On the November 25, 2019 the Greek Parliament was called to amend what constitutes the highest law of the land. The Greek Constitution consists of a series of articles that define how the state will be organized by deciding the powers and authorities of government between different political units, and by stating the basic law-making and structural principles of society.
This is a long and stringent procedure designed in such a way so as to generate the greatest possible political consensus to protect the integrity of the Constitution.
The first phase of this process which defined the articles that were to undergo reform began in November 2018 and ended in March 2019.
The proposed reforms that received a large majority of votes (180 out of 300) in the first phase would then require no more than 151 votes in the second phase, which takes place in the following parliamentary season, while those that received 151 votes in the first phase would need 180 votes in the second phase to pass and form part of the reformed Constitution.
Among the most contentious— yet undoubtedly progressive— amendment proposals was the one introduced by then-ruling SYRIZA party which essentially widened the constitutional safety net of protection from discrimination against groups of people and vulnerable minorities previously omitted by the Constitution.
Article 5.2 of the existing Greek Constitution, also known as “Free development of personality and personal freedom” reads that: “All persons living within the Greek territory shall enjoy full protection of their life, honor and liberty irrespective of nationality, race or language and of religious or political beliefs. Exceptions shall be permitted only in cases provided by international law.”
The proposal to amend the article in question entailed the inclusion of gender, gender identity and sexual orientation to the list of groups vulnerable to discrimination and therefore worthy of constitutional protection.
Proponents argued that amending the Greek Constitution to include such anti-discriminatory language would have been fully in line with the European Charter of Fundamental Human Rights.
The proposed amendment got through during the first phase of the constitutional reform process, but despite SYRIZA’s majority in Parliament at the time, it failed to receive the required amount of votes (180) which would have facilitated its adoption during the final phase.
It is worth noting that it failed to reach the magic number of 180 by just 6 votes. Had 18 of the 19 Social Democrats of KINAL (PASOK) not abstained from the vote, the amendment in question would have stood a much greater chance of being included in the final text of the Constitution.
So in short, the amendment of article 5.2 required 180 votes from the current Parliament in order to be adopted into the Constitution, while it would have needed no more than 150 votes had, during the previous parliamentary season, 6 more members of parliament voted in its favor.
On the November 25 the final phase of the Constitutional reform process took place in Parliament, and members were called to vote on the amendments to the articles selected by the previous parliamentary season.
The proposed amendments to Article 5.2 did not pass.
The outcome of the vote came as a disappointment to anti-discrimination, equal rights advocates and progressives across the country as a total of 170 Members of Parliament voted against the amendment in question, 7 abstained, while only 120 voted in its favor.
To examine the vote in detail, New Democracy’s (the ruling party) and the Greek Solution’s (right wing populists) parliamentarians voted against, with SYRIZA, KKE (Communist party) and KINAL (PASOK) voting in favor, while MERA25 (Varoufakis’ party) abstained as they wanted the article’s proposed amendment to also include refugees in the list of vulnerable groups.
In an attempt to justify its decision not to back the amendment of article 5.2, New Democracy stated that the Constitution already covers individual and societal rights and that there was no need to include in it specific sub-categories as these are also covered by the European Charter of Fundamental Human Rights to which Greece abides.
On the other hand, Amnesty International Greece, in a statement issued moments after the results of the vote were made public, claimed that according to Greece’s international obligations, the inclusion not only of gender, gender identity and sexual orientation— but also of age, disability and national minority— should have been included.
And it went on to claim that current Greek legislation neither fully, nor explicitly, protects the rights of the aforementioned people against discrimination. Hence, the importance of including a safety net in the Constitution.
What is New Democracy Hiding?
It is worth mentioning at this point that to this day, the Greek Parliament has not released the official roll call voting records of the Constitutional reform process.
According to sources of Vouliwatch from inside Parliament this is due to the fact that its President, Konstantinos Tasoulas, decided to not make use of the digital voting system available but to follow the traditional paper and ballot method.
This practically means that the paper ballots will need to be scanned, digitalized and uploaded on the Parliament’s website which according to sources might take up to 30 days.
Tasoulas explained that in doing so he intended to highlight the historical importance and validity of the Constitutional reform process. Critics in Athens however view this as a poor attempt to hide the voting records from public scrutiny— at least until the dust settles.
Undoubtedly the refusal of Parliament’s majority to amend the article in question constitutes a serious setback for progress and human rights in Greece as the effort to modernize the Greek Constitution through article 5.2 would have paved the way towards the gradual dissipation of conservative and anachronistic stereotypes prevalent in Greek society.
Vulnerable groups would enjoy constitutional protection against discrimination while the Greek political system would have made a considerable step towards creating a more just and open society in line with Western values.
Constitutional law in Greece foresees that for the Constitution to undergo a reform process a period of five years needs to pass from the last one. This means that Greek civil society, human rights activists and progressive individuals both within but also outside of Greece have plenty of time to regroup and take all necessary actions in an effort to convince the country’s political establishment of the importance of protecting constitutionally the rights of groups and minorities prone to being discriminated against.
Greece is the birth place of Democracy, Greek philosophy and culture constitute the foundations of Enlightenment which in turn gave rise to the West’s political and humanitarian values.
One can be but hopeful that the country’s political elite will stay true to this Ancient Greek heritage and eventually contribute with their decisions towards shaping a more progressive and inclusive Greece.
Vouliwatch is a non for profit, transparency promoting, parliamentary monitoring organization that engages Greek citizens with legislative politics and grants them with the opportunity to communicate, evaluate and hold elected representatives accountable. Follow Vouliwatch on Facebook and Twitter.