Local Government in Greece

Author:Angel-Manuel Moreno

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1. Brief historial evolution
1.1. Local government in a unitary «napoleonic» state

The consolidation of the Modern Greek state after 1833 was connected to the imposition of centralism and the abandonment of an old autonomist tradition that characterized the kind of fragmented society typical of many countries under Ottoman rule.1In a country used to numerous centres of power, no such centre could accept the rule of the national government. The iron hand of the Bavarian regents was the only one that managed to abolish thousands of historical communes ([c4e][c52][c4c][c51][c52][c57][c4c][c57][c48][c56]) and unify them in some 450 demoi (municipalities). Furthermore, the territory of the newborn state was divided, following the French model, in 10 prefectures (nomoi). The prefects were appointed by the King and were responsible for supervising the municipalities.

Immediately following the victory of Constitutionalism in 1844, local self-government was established as an important arena for party competition and an indispensible source of democratic legitimacy. Unlike the French model, however, the accumulation of mandates was never accepted and a clear distinction was made between the political personnel at the national level (MP’s, ministers) and at the local level (mayors, councillors) political personnel was made. Both categories were important for the kind of backstage localism that characterised Greek politics and rounded off the majority-based, polarised and strictly representative political system of the country.2Especially after the introduction in 1864—for the first time in Europe—of universal suffrage, the directly elected mayors could further fortify their influence.

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In 1912, the innovative liberal statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, trying to oppose clientelism and corruption but also following a romantic ideology that demanded the return back to the roots of Hellenism, ordered the revival of the communes ([c4e][c52][c4c][c51][c52][c57][c4c][c57][c48][c56]). In this manner, government was fragmented into 70 demoi (cities and towns of more than 10,000 inhabitants) and more than 5,000 communes (the smaller towns and villages)—the latter depending on state grants.

Like other southern European states, Greece experienced long periods of political instability, civil war and dictatorship. Centralism was further enhanced and was accompanied by hierarchical and authoritarian rule. After the establishment of a stable democratic system in the 1970’s, again as in other southern European countries, Greerk efforts to democratise the political system, identified the overcoming of centralism as a major challenge and necessity on the road towards Europeanization and the modernisation of state and politics.

1.2. Never–ending reforms?

Although important decentralisation reforms were continually initiated from the early eighties onwards, it is obvious that Greek socialists were not really willing (or really able) to eliminate the dominant, historically rooted centralist patterns of state, party and social hierarchies.

Up to the mid 1990’s, local governmental reforms in Greece were focused instead on the decentralization of responsibilities, on political healing after a long period of authoritarian state rule, on broadening legitimacy and on fostering political stability. However, by the late 1990’s the State tried to cope with low efficiency in local government, promoting the most remarkable reform of this period: the «Capodistrias Plan» was not only a plan to merge municipalities, but also a national and regional development and works programme, with a time scope of five years (1997-2001).

Nevertheless, a considerable number of the new municipalities still seemed to be too small to exercise several additional responsibilities (local police, minor harbours, etc.) which were then transferred to the first tier of local government. Metropolitan areas that had been exempted from amalgamations were suffering from ongoing fragmentation into a large number of municipalities (Greater Athens included more than 120 municipalities). Second-tier local authorities were too small and too weak to support municipalities and assume supra-local functions (especially those related to local development projects, whereas both tiers lacked financial resources and specialized staff. Public criticism targeted maladministration and corruption, while the traditional system of state supervision proved to be incapable of preventing the wide-spread illegal practices by local authorities that were disappointing the citizenry. The following table shows the number of prefectures and municipalities in 2008:

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Table 1

Number of prefectures and municipalities in Greek regions (2008)

REGIONS «Peripheria» PREFECTURES «Nomarchia» MUNICIPALITIES «Demos» or «Koinotis»
Eastern Macedonia-Thrace 2 55
Central Macedonia 7 134
Western Macedonia 4 61
Epirus 4 76
Thessaly 4 104
Ionian Islands 4 39
Western Greece 3 74
Central Greece 5 95
Attica 3 124
Peloponnese 5 107
North Aegean 3 36
South Aegean 2 58
Crete 4 71
TOTALS 50 1,034

Source: Ministry of Interior (2008).

2. Basic facts and figures

After an impressive victory in the elections of 2009, a strong socialist government with an ambitious reform program had to face an unprecedented financial crisis. The new ruling majority decided to use radical local government reform as remedy against the crisis. A new, thoroughly-prepared reform plan called «Kallikrates», was presented for public consultation in January 2010, and a new law, radically changing the structure and operation of local governance, was adopted that May. The «Kallikrates» Plan calls for the compulsory merging of local government units, leading to the reduction in the number of municipalities (demos) from 1,034 to 325, while the second tier has been elevated to the regional level with the formation of 13 regional local authorities, or peripheria, instead of the former 50 PSG’s. At the same time, the de-concentrated state administration has been restructured at an even higher level, including seven units ([c44][c53][c52][c4e][c48][c51][c57][c55][c52][c50][c48][c51][c4c][c03][c47][c4c][c4c][c4e][c48][c56][c4c]). This new structure of state and local government, with fewer entities, conforms more closely to the Lisbon Treaty principles.

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The new reform is the first one including both tiers of local government and de-concentrated state authorities. Furthermore, territorial consolidation is linked to the extensive decentralization of responsibilities and resources. Special emphasis is being given to the goals of efficiency and economies of scale, modern management of human and financial resources and improvement of service and professional quality. Furthermore, this reform is following basic principles and objectives of new public management, such as systematic control and overall supervision, accountability and transparency. The simplification of structures—many fewer units at three levels of governance—is expected to increase multi-level and cross-departmental cooperation that will lead to better coordination and effective steering.

Table 2

Number of de-concentrated administrations, regions and municipalities (2011)

Macedonia-Thrace Eastern Macedonia-Thrace 22
Central Macedonia 38
Western Macedonia-Epirus Western Macedonia 12
Epirus 19
Thessaly-Central Greece Thessaly 25
Central Greece 25
Peloponnese-Western Greece-Ionian Islands Ionian Islands 7
Western Greece 19
Peloponnese 26
Attica Attica 66
Aegean North Aegean 8
South Aegean 34
Crete Crete 24
TOTALS 13 325

Source: Ministry of Interior (2008).

After the «Kallikrates» reform, the average population of Greek municipalities became one of the highest among those of European countries (mean value of 31,000 inhabitants). In view of these facts, the territorial rescaling of Greek municipalities becomes even more impressive:

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Table 3

Distribution of municipalities by orders of magnitude prior to (2010) and following (2011) the implementation of the «Kallikrates» reform

Population Municipalities 2010 % Municipalities 2011 %
548 53 45 14
5,001-10,000 259 25 26 8
10,001-50,000 186 18 192 59
50,001-100,000 31 3 49 15
> 100,000 10 1 13 4
TOTALS 1,034 100 325 100

Source: Ministry of Interior, 2011.

3. Legal framework of local self-government

The Constitution of June 1975 of the Third Republic (1974 to the present) ensures the twofold incorporation of local government into the democratic system: on the one hand...

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