George Katrougalos

The Constitutional History of Greece, in the Balkan Context



I. Common features of the Balkan institutional building

A) The influence of the “external factor”

B) The ambivalent process of westernisation

C) Discrepancy between constitutional texts and reality

The interventions of the throne

The role of military

D) Excessive state centralism

The state mechanism: clientism and jobbery

A strong executive and the derive to authoritarianism

Lack of any tradition of federalism

II. Outline of the constitutional history of Greece

A) General overview

B) The building of the state

C) The absolute monarchy

D) The constitutional monarchy

The constitution of 1844

The Constitution of 1864

The Constitution of 1911

E) The Second Greek Republic

The Constitution of 1927

F) The authoritarian regimes

The Metaxas regime and World War II.

The Civil war and its repercussions

G)The second period of parliamentary monarchy

The Constitution of 1952

H) The dictatorship of the colonels

F) The Third Greek Republic

The Constitution of 1975

G) The actual constitutional life


Despite many important differences, the constitutional process of the Balkan countries is marked by a great number of parallel trends, shaped by the common political history of the area (Hosch 1988, Allcock 1998). Toward the end of the 18th century the common denominator in all of them was the development of strong nationalist liberation movements against the"political yoke" of the Ottoman Empire. As the independence was not gained but many years later, the Balkan state formation, by contrast to other European countries (Rokkan, 1974), has been posterior to the nation formation (Filias 1981, Tsoukalas 1986, Moscof 1978, Vergopoulos 1978).

The social foundation of this nation-building movement was produced by the quickening of economic life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the development of small but active bourgeois classes and the development of commerce. Still, the civil society remained very weak, as the bourgeois class was a very small minority and could not change the agrarian and archaic social structures.

The nationalist movements, under the general influence of the European Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution constituted the first vehicle of the constitutionalism in the Peninsula. As clearly indicates the title of an anonymous publication of the time, “Nomarchia” (i.e. the Rule of Law) the goals of national liberation and of a complete social reorganisation, based on the law, were considered as coincident.

Hence, at the same time when Rigas Velestinlis, (Rigas Pheraios) was publishing his "Declaration of the Rights of Man" and the "New Political Constitution of the Inhabitants of Rumeli, Asia Minor, the Islands of the Aegean, and the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia", proposing the establishment of a Republican Balkan Peninsula, the monk Paisiy of Mount Athos, was writing his "Slaveno-Bulgarian History“ invoking in parallel lines the Bulgarian national revival.

The common aspirations of the Balkan people and the similarity of the socio-economic and political environment has resulted to a number of common characteristics and to a parallel constitutional history, till the aftermath of the World War II, when Greece continued to be a western parliamentary republic, whereas the other countries have adopted socialist regimes. Before attempting the outlining of the Greek constitutional history, it would be interesting to examine the basic characteristics of this common institutional legacy.

I- Common features of the Balkan institutional building

A- The influence of the “external factor”

Although the independence was gained in almost all countries after popular revolts or revolutions, the final independent statehood was gained only after the support of these so-called Great Powers: Russia for the Serbs and Bulgarians, Britain, France, and Russia for the Greeks. The Romanians also benefited greatly from the wars of Italian and German unification, and the Albanians independence from the First Balkan War (1912-13) and the favourable position on their behalf of the American President W. Wilson. Therefore, the creation of all Balkan states were ultimately conditioned by the influence of external factors and particularly the external policy of the great western powers of the time:

The influence of those external powers has not ceased with the independence, but continued to be a present and mighty factor for the shaping of the constitutional life. They have imposed to all Balkan countries -except Serbia and Montenegro- nonnative dynasties with a minor German princeling on the throne (Otto of Bavaria in Greece, Alexander of Battenberg in Bulgaria, Charles of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen in Romania.) Even Albania, who gained independence in the next century, has been appointed a German prince, Wilhelm zu Wied in March 1914.

The “protective powers” continued to play an important part in determining political and constitutional structures, either by diplomatic means or even under political pressure, usually with the intention of protecting their citizens (the case of “Pacifica” in Greece) or minority rights, as with the Muslims of Bulgaria and the Jews of Romania. The importance of this foreign intervention in the internal affairs was present also in the next century and it was one of the main supporting factors of both “national schisms” of Greece. This is true even for the second half of the 20th century, although the Americans -in Greece- and the Soviet Union in the other countries replaced the traditional “protective powers”.

B- The ambivalent process of westernisation

The Ottoman rule has cut off the Balkan countries from the mainstream of the European civilisation for more than four centuries. Therefore the attempt to built a liberal constitutional democracy onto an essentially premodern societies gave rise to tensions both within the political system and in the relations between state and society. Under the influence of the European Enlightenment almost all countries have adopted democratic constitutions, based on the principles of the French Revolution and later constitutional charters, as the Belgian Constitution of 1831. However, this was less the outcome of a functional necessity of the indigenous social structure, than an ideological gesture towards the public opinion in Europe.

The lack of modernity of the civil societies, the negative legacy of the Ottoman despotic centralism, and also the existence of autochthonous and original institutions of representation at the local (communal) level, foreign to the European ones, has caused a permanent tension in the effort of Balkan “aggiornamento” and a clash between “traditional” and “westerners”.

The dichotomy between pro-westerners and traditional elites has taken many forms (e.g. between slavophiles and Europeanists in the Slavic states) , but it is present universally: Charilaos Trikoupis in Greece, Dragan Tsankov, Karavelov and Petko Slaveikov in Bulgaria, Fan S. Noli in Albania, Eugen Lovinescu and the "forty-eighters" in Romania contrasted not only with the conservative, semi-feudal land-owning kodjambasis, beys and bajraktars but also to patriots who honoured and emphasised the Eastern Orthodox spiritual heritage or the historical past of the Balkan peoples.

As a result, the building of the state institutions was not the natural outcome of a long social evolution, but seriously biased by the opposing political concepts and “weltanschaungen”. In consequence, many basic state structures have not been indigenous, but imported and implemented by above. Even the institutions of local government, which were based on a tradition of centuries, have been restricted and almost abandoned. (In Greece, for instance, by two consecutive laws of 1828 and 1833, in Bulgaria by the Alexander of Battenberg’s reform of Sofia's municipal council in 1879.)

Due to this tactic of institutional transplant, it was not an exception the efforts of modernization and westernisation to coincide with authoritarian methods for the implementation of ambitious programs of political and social reform. Typical of this kind of “enlightened westerner despotism” are the cases of count Kapodistrias in Greece and prince Cuza, in Romania.

C-Discrepancy between constitutional texts and reality

A second, more important distortion, common in the constitutional history of the Balkans it is the discrepancy between constitutional texts and reality. It is not unusual highly democratic laws not to be actually implemented or to coexist with anomic or even authoritarian practices of the executive. For instance, the Greek Constitution of 1844 and the Bulgarian one of Turnovo of 1879 provided for universal male suffrage before many other core European countries. Still, the evolution of the parliamentary life was determined not only by the lack of maturity of the civil society, but also by the non-constitutional interventions of the monarchs and the military.

The interventions of the throne

The constant intervention by the throne to the political game, encouraged by the “external factor”, has been a constant characteristic through the whole constitutional history of Balkans. The kings usually had a disdain for democracy and intended to make themselves the "decisive force" in national affairs, especially to the external policy and the control of the army.

The role of military

In the majority of Balkan states –with the exception of Albania- there is a persistent pattern of military involvement in politics. The army became a factor of great significance in Greece after the military revolution of 1843 against King Otto, in Bulgaria after the deposition of Prince Alexander in 1886 and in Serbia after the overthrow of the Obrenovic dynasty in 1903. In Romania it was less involved in the political game, whereas its role seemed to be minimal only in Albania, due to its relative weakness.

Despite these national variations, the army remained a powerful factor in the political affairs of all states (Allcoc, Petropoulos). Generally, it played a progressive role till the first two decades of this century, as a vehicle of the demands of the bourgeois class against the traditional elites. Still, after World War I, in the framework of the rise of fascist movements, it became a major element of instability and gave rise to unconstitutional interventions, conspiracies and coup d’ etats almost in all the states of the region.

D- Excessive state centralism

The state mechanism: clientism and jobbery

All Balkan states have assumed an active interventionist role in the economy and the ordering of the social relations. This was generally the result of the lack of economic resources and the existence of a civil society in a state of “fluidity” (Svoronos, 1970:28), bringing in mind the remarks of Gramsci on the similar situation of the Italian South (Gramsci:263),

Still, usually they did little to encourage industrialization, preferring to use the state budget to finance the extension of bureaucracy or to maintain as powerful an army as possible. So, the State has been from the beginning an employer of the first resort, often in a parasitic way. In consequence, at the end of the nineteenth century the number of functionaries by 10.000 inhabitants in Greece was 7 times higher than that of the British Empire (Dertilis, 1976), whereas Bulgarian military expenditures on a per capita basis were the highest in Europe. In 1890 the army of "the Prussia of the Balkans" was ranked thirteenth in the world, just before the USA’s Army.

The system of clientism and jobbery became also the basic motor of the party system, which was based on the struggle for the spoils of office and the distribution of public posts in exchange of political obedience. The result was the development of massive corruption in public administration, which was far away from the Weberian ideal of neutral bureaucracy in the service of public interest.

It is true that the initial two-party present in the majority of all states throughout in the nineteenth century gave place to more modern political formations (such as the liberals of Venizelos in Greece, the National Peasant Party of Iuliu Maniu in Romania, the Agrarian party of Stamboliyski in Bulgaria, etc who pursued democratic reforms in the first two decades of the next century). Still, the spoils system remained a constant characteristic of the administration even after this landmark.

A strong executive and the derive to authoritarianism

Another striking similarity of the Balkan States is the great strength of the executive, as opposed to the legislative power. This was the result of other common trends of the area, as the lack of an embedded tradition of parliamentarism, the constant interventionism of the throne to the political life, the general gigantism of the state and the class between the central apparatus and the local power.

This great strength of the executive, combined to an imperfect system of checks and balances as well as to a relative weakness and the polarisation of civil societies facilitated the derive to authoritarianism that all countries have experienced in the mid war. In this period, stability, internal and external, was destroyed by the great economic crisis of 1929-32, the rise of the communist movement and the inability of the traditional political class to handle the new situation. In consequence, the fundamental political issue was the struggle between parliamentarism and authoritarianism and it has been resulted generally, unfortunately, in favour of the latter.

Lack of any tradition of federalism

The excessive centralism did not allow the formation of a federalist tradition, despite the existence of important minorities in all the countries. This fact exacerbated ethnic problems and constituted a factor of instability in the area. Moreover, it contributed to a lack of tolerance towards the “other”, which did not favour the development of a fully embracing human rights protection.

II- Outline of the constitutional history of Greece

A-General overview

Unlike the other countries of the Balkans (and unlike Spain and Portugal in this century, as well) Greece has had a long experience of parliamentary democracy. Despite the distortions of the political life, this parliamentary tradition has marked the constitution making and, more generally, the political system of the country. Moreover, the intertwining of the country’s history with the West, contrary to its other neighbours, resulted to the establishment of more stable foundation for the rule of law. Especially, after the fall of the Dictatorship of Colonels in 1974, the Greek Democracy has fully rejoined the bulk of the European legal civilization. Since then the parliamentary and constitutional life has nothing to envy from the average core Western European countries.

Still, till the establishment of the Third Republic of 1975, the discrepancy between constitutional texts and reality has been a constant feature of the constitutional life of Greece, as in the other Balkan states. This situation has been aggravated by a sharp division of the population twice during the twentieth century, initially between pro-monarchists and republicans and after the Second World War between pro- and anticommunist forces.

The consequences for the legitimation of the Polity were important: The partisan policies of the state have been incompatible to its image as a neutral arbiter, above political cleavages and social interests. Inevitably, the ideological hegemony of the Greek state has been always extremely weak and the traditional attitude of the citizens towards it one of contempt and mistrust. Professor Langrod, an expert who had been invited by the Greek Government in the 1960’s in order to suggest a reform of the civil service, located as one of the most serious problems of the public sector the “inherent hostility of the Greeks towards the authorities”. (Langrod:71).

In this framework, the basic milestones of the Greek constitutional history have as follows:

B-The building of the state

During the revolution of the 1821 against the Otthoman Empire three major democratic constitutions have been adopted. All of them proclaimed the republican character of the state, heavily influenced by the French Revolutionary Constitution of 1791 and contained extensive bill of human rights. The constitution of 1823, has unified the local governments in a central authority. However, the process of unification has been hindered by the factionalism between rival groups, which almost culminated in civil war in 1824. The basic tension was between the traditional notables (“kodjabashis”) and the military warlords, who were expressing the populace.

The Assembly of Troezene, in order to restore the unity, has enacted the third constitution in 1827 and elected the Count Ioannis Kapodistrias, as the first “Governor” (president) of Greece. Kapodistrias tried to create the necessary infrastructure and assure the western orientation of the state, but he has been assassinated by the rivals of his policy in 1831.

The "Hegemonic" Constitution of 1832

After his death, a National Assembly adopted the so-called "Hegemonic" Constitution, which has never been applied. The Senate appointed a seven-member Committee and convened a new Assembly, which, in 1832, endorsed the appointement by the "protecting powers" (England, France and Russia) of Otho, son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, as "King of Greece".

C-The absolute monarchy

Otto of Wittelsbach, has ruled for more than one decade as absolute monarch introducing an expanded legislation in an effort of westernizing the country without taking into account the local traditions of the country. The discontent against the authoritarian pattern of his policy and his Bavarian court has coalesced in the military coup of September 1843, which has been supported by the people of Athens.

D-The constitutional monarchy

The constitution of 1844

The revolutionary National Assembly has forced to grant a constitution (promulgated in 1844), which has established a constitutional monarchy and universal manhood suffrage. Like all the Greek Constitutions, the Constitution of 1844 endorsed the principle of the separation of powers and guaranteed the basic fundamental rights and freedoms. Still, from the constitutional point of view this Charter was a pact between the monarch and the people, a "charte octroyee", recognizing the monarch as the supreme organ of the State and the head of the Executive. He had the right of legislative initiative, and the competence to appoint the members of the Upper House and the judges.

King Otto has not respected even these constitutional provisions giving him ample powers. Trying to impose his personal policies he has been ultimately alienated from the Greek population and, finally, the public unrest resulted to his abdication. By a new decision of the Great Powers a Danish prince, was imposed as new King. George I, “King of the Hellenes” (and not anymore of Greece) reigned from 1863 to 1913 and his dynasty reigned intermittently until the final abolition of monarchy in 1974.

The Constitution of 1864

The new constitution of 1864, influenced by the Belgian Constitution of 1831 and the Danish Constitution of 1845, has consolidated and amplified the democratic rights of the 1844 constitution. Contrary to the Constitution of 1844, it was the genuine product of a sovereign constituent assembly, which has endorsed as form of government the parliamentary monarchy based on national sovereignty. The King had no right to participate in the revision of the Constitution. Finally, in 1875 a decisive step toward political modernization and the assertion of the principles of parliamentarism was taken, as King George conceded that he would thenceforth entrust the government only to the political leader enjoying the confidence of a majority of the deputies in parliament.

Nevertheless, the defeat at the war of 1897 against Turkey and the downfall of the great reformer politician Ch. Trikoupis has resulted towards the end of the century to a stagnation and general crisis of the political life. As a reaction to this situation, a military coup in Goudi (at the outskirts of Athens) in 1909 has imposed new conditions to the political life and a new leader in Greece: The Cretan politician El. Venizelos, the most prominent Greek Statesman of this century.

The Constitution of 1911

As a culmination of the reform over 50 amendments to the 1864 constitution were enacted, endorsing, practically, a new Constitution. (The constitutional procedure for the revision had not been respected.) The new Charter has provided new guarantees for the independence of the judiciary, the review of the electoral results and the enlargement of the protection of fundamental rights and liberties. Therefor, it is generally considered as the landmark for the establishment of the “rule of law” in Greece. A moderatte land reform, the first comprising social legislation and innovations in the educational system were also introduced.

Despite these important steps of modernization Greece was riven by the "National Schism," a division of the country into irreconcilable camps between royalists and republicans. The breach became irrevocable when Venizelos in October of 1916 established a rival government in Thessaloniki and has reached its culmination after the military disaster in the war against Turkey in 1922. This war ended with the national cleansing of over 1.500.000 Greeks of the Minor Asia who came as refugees in the mainland. Finally a military junta seized power in 1922 and King Constantine abdicated, whereas five royalist politicians and the commander of the Asia Minor forces were tried and executed on a charge of high treason.

E- The Second Greek Republic

The Constitution of 1927

The republicans have endorsed a Constitution in 1927 establishing the republican democracy as the form of government. The President of the Republic, whose competences were restricted in comparison to those of the King in the previous Constitutions, was to be elected indirectly by the Parliament and the Senate. A Senate was established with legislative competencies as well as competencies with regard to the dissolution of Parliament. However, in the political turmoil of the years that followed this Constitution was not practically implemented. Finally, the King ***

F- The authoritarian regimes

The Metaxas regime and World War II.

General Ioannis Metaxas, a politician of the extreme Right has exploited the general political crisis of the ‘30s and using a threatened general strike by the communists as pretext, persuaded the king on Aug. 4, 1936, to suspend key articles of the constitution. This was the beginning of a dictatorship which lasted four and a half years, till the occupation of the country by the Axis forces, in 1941.

The Civil war and its repercussions

Greece emerged in the late ‘40s in a state of devastation, as a bitter civil war between pro- and anticommunist forces followed the liberation. The outcome of the war was the emergence of a “dual society” and a mutation of the state’s functions. The latter did not merely remain, as always, at the centre of clientelistic policies, but it assumed, in addition, an active ideological role in the perpetuation of the division between the losers and the winners of the war, by offering jobs and state subsidies to ones, repudiating and purging the others, long after the end of the hostilities.

It is characteristic that in 1957, eight years after the last shot of the last battle, the Greek citizenship has been revoked from 5.521 persons, in comparison to only 52 in 1951, a year much closer to the war (Alivizatos:449). Almost one third of the functionaries have been fired (Alivizatos:314 ff) just between 1946 and 1948. An official delivered “certificate of loyalty” (established by the law 509/1947) was required during all this period not only for a nomination in the civil service, but also for acquiring a car license or for the presentation at University examinations.

G-The second period of parliamentary monarchy

The Constitution of 1952

The Constitution of 1952 has established a parliamentary monarchy, in which the King retained the legislative initiative, the competence to sanction the laws and issue legislative decrees. In the domain of basic rights and fundamental freedoms the Constitution was relatively anachronistic and it did not even include provisions on social rights. Still, the basic institutional problem was the perpetuation of the existence of a “parallel constitution”, composed by the exceptional legislation of the civil war, which restricted the majority of fundamental rights proclaimed by the Constitution.

H- The dictatorship of the colonels

The dictatorship of the colonels (1967-1974) has imposed its authoritarian yoke invoking as official alibi the same “communist menace”. It has, however, extended the political purges against all members of the political specter, including the conservative citizens and politicians. As a consequence, after its collapse, this old ideological recipe of legitimation could not be functional any more. The junta, politically isolated by the anti-dictatorship fight, has collapsed after the national disaster caused by its coup d’Etat in Cyprus and the consecutive Turkish invasion.

F-The Third Greek Republic

The winner of the first free elections, conservative Statesman Karamanlis has opted for a relative modernisation of the state structures, investing especially in the perspective of the admission of Greece in the European Communities. He has abolished the post-civil war “laws of exception” and legalised the communist party. Therefor, the Constitution of 1975 consisted of elements of continuity and discontinuity with the constitutional past of the country. The nomination of the assembly as “revisionary” (“Fifth Revisionary Assembly”) although it has actually exerted primary constituent authority, having the power to change or abort even the fundamental, non subject to revision provisions of the former Constitution shows the effort of the majority to show this continuity.

This ideological endeavour had a double objective: first, to demonstrate that the dictatorial regime never abolished, with regard to law, the democratic regime. Second, to illustrate the lack of interruption of the political tradition represented by the conservative parties. The latter wanted to show that the political life should maintain most of the characteristics of the pre-existing tradition and, hence, perpetuate their long established and virtually uninterrupted dominance.

The Constitution of 1975

The Constitution of 1975 has been voted after a free but very short discussion only by the governmental majority. The opposition did not take part in the final vote, protesting against the hasty procedure and the persistence of the majority not to amend crucial provisions and especially those concerning the competence of the President. Generally, as we are going to expose analytically below, the Constitution has reinforced especially the executive branch, at the expense of the Parliament. The opposition criticized especially this marginalization of the parliament and the eventual authoritative influence of the President on the political life. For them, the Head of the State should have only symbolical competencies, while real power should lie with the cabinet and the Chamber, to which the executive should be directly accountable.

However, all basic civil and political rights have been therein included and also, for the first time after the moribund Constitution of 1927, a bill of social ones. The fundamental principle of the respect of human dignity has also been established, together with some other constitutional “novelties”: The most important among them was the recognition of the institutional role of the political parties and the foundation of a right to environment.

G- The present constitutional life

As the history of the Constitution’s adoption predicted, the evolution of political life during the first decade of its implementation was contradictory, incorporating elements of the past and the future of the country. The clientelistic policies did not cease to exist and the State did not open itself to the society, being essentially a fief of the ruling conservative party. The two consecutive conservative governments followed a rather authoritarian policy towards the syndicates, whereas the mass media, a state monopoly, were under strict control of the government.

However, despite these remains of the past, the parliamentary and more generally the political life has been the freest that the country had ever known. All parties, including the communist one, have been free to act and the elections have been generally fair, besides the tactical advantage given to the government by its absolute control on the electronic mass media. For the first time mass political parties not belonging in the Communist left have been formed. PASOK, the socialist party, has been the first to organize mighty party organizations both in urban and rural areas, whereas the conservative N. Democracy followed this example essentially after its electoral defeat.

Under these circumstances it was obvious that the excluded political and social strata, the losers of the post-civil war dual society would eventually come in power and overthrow the ancient status quo. The Constitutional theory has seen to the exceptional prerogatives given to the President of the Republic an effort of the constituent majority to put institutional impediments to this process.

Under the Constitution, before the revision of 1986, the President had the power “in case of a serious disturbance or of manifest threat to public order and to the security of the state from internal dangers” to suspend throughout the country the protection of fundamental rights, put into effect the law on "state of siege" and establish extraordinary tribunals. Given his competence to dismiss the government after consulting a purely consultative organ, the Council of the Republic, he had also the possibility to appoint a puppet Prime Minister of his choice and govern hence, during the “state of stage” as a constitutional dictator. Even without declaring this exceptional “state of stage” the President could, in extraordinary circumstances, convene on his own initiative and preside over the cabinet. He could also dissolve the Parliament, if he considered that it was not “in harmony with popular feeling”, and proclaim referenda even against the will of the Government.

The Charter has been legitimized by the normalization of the political life and especially the smooth transition of the political power from the conservative party of New Democracy to the new socialist majority of the elections of 1981. The presidential prerogatives have never been used. The first “cohabitation” of a President and a Government of opposite political colors occurred after 1981. Then K. Karamanlis, the historical conservative leader, newly elected in the Presidency, had to co-exist with A. Papandreou, the historical socialist leader. The two parts found, however, a viable modus vivendi. The crashing majority (48%) of the Socialists and their gradual adoption of more moderate positions, as, for instance, the acceptance of the adhesion in NATO and EU, were the two basic factors that favored the “co-operation scenario”. Still, part of the constitutional theory insisted that the above mentioned prerogatives of the President exerted a latent function of dissuasion vis-a-vis the Government, hindering her from applying freely her policy and thus, blurring the expression of the political will of the people.

Therefore, the socialist majority, supported by the Communist left, opted for the revision of the Constitution and the abolition of the presidential prerogatives. By this way, the demands articulated by the opposition of 1974 have been finally satisfied: the main objective of the 6th Revisionary Chamber was to strengthen the role of Parliament and the Cabinet, in order to reassert popular sovereignty. The revision, which was also a brilliant tactical maneuvering of Papandreou aiming to the political outcast of Karamanlis, has abolished the “semi-presidentialist- elements of the regime and restored its pure parliamentary character.

Today, the legitimacy of the Constitution as a whole is not at question. However, sometimes the crisis of credibility of the political world is disguised into constitutional crisis. That happens when the political inability to respond efficiently to the challenges of our times is attributed to some imaginative deficiency of the Constitutional Charter, which becomes therof an alibi for the politicians’ weakness.

The political and constitutional life of Greece faces the same challenges and the same problems as all European Democracies: to democratize the process of European integration, to develop the participation of the people both at domestic and at European level, in order to counterbalance the crisis of politics and the distrust towards the traditional answers of the political parties.


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