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Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou addresses Parliament at the opening of debate on a vote of confidence Saturday.
Louisa Gouliamaki/Getty Images
In any democracy, governments can lose power following a popular vote. But under the parliamentary system, governments can vote to strip themselves of power.
That's the dynamic behind Tuesday's confidence vote in Greece. To keep bailout money coming in from other European countries and avoid default, the Greek Parliament has to approve an austerity package that includes tax increases, wage cuts and the sale of some $70 billion worth of government assets.
The package is hugely unpopular with the public and has gained no support from minority parties. So Prime Minister George Papandreou decided to play for high stakes.
Approval Or Shutdown
Calling for a confidence vote means that the ruling Socialists either have to stand with him and pass the package or, by rejecting it, bring the government down.
No-confidence votes are not completely foreign to the U.S. Frequently, they are held by police unhappy with their chiefs or professors looking to oust a university president.
But there is no formal mechanism empowering Congress to cast no-confidence votes on the president or other executive branch figures. That hasn't stopped Congress from holding them from time to time, or at least introducing censure resolutions.
Not surprisingly, the largest number of censure resolutions in the modern day were introduced in 1973, when Congress was looking for ways to express disapproval of President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate scandal. The next year, Congress would move to impeach Nixon, but he resigned first.
In 2007, the Senate took up a no-confidence vote on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, amid accusations that he had misled Congress and that the Justice Department had become politicized. A majority of senators supported the resolution, but the 53-38 vote in June fell short of getting the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture. Gonzales resigned two months later.
During the Truman administration, Congress held repeated no-confidence votes regarding Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Then, the complaint was not so much his performance in office but an expression of displeasure that Congress had been kept in the dark about foreign policy decisions.
Following one such vote in the House in 1952, President Harry S. Truman made a "grudging response," according to Time, by issuing a statement that he had made no commitments to send U.S. troops abroad during a meeting with the British.
— Alan Greenblatt
Votes of confidence and no confidence happen in parliamentary governments all the time, usually without consequence. But they can force an issue — and force governments to make accommodations they would not otherwise like.
On June 2, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government survived a no-confidence vote in response to its handling of the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, but only after Kan promised to step down soon.
Papandreou's gamble in Greece was that most members of his party would rather be put on record supporting the unpopular package of privatization and tax hikes, instead of having the government fail and facing voters directly in an early election.
To understand how votes of confidence and no confidence work and what they mean, NPR separately interviewed two political scientists who have studied them. John Huber chairs the political science department at Columbia University. Lanny Martin is an associate professor of political science at Rice University.
What is the difference between a confidence vote and a vote of no confidence?
Martin: A no-confidence vote is called by the opposition. A confidence vote is a vote in which the government asks the legislature to approve its general policies. If the legislature doesn't approve them, the government has to resign, meaning the Cabinet.
Usually, when a government calls a confidence vote, it's to push through a package of policies, such as these austerity measures. Often, when the government loses, they do call new elections.
Huber: No-confidence votes are more symbolic than anything. Minority parties try to create a moment where they say, 'We don't like what the government is doing,' and sometimes they can bring the government down.
The other way — a confidence vote, when the government asks for it — is more exciting, as in Greece now. Because of the opposition of members of his party, Papandreou needs a strong procedural method to whip them in line.
Would it make any sense for Congress to hold such votes, to have a way of criticizing the president short of impeachment?
Huber: To me, it doesn't make sense in a separation-of-powers system. Congress and the president are each elected independently. Congress gets to say it doesn't like what the president is proposing all the time.
Parliamentary leaders get to make the take-it-or-leave-it proposal. Papandreou can say, accept my proposal, or you have to throw me out of government.
What causes these types of votes to happen?
Martin: It's usually some crisis that precipitates a confidence vote, or a no-confidence vote. Usually there's some event that makes an issue more salient. Often, the crises are self-imposed by scandals.
Typically, the only way no-confidence votes are going to succeed is when there's a minority party or a coalition government in power. If the opposition unites, they can vote them out of office. That happens occasionally. Or the government resigns before the vote, so it's successful even without holding the vote.
Huber: No-confidence votes are not that rare. They're typically symbolic, and most often they fail. Something has to happen to make parties form a coalition, and then something has to happen to make them no longer want to be in government.
The confidence vote is a symbol that the government is having trouble keeping its troops together. It's a very strong procedure to use to try to get what you want.
How will this play out in Greece?
Martin: There are a lot of people in the majority party in Greece that are really unhappy right now. The prime minister is going to force them to support these policies, or call for new elections, which would be a disaster. They would go to a very angry electorate right now.
Huber: What would create a loss would be defection from Papandreou's own party. There would have to be members of the Socialist Party that think they could do better by bringing the government down.
It's not clear it's the winning electoral vote to let the government get the austerity measures.