Constitutional Reforms for Greece.

Greek Parliament

When a country like Greece experiences a financial, employment, and economic meltdown unlike no other in its recent history, then it’s time to look beyond the symptoms and consider the possible causes.  Is Greece’s current sovereign debt crisis something that can be fixed with EU loans and foreign investment… or do the people need to question the very system of governance that brought them to the brink of total economic disaster?

I would argue that ‘parliamentary democracy’ (what is commonly known as the Westminster model – as it evolved out of the UK parliamentary system of governance) as it exists in Greece and many other countries around the world is in need of some serious reform.  More specifically, what the current system of governance in Greece is lacking is… competition!  The Prime-Minister is in charge of the legislative majority, and the executive government; in the absence of a truly independent court system capable of challenging the constitutionality of government actions, and meaningful devolution of powers to the regional administrative authorities, there are no checks to the political power of this one individual.

Over the past 30 years, Greek Prime-Ministers have been able to rule Greece without a proper challenge to their authority.  This was done by design, because the country needed swift reforms (and therefore a strong leader) to achieve economic development and progress.  Since whatever progress Greece made in the past 30 years has been virtually wiped out with the sovereign debt crisis, maybe now is the time to consider a system of governance that puts more emphasis on balance, rather than expedience.  Greece needs a system of governance with true separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branch, where government and parliament are in competition with each-other to deliver the best services for the people.  Furthermore, Greece needs a strong and independent judiciary that can challenge government excesses, and an empowered citizenry through further devolution of powers to the local level.

Separate the Branches of Government

Overall, any effort to reform the Greek constitution and the Greek system of governance will have to include serious elements of competition.  The best way to achieve this will require completely separating the executive from the legislative branch.  This will require separate elections, for Member of Parliament and for the executive government.  This will require making the president the head of the executive government (like Frances Presidential system), and requiring that all members of the cabinet (Prime-Minister and Ministers) are NOT members of Parliament.

Furthermore, the only way to truly have a ‘divided’ government, which separates the executive from the legislative branches, and therefore introduce real competition in the system, would be by staggering elections; four-year terms for parliament and the President, fixed election dates, but not elected at the same year (for example, parliamentary elections in 2014 but government elections at 2016).  Elections for the executive (President) could be done in two rounds (if during the first round no candidate gets over 50%), and term limits could be used to guarantee rotation at the top of the government.

Finally, there needs to be direct accountability of the actions of parliament members.  That means no more secret ballots (the people deserve to know how their elected representatives voted – and thus have something to judge them by come next election), and furthermore electoral districts should be for a single member.  From Athens all the way to the most remote prefectures/departments (Nomoi), the country should be carved up into single-member electoral districts.

Under the current system, around 250 members of parliament are elected directly by the people (the rest being apportioned to the winner – to achieve ‘majority autonomy’).  This arrangement leads to complete perversion of democracy, where one party can have less than 40% of the national vote, yet earn more the 50% of the parliament seats.  Single member districts, based on the current number of directly elected members (around 245), will prevent one party from gaining majority and therefore force political parties to enter into coalition arrangements in order to pass legislation in parliament (just like it is in most major developed countries of the world).  Furthermore, single member districts might free politicians form the control of the party, thus making them more independent and hopefully more accountable to their districts.

Bring Back the Old Senate

Greek Senate

Finally, even though Greece is a small county, devolution of power (not regional autonomy like in federalism – but administrative freedom by the regions to run their affairs) will have to be part of any constitutional reform.  For the rest of the country, Athens has become this center of power which does not know the real needs of the rest of the people, nor does it care to serve the interests of the people in the ‘periphery’ (eparxia).  Furthermore, the people will have to take more of an active role in their government, if they are to guarantee that the new system does not also because hollow and complacent.  That means more administrative duties and powers will have to be transferred to the local prefectures (Nomoi).

During the past 5 years, the Greek government instituted two major reforms of the national administrative system.  In 1997, the ‘Kapodistrial plan’ merged the many tiny villages and communities to existing municipalities (Dimoi), thus reducing the number of the lowest form of administration from 1033 to 325.  This was a reasonable reorganization, considering that most of these small villages and communities had to rely on near-by cities for almost all their administrative needs.

Then, 2 years ago, the ‘Kallikratis plan’ came into effect, which although technically granted municipalities (Dimoi) and regions more administrative powers, it also created 7 decentralized administrations (apokentroménes dioikíseis), comprising two or three regions each, and run by a government-appointed general secretary, assisted by an advisory council drawn from the regional governors and the representatives of the municipalities.

The ‘Kallikratis plan’ though well intended is inadequate in properly empowering the people at the local level.  Rather, I would suggest bringing back the Senate (Gerousia), composed of 55 members, one from each Prefectures (there are 51 Nomoi), plus three more for Attica and one more for Thessaloniki (due to their concentrated population).  This distribution might not sound very ‘democratic’, but it makes perfect sence if the function of the Senate would be to facilitate the role of the central government ‘outside of Athens’ where all the ministries are located.

Senators could be elected along with the Prefect (Nomarxis), and they could literally be the ‘Deputy-Prefect’ (Anti-Nomarxis), thus ‘representing’ the local government in the national government and vice-versa.  Unlike other Senates of the past and around the world, this will not be an actual legislative body.  Rather, this Senate’s primary responsibility will be to approve the selection of cabinet members from the President/Prime-Minister (head of the new executive), as well as other high-level government officials whose actions impact everyday life throughout the country (head of the Policy, the Army, the Tax Authority, State-owned companies and National Bank, etc).

Local Review of Government Acts

Although parliaments pass laws, most often they tend to be broad documents that get ‘explained’ later by government departments with no review or approval by the parliament.  This ‘delegation of legislative power’ needs to be checked and balanced in order for the system of governance to work better.

Delegation of legislative powers is generally allowed under the Greek Constitution, and in all parliamentary systems of governance.  The most significant form of delegation is from the Parliament to the President, who issues Presidential Decrees (Proedriko Diatagma).  The Parliament may also delegate power to the executive branch.  Thus, Ministers of the Government issue Ministerial Decisions (Ypourgikes Apofaseis).  Although each Presidential decree must be checked by the Council of State (Symboulio tis Epikrateias) that does not hold true for Ministerial Decisions.

Greek Regulations

A Senate composed of technocrats from each Prefecture, assisted by competent staff, could exercise a more democratic oversight of the government acts then the unelected Council of State.  This way the Senate will be responsible both for the selection of government members (cabinet members and high ranking officials) as well as their regulatory actions.  Like a board of directors, the Senate can focus exclusively on exercising oversight of the government, while the Parliament focuses on passing new laws.  Both the Senate and the Parliament will (and should) monitor the spending of money (the People’s money) by the executive.

Streamline the Judicial Branch

Another reason why Prime-Ministers can get away with anything they wants under the current system of governance is because the judicial branch is fragmented in five ways.  Instead of one ‘Supreme Court’ that truly stands on top of the legal enforcement pyramid, thus having the power and political weight to discipline governments, courts in Greece are divided into Administrative, Civil and Criminal.

  • The Council of States (Symboulio tis Epikrateias) adjudicates disputes of an administrative nature.
  • The Hellenic Supreme Court of Civil and Penal Law (Areios Pagos) is the Supreme Court for Civil and Criminal Law.
  • The Court of Auditors (Elegktiko Synedrio) has jurisdiction of public spending disputes, and contracts of a significant economic value where one of the contractors is the State.
  • The Special Highest Court (Anotato Eidiko Dikastirio) is the closest institution under the Greek Legal System of a ‘Constitutional Court.’  It has jurisdiction of the “adjudication of objections at the validity of national parliamentary elections, referendums and the resolution of conflicting jurisprudence between courts and administrative commissions or between the Council of State and Regular Administrative Courts, or Civil and Criminal Courts, or between the Court of Auditors and other Courts, as well as the clarification of customary international law rules.” (Hauser Global Law School Program – GlobaLex)

Although all courts can examine the constitutionality of laws through judicial review, their decisions are only binding for the particular case before them.  This ‘civil law’ distinction, coupled with the fragmentation of the court system leads to very week judicial review of government actions.  Greece desperately needs ONE Supreme Court with jurisdiction over ALL matters of legal interpretation, and with the power to find acts of both the legislative and executive branch unconstitutional.

Competition at Any Cost…

There are many ways to introduce more competition within the Greek system of governance.  What I have outlined above are only some ways this can be achieved.  However, nothing will happen as long as constitutional changes have to go through the current system of double approval by two consecutive Parliaments.

The call should be for a Constitutional Convention, with diverse representation, which over the course of a couple of months (it should not take more than that) can draft a new constitution to be place on a referendum by the people.  Until then, all the Greek people can hope for is reduction on the salaries of politicians.

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Constitutional Reforms for Greece, and Post-Election Suggestions for Mr. Samaras!

On May 6th, Greece will have the most important election of its post junta era.  The sovereign debt crisis has humbled the country and the EU imposed austerity measures have angered the people.  Unlike the Koskota scandal that led to the 1989 coalition government between Nea Dimocratia (ND) and the Communist Party, the stakes are much higher now.  What is at state is the place of the country within the European Union.

If ND get 30% on the Sunday polls, then along with PASOK they will be able to form a somewhat stable government, and Mr. Samaras (leader of ND) will have a large enough margin in the Parliament (180 out of 300 seats) to push through both the austerity measures and the much needed economic reforms.  However, the most likely outcome is that ND will get less than 30%, which will make any coalition government weak (perhaps even a minority government), unable to implement any real reforms and end up with new elections in a couple of months.

As I argued before, the real cause of the Greek sovereign debt crisis was not simply bad government policies and inefficient collection of taxes.  Rather, it was a collective failure of the current system of governance, which concentrates too much power on the hands of one person (the Prime-Minister) in hopes of achieving swift and holistic resolution of the many problems the country is facing.  Unfortunately, the ‘dictatorship of the Prime-Minister’ and the lack of any serious checks and balances leads to abuse of power and inefficient decision making based purely on political reasons and reelection ambitions.

Mr. Samaras continues to cling on this antiquated model of governance by constantly demanding complete unilateral majority from the electorate.  Instead of recognizing the need for a coalition government that will be inclusive and will both represent more people as well as govern by consensus, he insists that what the country needs now is “a strong government that can push through the much needed reforms.”  Was this not how previous PASOK and ND administrations governed the country during the past 30 years?

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Time for Iraq to Activate its Federation Council!

The political power struggle in Baghdad has significantly escalated since the last U.S. troops withdrew in December 2011, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki slowly abandoning the principle of a unity government that gives all stakeholders a share of power and instead trying to consolidate power in his own hands.  The situation has deteriorated so much that in a recent interview with the Associated Press the president of Iraq’s self-rule Kurdish region (Massoud Barzani) demanded that Shiite leaders “agree on sharing power with their political opponents by September or else the Kurds could consider breaking away from Baghdad.”  Tony Karon reports, that even the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose support was critical to getting Maliki reelected, has taken to referring to the Prime Minister as “the dictator.”

The most egregious case of power-grab by Maliki, was the ‘politically motivated’ prosecution of Iraqi Sunni leader and Vice-President of the government Tarek al-Hashemi, who was forced to flee Baghdad to escape criminal charges his supporters see as designed to hobble the Sunni political leadership.  According to Mr. Karon, Hashemi fled first to Erbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), whose terrain the Iraqi security forces are not authorized to enter, and is now in Turkey.

Barzani’s ‘declaration of defiance’ against Maliki, is very much the result of Kurdistan’s long-held desire for independence as well as a consequence of Maliki’s recent attempt to consolidate power.  Although unilateral secession by the Kurds (or the Sunnis) is somewhat unlikely, the escalation of political tensions by Maliki could lead to the eventual break-up of Iraq.

Furthermore, according to the AP, Barzani also said he “wholeheartedly” supports Sunni desires to create their own self-rule regions in Iraq.  Sunni lawmakers, whose Iraqiya political coalition won the most seats in 2010 parliamentary elections but were outmaneuvered by Maliki for the right to form the government, bitterly complain they have no say in Iraq’s power structure.  Unless something is done to alleviate the concerns of Kurds and Sunnis about their place in the national government, Iraq might inevitable collapse.

Salvation however might still lie within, courtesy of the federal elements of the Iraqi constitution.

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By the People and for the People – A New Approach to the Federal Budget!

One of the primary responsibilities of any government (both executive and legislature) in any country is the management of the public purse: the government budget and the national debt.  As developments in Europe demonstrate, bad management of government expenditures could lead to financial collapse and government default.  Although the U.S. is in a much better financial footing then most European countries of similar socio-economic and development level, dealing with the national debt has captured the attention of most politicians.

Proposals for the reduction of the government deficit and eventual elimination of the national debt have come from both sides of the political spectrum, including bipartisan efforts like the Simpson-Bowles Commission (see: National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform).  Democrats primarily want to raise taxes on the wealthier Americans (repeal Bush tax-cuts) and reduce the defense budget, in order to close the deficit gap.  Republicans on the other hand want to primarily reform entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) which combined account for close to 45% of the Federal budget and will only get larger due to demographic changes.

Most likely, the right solution lies somewhere in between, which is what was the recommendation of the Simpson-Bowles Commission: raise some taxes, reduce some defense spending, and reform entitlements for future generations.  Unfortunately there is no guarantee that even if our current political leaders were able to adopt such a grand compromise, future generations would not commit the same ‘management mistake’ of past decades: cut taxes which reduces government revenues, while expand government spending through borrowing.

Some on the right have argued passionately about the need for a ‘balanced budget amendment’ to the Constitution.  Constitutional amendments are hard to pass, and even harder to change in the future; although the sentiment might be just right considering the danger that out of control debt can pose to a national economy and future generations.  However, instead of looking for funding to cut and taxes to raise, there might be another way to restructure the federal budget in a way might have a more lasting impact.

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A New Federalism for Libya and the Arab Spring.

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Libya’s road to democracy was going to be the hardest of all the Arab nations in transition.  Last month, that process got even more complicated for the Libyan people.  At a gathering in Benghazi, around 3,000 political, militia and tribal leaders from eastern Libya (the region known as Barqa or Cyrenaica) announced unilateral plans to begin establishing their own autonomous government.  In particular, they demanded a return to the loose federation that existed before Qaddafi came to power in 1969, composed of three regions: Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.

The conferees said they want their region to remain part of a united Libya, but needed to do this to stop decades of discrimination against the east.  In particular, the conference declared that the eastern state, known as Barqa, would have its own parliament, police force, courts and capital – Benghazi, the country’s second largest city – to run its own affairs.  Foreign policy, the national army and oil resources would be left to the central government in the capital Tripoli in western Libya.

The move was vehemently denounced by the leaders of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli, who rejected any calls for a federal Libya.  Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, even claimed that they were inspired by elements loyal to Gaddafi’s old regime.  Overall, the idea of federalism is very controversial in Libyans, as well as throughout the Arab world.  The concept is a sensitive one largely because it has become synonymous with fragmentation and partition.  Even though in the past countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq attempted to unite through federal systems, for modern Arabs federalism caries many negative connotations, with Sudan’s recent break-up dominating most people’s concerns about federalism.

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SCAF’s Constitutional Declaration – Uncertainty and Hope for Egypt’s Bicameral Legislature.

February 11 marked the one year anniversary of the official fall of Hosni Mubarak from power.  What started with street demonstrations and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) overthrowing the President and dissolving the Parliament, was followed by a referendum to amend the existing constitution and fresh Parliamentary election.  On February 22, the voting process which began in November of 2011 was completion with the second and final round of voting for the Shura Council.

These Parliamentary elections in the post-Mubarak Egypt, conducted under a new legal regime that allowed previously banned political parties, promised to usher in a new era of democracy and political pluralism for Egypt.  However, as we enter this period of transition, where a democratically elected legislature will operate under a military government while presidential elections are being organized, Egypt’s political establishment will have to balance the legislative needs of the country (which are many) with the preparation for a ‘mini constitutional convention.’  In this period of transition, Egypt’s legislative branch will stand in the middle of this immensely complicated balancing act; and its success of failure will define the countries fortune and the fate of the Arab Spring.

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The Real Cause of the Greek Sovereign Debt Crisis.

The Greek sovereign debt crisis has capture the attention of the world, both for what it says about the viability of the Euro and the EU integration project, but also for the warning signs it sends to governments around the world about governance and public finances.  In the U.S., politicians both on the right and the left are using Greece as an example of how bad management of public finances can lead to economic catastrophe.

In particular, for the right, Greece is at the edge of the abyss because of the bloated government bureaucracy, the unreasonably generous pension and health-care benefits, and the sclerotic labor market.  For the left, Greece’s financial troubles could easily be resolved if people paid their taxes properly, and the umber-wealthy were prevented from tax-evading so blatantly.

However, the true cause of the Greek sovereign debt crisis is the same as the reason why Europe cannot manage the greatest threat to ever hit the Eurozone: the failure of the governance system.  The Greek system of governance has failed to address the type of economic issues present in almost every country of the world – issues well known to all, and easily fixable.  Poor management of public finances in Greece is not some generically inherent predisposition of the Greek people – rather it’s what happens when you have a bad system of governance.

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