcomes.
The root of the problem is that Greece has a majoritarian “winner-take-all” system. A premium of 50 seats, or one-sixth of the total 300 seats in parliament, are awarded to party-list candidates of whichever party receives a plurality of votes. This is supposed to ensure the most popular party is guaranteed a chance to form a stable government, at the very least by becoming the leading partner in a coalition. For a country like Greece with a turbulent modern history, this provision makes it easier for mainstream parties to form single-party governments.
It isn’t unusual for an electoral system to try to bolster the governing capability of plurality winners. For instance, first-past-the-post voting systems, as in the U.K. and the U.S., can allow parties to assemble large governing majorities in the legislature despite narrow vote margins in many districts. But Greece’s nationwide majoritarian mechanism is unusual, the “most eccentric” form of this phenomenon in use, as political scientist Arend Lijphart and colleagues put it decades ago.