The saying that a week is a long time in politics has never been better illustrated than by the recent momentous events in Greece and Italy. In both countries we now have new governments in record time. Or at least new Prime Ministers. It is too early to comment on whether the new teams will make any difference to the travails of their respective countries. We will need to wait bit longer than the proverbial one week for this.
However even before the new Prime Ministers were nominated, there has been a chorus of criticism from both the left and the right, condemning the changes as undemocratic. The argument is that the new Prime Ministers are unelected and that Greece and Italy have been more or less told what to do by the EU. Germany and France are singled out for particular blame in this respect. Indeed some of the comments from the right have used this as an opportunity to express their hatred of almost anything to do with Germany. It seems that the Fourth Reich is upon us.
I find all this most unconvincing. In the first place it is not the EU which has caused the political crisis in Greece and Italy. The crisis in Greece started over a year ago when the global financial markets lost trust in Greek government bonds. In Italy the situation only reached crisis proportions recently. But again it was the global financial markets which made the judgement that Italy’s debt was unsustainable. The changes in government in both countries is all about trying to regain trust from these all powerful markets. It is not the EU that has forced the changes.
The second point to make is that in both countries the formation of the new governments has followed the traditional constitutional norms. The key point here is that both Papandreou in Greece and Berlusconi in Italy had lost their majority in Parliament. Thus they had no alternative but to offer their resignations to their President. In normal circumstances this would probably lead to elections. But these are hardly normal circumstances. So it is perfectly proper for the President to open discussions with the leaders of the political parties in Parliament to see if there is the prospect of forming a new government with majority support.
This is the third point I would like to make. In both countries the new government will only survive if it wins support in Parliament. There is no subverting the constitution. It is also worth pointing out that this kind of thing is not that rare. Especially in Italy where in the 60‘s and 70‘s governments often changed two or three times within the lifetime of a Parliamentary term.
I am most bemused by the claim that the new Prime Ministers are unelected. This bemusement is partly due to the confusion about what the exact complaint is. Since neither of the new Prime Ministers is an elected MP then one can say that at one level they are unelected. However in the context of becoming Prime Minister this seems a very narrow objection. Firstly because getting elected as a MP is only ever a matter for a very small part of the whole electorate. It may be as small as a single constituency with only 80 000 electors. In a PR system the electorate will be larger, but still only a small part of the whole country. And in most PR systems it is your placement on the list that most determines whether you get elected or not. Whatever the case it is hard to put forward much of a positive case that election by a tiny percentage of the whole national electorate is somehow a necessary precondition for becoming a Prime Minister.
I suspect that the main criticism is that there has not been a general election. However this betrays a misunderstanding of how a Parliamentary system works. Whatever the electoral system in use, an elector can only vote for either one candidate or one party. In no way whatsoever can the electorate as a whole vote directly for who will be Prime Minister. Only MPs can vote for who will be Prime Minister.
This is most clearly seen in the UK. At the last election no party won a majority of seats and none came remotely close to winning an overall majority of the votes. So who precisely voted for David Cameron as Prime Minister? Certainly not the electorate. The only people who could vote for David Cameron were those who were registered in his constituency. Not much of a popular mandate there. Yet no-one, or virtually no-one questions his legitimacy or his democratic credentials. In the previous Parliament we also had the case where Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as Prime Minister without a general election. As the Labour party had a substantial overall majority in Parliament it could do this. Parliament is supreme and sovereign.
It thus seems to me that there is no serious objection to the new Prime Ministers of Greece and Italy on grounds of a democratic deficit. We await with a great deal of interest the actions of the new governments. For the success or failure of Italy in particular will have repercussions for all of us, not just Italians.