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20 Ιουν 2012

Abstention in the Greek elections: do Greeks really not care?

According to the official figures of the Ministry of Interior, only 62.47% of Greeks actually voted in the June 17 elections. Participation was hardly better on 06 May, at 65.1%. Various commentators in Greece and abroad intepreted this high abstention rate in what was unanimously called "the most crucial elections in Greece since 1974" as a lack of interest in the political process or even a wholesale rejection of the political class. However, these figures are challenges by a simple fact: the number of people who are actually living in Greece.
According to the Ministry of Interior, there were 9,952,080 voters registered to vote in Greece on 17 June, up from 9,949,401 on 06 May. As a matter of fact, the number of registered voters in Greece has increased steadily since 2000, as can be seen in the table below:

Registered voters Increase rate
2000 9,372,541
2004 9,899,472 5,62%
2007 9,918,917 0,20%
2009 9,929,065 0,10%
May 2012 9,949,401 0,20%
June 2012 9,952,080 0,03%

At the same time however, the total number of individuals residing permanently in Greece shrunk from 10,934,097 in 2001 to 10,787,690 in 2011 (-146,407 individuals) according to the censuses conducted by the Greek Statistical Authority [1]. Furthermore, the Greek Statistical Authority defines "permanent residents" as individuals having their usual place of residence in Greece, which means that non-Greek nationals residing permanently in Greece are also included in this figure. A search in the Greek Statistical Authority database shows that only 93.03% of residents were Greek nationals in 2001 (10,171,906 individuals). Admitting that the proportion of non-nationals has not increased since 2001 (which is likely untrue given the rate of immigrant influx), an astounding 99% of Greek nationals residing in Greece would be registered as voters. If we add that approximately 19% of the Greek population is aged 0-17 (according to the 2001 census), an absurd 121% of Greek adult citizens residing in Greece would be registered to vote. 

How many deceased people are still registered voters?

A first question therefore is: how many of these registered voters are still alive? According to the age breakdown published by the Ministry of Interior ahead of the 06 May elections, a total of 2,833,717 registered voters were aged 66 or more, meaning 28.5% of the entire voting body. However, the age breakdown provided by the 2001 census shows that individuals aged 66 or more represent only approx. 20% of the adult citizen population residing in Greece. Such a discrepancy is a reliable indicator that a significant chunk of those voters who abstained could simply not vote from six feet under. Of the 3,734,974 registered voters who did not turn up on 17 June, approximately 1,156,000 have likely passed away. 

The fact that so many dead people are still included on the voters' lists was highlighted in Sunday's elections by several tweeps, notably @sokolatakis, who was sitting in a committee as a representative of the judiciary in the 1539th polling station in Dafni, Athens, and posted a picture of the voters' register featuring the date of birth of voters. He told me that of 567 voters registered in his polling station, some 50 to 60 were likely dead or "with one foot in the grave." The picture below is his. 

How many Greeks from the diaspora are registered voters?

Another important factor to take in consideration in order to understand the discrepancy between the number of registered voters and the number of residents in Greece is the Greek diaspora, which is estimated by the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad at approximately 4 million individuals. In the Greek context "diaspora" refers to anyone of Greek ancestry, meaning that not all of these four million individuals are citizens of Greece. Greece does not publish reliable data about Greeks abroad who hold dual citizenship. Some information however is available from Eurostat; for example, 296,307 Greek citizens were living in Germany in 2011. Another indicator is the data published by the US Census Bureau, which states that 1,337,511 individuals of Greek ancestry were living in the United States in 2010. While the Bureau does not specify how many of those hold Greek citizenship, it does note that 165,432 are foreign-born, of which 129,160 are naturalized US citizens and 36,272 resident aliens. Statistics Canada reports that 17,445 Canadian citizens also hold Greek citizenship. In Australia, 301,384 individuals reported in the 2006 census that at least one of their parents were born in Greece, which means that they are likely to hold Greek citizenship.

The issue with Greek citizens of the diaspora is that they may have found themselves registered as voters in Greece without taking any steps to that effect, since the Greek State will automatically register citizens born abroad as voters in the home town or village of their father. I know this from personal experience since I am myself a Canadian-born Greek and vote in downtown Athens, where my father used to vote, even though I never lived within the boundaries of Athens municipality. An Australian Greek born in Melbourne, whose family comes from a small village in northern Greece, and who may never have come to Greece, even less ever expressed an interest in Greek politics, may find him or herself registered to vote in that small village. Because Greek law does not allow for postal voting or voting by proxy, there is here a population of several hundred thousands of Greeks who did not, and will probably never vote. Being a Greek from the diaspora myself and knowing quite a few of them, I can testify that in my extended family, who all hold Greek citizenship and are registered to vote in Greece, no one made the trip from Canada or the United States to vote on 06 May or 17 June. There is here a pool of several hundred thousand registered voters who never voted and who never will. 

How many Greeks live away from their voting district? 

Then there are those Greeks who were born and bred in Greece, but who moved abroad to work or study, and are therefore not counted as "diaspora" but simply as emigrants. Here again, available data is scarce and unreliable. Students in universities outside of Greece are not reported to Eurostat by the Greek Statistical Authority, but by the host countries, who do not all report nationality data. The Eurostat figure of 33,500 Greek students registered in universities of the EU27, EEA or candidate countries in 2010 is therefore likely underestimated. Similarly, emigration data is shaky. Eurostat publishes emigration figures for Greece only for 2010, stating that in that year alone, 119,985 individuals had left Greece to take up residence in another country inside or outside the EU for at least 12 months.What is known however, and has been copiously reported by international media is that, due to the economic crisis, increasing numbers of Greeks are moving abroad. For example, according to Reuters, 23,800 Greeks emigrated to Germany alone in 2011, as shown by German data. According to CNBC, "the number of Greeks registering their resumes with the European Job Mobility Portal — a European Commission-sponsored service designed to aid intra-EU job migration — reached 7,500 in 2011 alone, comparing with 8,000 new registrations in the years between 1993 (when the portal was created) and 2010."

Those Greeks living abroad with direct ties to Greece cannot vote in national elections due to the lack of a postal or proxy voting system, unless they are willing to travel home at their own expense. This also applies to Greeks who live in Greece but away from the town or village where they are registered voters. It is therefore unsurprising that some of the areas with lowest rates of voter participation were the northern prefecture of Florina prefecture (39.07%) or  the tiny island of Lipsi (30.35%). In both of these locations, the number of registered voters exceeds the actual population of the area according to the 2011 census (Florina: 54,109 residents vs 90,689 registered voters; Lipsi: 687 residents vs 1,163 registered voters). Many of the voters registered there who live in other parts of Greece or abroad are simply not able to travel home to vote, because of the cost as well as the distance. Even for voters registered in Athens or Thessaloniki and living abroad, paying for two flights to Greece in two months might be a challenge in a period of worldwide economic downturn. 

So do Greek voters really not care? 

The answer is a resounding no. It is likely that the abstention rate among "real" voters, meaning registered voters who are alive and who have ties to Greece, is half the official reported abstention rate. Furthermore, substantial numbers of "real" voters who abstained did not do so out of choice, but because of the impossibility for one reason or another to reach their polling station. If the election results show anything, it is the fact that voter lists must be updated and that effective procedures must be put in place for citizens to either transfer their voting rights to their place of residence without having to confront weeks of bureaucracy or to be able to vote by proxy or post. 

[1] The final results of the 2011 census have not been published yet; the figures quoted are provisional.

Update 21 June 2012

I received these very interesting comments from Twitter user @Finisterre67, who claims I made several mistakes in my assessment, so here is an answer to her main points. 
  1. With regards to the fact that Greece has a fast-ageing population: this is true but only up to a point. The age group 66+ did not increase its share of the adult population in Greece by 10 percentage points in 10 years (from 19.70% according to the 2001 census to 28.48% according to the current voter lists). If we take the population aged 55+ in 2001 and deduct the deaths reported by the Greek Statistics Authority (I took deaths reported in 2006 as yearly average for the 2001-2011 period), we still come up with a total of  approx 2 million individuals aged 66+, representing less than 22% of the adult population
  2. With regards to the fact that voting registers have been updated: updating voting registers is the responsibility of municipalities. One can form a pretty good idea of the thoroughness of updates from the fact the request to update lists for the 17 June elections was sent to municipalities on 09 May 2012 (document 17949) with a deadline to file updates by 18 May 2012. The pressing issue for municipalities would clearly be to register new voters who would turn 18 before election day in order to avoid legal challenges, rather than write off dead voters who cannot protest anyway. 
  3. With regards to the fact that "many (most?) of [1.3 million American Greeks] may hold Greek citizenship": the US census bureau clearly states that the "Greek" category refers to ancestry, not to citizenship. If many/most of these American Greeks were to hold Greek citizenship, by the same token 4,950,041 Dutch Americans, 4,602,337 Norwegian Americans and 4,293,208 Swedish Americans would be likely to hold citizenship in their country of origin (respective populations 16,847,007 - 5,003,000 - 9,415,295). 
  4. Furthermore, with regards to the Greek diaspora: the one country with a substantial Greek community that publishes information about dual citizens, Canada, states clearly on its Statistics website that of 242,685 Canadians claiming Greek ancestry, only 17,445 hold Greek citizenship. More generally, I found no indication whatsoever that a large enough proportion of the Greek diaspora holds Greek citizenship to explain the number of registered voters in Greece. I am happy to admit that I am wrong, but I need a proper indication to that effect.
  5. While there is no doubt regarding the fact that abstention in Greek elections is on the rise, the various surveys quoted by @Finisterre67 show no evidence that a clearly political form of protest or disillusionment with the system was behind the high abstention rate in the 17 June elections. Quite the opposite: the VPRC poll actually shows that 89% of respondents intended to go and vote and the MRB poll shows that only 4.1% had decided not to vote. 
  6. Finally, @Finisterre67 does not take in consideration the fact that in the most remote areas of Greece, the number of registered voters is almost double the actual population (which includes non-voters), as well as the fact that increasing number of Greeks are moving abroad and would need to travel home in order to vote for the second time in a month. While it is true that some Greeks do not vote as a form of protest, there is also clear evidence that large numbers of Greeks have to spend several hundreds of euros and take several days off work in order to reach their polling station.

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