Tuesday 29 September 2009

Enjoying the Greek Elections

National elections have been called in Greece for October 4th. Although this may sound counter-intuitive, it struck me last night that the Greek electoral process is vastly superior to its American counterpart:

1. In Greece, everyone knows the politicians are lying, including the politicians themselves. Despite their best intentions, they cannot or will not implement about 85% of their campaign promises. This is a huge advantage over the United States, where true believers still hail George W. Bush as a “compassionate conservative”, and where Barack Obama still walks on water.

2. In Greece, it’s a short campaign. Elections were announced in early September in a televised address by the Prime Minister; the election occurs on October 4th. That’s just over 1 month of campaigning, compared with a US process in which primaries take over a year, and the elections usually 3-4 months after that, and then administrations change two months after the election, in January. This means that in a four-year Presidency, the campaign starts some 2 years prior to the election: 50% of the term of the Presidency is spent campaigning.

3. In Greece, it’s a cheap campaign. Free airtime is provided by all channels. Most expenditure is on additional TV advertisements and outdoor advertising. It’s far less than the billions spent on US campaigns.

4. There is broad and real representation in both national politics and the Greek Parliament. The Parliament currently has five parties, representing the far left to the right. In the United States, despite the presence of the odd third-party contender such as Ralph Nader or Ross Perot, the House and Senate have essentially been duopolies since the beginning of the Republic. I think it’s far healthier having a more diverse political representation, rather than giving two decrepit political parties a monopoly of decision-making.

5. In Greece, in addition to hearing from the party leaders, we hear from party MPs who are slated to become ministers in government debate during the campaign. Yesterday morning, for instance, the PASOK and ND candidates for Minister of Economy & Finance, Louka Katseli and Iannos Papantoniou, were slugging it out on ERT’s morning show. This is great stuff: it permits a far greater level of assessment by the public. In the US, in contrast, the election is all about the President: we only find out about Cabinet nominations some 3-4 months later.

6. And, perhaps most strikingly, the Greek electoral process is straightforward and simple. Voters cast paper votes in their registered place of residence, displaying their legal ID cards. There is no possibility of hanging chads; no need for expensive, computerised voting machines that can be hacked; no way to disenfranchise a voter. Every Greek citizen of 18 years or more has a right to vote. The voting and counting process is overseen by the Bar Association and representatives of political parties. Results are announced by 22:00 of the day of the vote. Recounts, legal processes and Brooks Brothers mobs stealing the Florida election are unknown.

It’s also true that Greek politics are noisy, direct and personal. You may think that having six politicians of various stripes screaming intelligibly at each other in the “parathirakia”, or windows on evening news broadcasts is low behaviour. In fact, it’s politics in its purest form. Debates in the Senate of ancient Athens must have been just like this; debates in the early Congresses in the United States must have been quite similar.

I must say I am enjoying the Greek election far more than I enjoyed the interminably cheesy show between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. This battle of the titans was long on superficiality and stupidity, but short on common sense and ordinary decency, and is unfortunately replicated in the broken-down, corrupt legislative process we see in Washington today. The American tendency to demand that Presidential candidates are immaculately conceived is ludicrous, particularly given the tremendous costs of the US electoral process which assures rich, special interests a seat at any decision-making table.

In Greece, it’s a far more human, far more simple process. The politicians scream a bit more loudly that usual on the evening shows, a few political rallies are held, and then it’s voting day. And at the end of it we will go back to our tavernas and offices and supermarket aisles without deceiving ourselves that too much has changed, or that the new saviour has come.

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