Elections, Rule of Law and Democracy in Greece

By Taygeti Michalakea

Introduction

In June 2023, 40,5% of Greek voters re-elected the ‘New Democracy’ party for a second term, leaving the opposition party, Syriza with only 17,8% of the votes. They were followed by the Socialist Party (11,8%), the Greek Communist party (7,6%), the ‘Spartans’(4,6%), Elliniki Lusi (4,4%), Niki (3,7%) and Plefsi Eleftherias (3,1%). Unfortunately, three of the small parties (Spartans, Elliniki Lusi and Niki) come from the extreme right spectrum. The June 2023 elections followed the ones held in May of the same year, when the percentages were almost the same, but New Democracy did not manage to form a government, due to the fully proportional electoral system of the first elections. Elections in June were conducted under a semi-proportional, majority-bonus system, which gives the winning party bonus seats. A year after, in June 2024, Greeks cast their ballots, this time for the European Parliament elections. The difference between the two first parties (New Democracy and Syriza) was not as high, but still the first party got almost double the score of the second.

Can this difference be attributed to the good performance of the ruling party, or is it a sign of a decline in rule of law? It seems difficult to justify the difference on the basis of the former, in a country ravaged by the economic crisis, with the highest unemployment in Europe, the biggest government debt, the least affordable housing and one of the highest food price inflation rates globally. Rather, it seems more plausible to justify it, if one considers the asphyxiating control of the media, and severe weakening of checks and balances, which create an environment of misinformation and elimination of critical voices and scrutiny. With whatever that might entail, such a large difference between the ruling party and the opposition has recently been noted only in Orbán’s Hungary. Notably, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index has graded Greece less than Poland and Romania, in overall rule of law scores.

The EU and other institutions have marginally dealt with rule of law in Greece, for reasons that deserve further research. It was only the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties (LIBE), who, in the shadow of the recent surveillance scandal, alarmingly referred to ‘serious risks for the rule of law’ in Greece. Concerns were also raised by the European Parliament resolution of 7 February 2024 on the rule of law and media freedom in Greece (2024/2502(RSP). In line with those documents, this short piece will substantiate the rule of law decline in Greece before the 2023 elections and during the first year of New Democracy’s second mandate, by pointing to four important issues: the weakening of independent institutions, the lack of media freedom and pluralism, restrictions to freedom of privacy and inadequate judicial guarantees. When those points converge, as in the case of Greece, democratic foundations might start crumbling – if not already, leading to an environment of uncertainty, inequality, and eroded freedoms.

The Greek Parliament. Photo by George Kourounis via Unsplash.
The work of Independent Institutions

The first element of rule of law decline is the weak checks and balances, resulting from the disruption of the work of oversight mechanisms. This is primarily evidenced by the National Transparency Authority (NTA), responsible for combating corruption. Concerns have been raised over the independence of its leadership, with the members of its governing board and its head being chosen by the Government. Its work has not been considered effective and the government undermined its importance, by leaving the position of its head vacant for a year. In the recent wiretapping scandal, it failed to detect any links with government agencies and officials, despite the quite widespread knowledge and the already existing journalistic sources.

From the other side, the Authority for Communication Security and Privacy (ACSP), which engages in serious investigations, has been constantly challenged by the government. During the recent wiretapping case, although ACSP is the legally competent authority for issues of privacy of communications, the government allocated the responsibility for any related investigation to the NTA, probably because it is more controlled. In addition, when ACSP raised concerns over illegal surveillance practices and severe violations of privacy rights, the Supreme Court Prosecutor, linked to the ruling party, opined that it does not have the right to investigate and inform about lifting of privacy concerning ‘national reasons,’ despite the opposing applicable legal framework.

As will be explained further below, Parliamentary Inquiry Committees have, also, a very poor record of results, in effect acting as the government’s handmaiden. For example, the parliamentary committee investigating the allocation of funds to media during covid-19, which was suspected to be along partisan lines, was composed exclusively by members of the ruling party. It did not accept witnesses proposed by opposition parties, including the Minister who allocated the funds and information on the criteria that were used is still unknown. Similarly, the parliamentary inquiry over the use of Predator spyware by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) was kept as secret as possible, despite the profound implications of the issue.

Weakening independent institutions and subjecting them to political influence, compromises their ability to ensure fair processes, prevent abuse of power, and maintain a level playing field for all citizens. This, in turn, can lead to a loss of trust in the fairness of the system, discouraging civic participation and eroding the foundations of the rule of law.

Media Freedom and Pluralism at crosshairs

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom reports a ‘suffocating climate for independent journalism in Greece’ where ‘it is difficult for journalists to report on matters in the public interest, to hold the government to account for its actions and to work safely and unobstructed by undue pressure and interference.’ In Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index the country dropped five spots from 2020 to reach the 70th place in the 2021 ranking, only to continue downhill, in 2023, when it was placed last in the EU (107th globally). Such scores are related to the control of public broadcasters and the concentration of private ones to business elites, linked to the government.

The members of the governing board of the public broadcaster are appointed directly by the government. Importantly, one of the first moves of the current prime minister when he was elected in 2019, was to put under his authority the Greek public broadcaster and the country’s central news agency (APE-MPE). Ironically (for reasons explained in the next section), it was also the National Intelligence Service that was put under the PM’s supervision. The independence of the broadcaster is, thus, severely endangered, as pointed out by the European Commission’s 2022 Rule of Law report.

On the other side, private media are highly concentrated to few members of economic elites, more often than not having close ties to the ruling party. Their loyalty is often assured through state subsidies. During covid-19, the so-called ‘Petsas list,’ a list of media outlets that received funding from the government made headlines for its lack of transparency. The funds were allocated to government affiliated outlets, excluding opposition media that received less than 1 % of the campaign’s 20 million Euros.

This affiliation allows the government to manipulate public opinion in fundamental issues. As a result, critical voices are marginalised and often-sensitive topics, such as corruption or the wiretapping scandal are concealed from public scrutiny. Instead, the discourse promoted by the media tends to disorient the public, to other issues, such as the Greek-Turkish relations, or migration, both constructed as threats.

Journalists are increasingly facing attacks, ranging from murders that go un-investigated, to strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), mostly targeting critical media outlets and journalists reporting on corruption. The PM’s secretary and close relative, involved in the wiretapping case, filed SLAPPs against two online media that reported on the issue. Other reporters were either put under surveillance themselves, or were discredited as politically motivated. Journalists are, further, subject to criminal charges for defamation and for breach of privacy. The European Commission warned in its last year’s report that attacks and threats against journalists persisted, and journalists’ professional environment has deteriorated further, with chilling effect on freedom of expression and public information and scrutiny.

The control and manipulation of the media strips them from their main function as watchdogs of democracy, leading to a distorted public perception, reduced access to accurate information, and stifled dissent. As a result, the rule of law is undermined, as citizens are denied the information necessary to make informed decisions and participate in civic life.

Systematic surveillance of politicians and journalists

In 2022, a two-pronged wiretapping scandal shook Greece. The first strand of the issue concerned the surveillance of journalists investigating corruption or migration, and politicians, including the head of the Socialist Party and former ministers, by the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The second strand of the case concerns the illegal use of Predator spyware by Greek authorities against several journalists, politicians and others. Most of these wiretaps have been directly linked to the NIS. For the first strand, the government claimed that the wiretap was ‘lawful’ but wrong. For the use of Predator, it vehemently denied any links to it, but reports demonstrate close connections and interdependencies between certain persons related to the government, the NIS and the providers of spyware.  

Those two issues have to be assessed, having in mind that the number of authorized surveillance orders has increased substantially over the years, from 4,871 in 2015 to 11,680 in 2019 to 15,475 in 2021. Each order can concern more than one phone number, meaning that the actual amount of monitored telephone numbers is much larger than the one recorded. It is to be noted that since 2019, the actions of the NIS have been put under the direct control of the Prime Minister, after a change in the law, following the victory of his party.

Confidentiality, under the Greek Constitution, is an absolute right that can be lifted only for reasons of ‘national security,’ meaning protection of the country from external threats, or for ‘public order,’ which concerns investigation of crimes. In any case, restrictions to freedom of privacy should be necessary and proportional. In contravention to that legal framework, the use of Predator, the people that were targeted and the sharp increase in the number of orders demonstrate excessive and systemic surveillance, and parallel weakening of effective checks. Given the amount of orders, it seems that procedures are not being followed thoroughly. One remains to wonder how just one prosecutor, attached to the NIS to authorize orders, can substantially review more than 80 orders per day.

It also seems that Greek authorities abusively classify surveillance orders under ‘national security’ justification, instead of ‘public order.’ That choice is made, because under the ‘national security’ justification, the standards concerning the right to information of the target are very stringent, and essentially deprive them of the opportunity to learn the reasons of such wiretap, according to the law. Until 2021, a person under government surveillance for national security reasons had the right to be informed about such surveillance. An amendment to the law, passed under dubious legal procedures, forbade such information, thus violating both the Greek Constitution and the ECHR. A further amendment in 2022, allowed the target to be informed, but only three years after the end of the monitoring and only on the fact of being surveyed, without any content or reason. The opinions of the respective independent institutions, raising concerns about disproportionate restrictions to core individual rights, were not taken into account. In fact, victims of state surveillance are still not able to find out any reasons for their monitoring.

The investigations that followed were fruitless. The Parliamentary Committee ruled that there is no wiretapping scandal, after an non-transparent closed door process, with the ruling party blocking witnesses from testifying, including the head of the National Intelligence Service and journalists. The Committee on Institutions and Transparency did not link the Predator to NIS surveillance. From the independent authorities, the NIS was unable to detect links, widely known by journalistic investigations. It was only the Authority for Communication Security and Privacy that investigated, despite political interventions and the (wrong according to many) opinion of the Supreme Court prosecutor, that it does not have the right to investigate and inform about lifting of privacy concerning “national reasons,” although it is clearly authorized by law. The Judicial investigation was minimal, something that, reportedly, led the European Prosecutor to initiate his own investigations.

As per the PEGA Committee, ‘the revelations about the use of spyware and NIS surveillance of journalists tell a very disturbing story of an intricate and opaque network of relations, political and business interests, favours and nepotism, and political influence.’ It is not difficult to connect the dots between the wiretap of political opponents and the risks to transparency and fair competition that underpin democratic elections and governance. It is equally straightforward that surveillance of journalists severely challenges rule of law and its foundations. Lastly, increased and systemic surveillance create an environment of mistrust, hinder open discourse, and erode democratic and rule of law values.

Questioning judicial independence

In Greece, senior positions of Judges and Prosecutors are politicised, as they are chosen by the Government, without judicial involvement in the selection process. In addition, the government, through legislative initiatives, attempted to abolish the criterion of seniority for the promotion of Supreme Court judges. It has often been alleged that promotions are linked to judges’ political preferences, while the majority of top-level positions are conservatively inclined. There is no systematic research on the topic, but courts’ handling of cases involving representatives of political and business elites, especially for corruption, suggests that there is, in fact, interference in judicial work.

Political interference in the work of the judiciary, in the form of statements or legislation, is constant, particularly by members of the ruling party. Recently, the Supreme Court’s Vice President resigned, alleging interference with the functioning of the Supreme Court, due to a legislative amendment altering the judicial section judging the legality of participation in the elections of political parties. The amendment was considered as an attempt to direct the work of the court towards specific decisions. Those interferences in the judiciary further weaken the checks on the authorities and pave the way for abuse of power, all the while, people’s trust in the justice system erodes, fueling a vicious cycle of rule of law decline.

Conclusion

Rule of law has been deeply ingrained in North European countries for centuries. Greece, on the other hand, has faced its own unique historical and socio-political challenges that have at times strained the rule of law. Today, the interplay of media control, weak independent institutions, and inadequate judicial guarantees poses significant barriers to the country’s journey toward enhancing the rule of law. The victory of the government in the recent elections seemed to have both benefitted and solidified those barriers. Predictions for the future trajectory of these dynamics are both complex and uncertain, but it can be safely assumed that as these challenges persist, the erosion of democratic principles and freedoms becomes more likely.


About the Author

Dr Taygeti Michalakea is a lecturer at the European School of Law and Governance in Athens, where she teaches and researches international law with an emphasis on international human rights law, international criminal law, international humanitarian law as well as in the field of business and human rights. At the same time, as a post-doctoral researcher at Panteion University, she participates in the Horizon research project, entitled ‘ARM: The long arm of authoritarian states’, in the context of which she studies the restriction of freedom of expression in four different authoritarian regimes. She has conducted extensive research on business and human rights in Colombia, Tunisia and Southeast Asia, and her work has been presented at international conferences and academic journals. Her past academic collaborations include the European University Institute in Florence, Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa (Italy), Javeriana University in Bogotá, and Essex Law School in the United Kingdom. In 2019/2020, Taygeti was a re:constitution Fellow, a research program of the Forum Transregionale Studien.
Taygeti also works as a legal advisor to various international organizations and civil society. She is currently a legal advisor for the Nordic ENACT, where she advises business entities around the world on the implementation of the UNGPs framework. Recently, he completed a UNDP-funded project on access to justice for human rights defenders in seven different jurisdictions in Asia. Previously, Taygeti worked as a legal advisor at the UN Mission in Kosovo, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the Greek Ombudsman as well as a lawyer in Athens.


Citation

Taygeti Michalakea, Elections, Rule of Law and Democracy in Greece, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.07.2024, https://doi.org/10.58079/11x8q


OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Forum Transregionale Studien (2. Juli 2024). Elections, Rule of Law and Democracy in Greece. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 20. Juli 2024 von https://doi.org/10.58079/11x8q


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

Das könnte dich auch interessieren …

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.

Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search