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22 Μαΐ 2012

Who's who in Greek politics: the radicalization of the right

In the past few days, there have been so many changes, transfers, counter-transfers and mergers on the Greek political scene that it has all become a little confusing, even for experienced observers of Greek politics. While this phenomenon can be interpreted as simple, cheap politicking by individuals seeking to secure their re-election in June, careful examination of the backgrounds of some politicians also reveals a worrying tendency to mainstream and trivialize the opinions and positions of personnalities who, by all reasonable standards, belong to the extreme-right.

Starting from PASOK and moving to the left, the situation remains so far relatively clear. No major defections from PASOK have been noted since February 2012, when several MPs broke ranks with the party over the bailout and austerity package and were disbarred. Similarly, there have been no defections from SYRIZA, Democratic Left and the Communist Party (KKE) since the 06 May elections, although many commentators expect that large numbers of KKE voters, and possibly some officials, may support SYRIZA in the upcoming 17 June elections. The Ecogreens voted by an overwhelming majority against merging with any other party, and anti-capitalist left movement ANTARSYA also decided in favour of competing on their own. According to media reports, former PASOK Labour Minister Louka Katseli announced that  Social Pact, a breakaway faction of PASOK founded in late 2011 which failed to enter parliament on 06 May, would not compete on its own, and is "in talks" with SYRIZA, Democratic Left and the Ecogreens for possible electoral collaboration.

To the right of PASOK however, political observers may be forgiven for believing that they are watching a game of musical chairs. For example, yesterday alone, centre-right liberal party Drassi announced that it would be joining forces with Dimiourgia Xana, whose positions on the management of immigration policy are rather extreme, and which demanded in turn that Liberal Alliance, a component of Drassi led by the first openly gay political party leader in Greece, Grigoris Vallianatos, be excluded from the coalition. Meanwhile, Dora Bakoyanni announced the suspension of her party, Democratic Alliance, and her return to the fold of Nea Demokratia. Several former MPs with the far-right LAOS party chose to join Nea Demokratia as well, while one former Nea Demokratia MP, Nikos Georgiadis, stated that he was joining Drassi, and Stelios Stavridis, who was on the top of the national ballot for Drassi in the 06 May elections, defected to Nea Demokratia.

High-level officials switching political parties is not entirely uncommon in Greece. For example, Stefanos Manos, the founder of Drassi, was a high-level Nea Demokratia official who competed twice for the party leadership in 1993 and 1997. He was elected an MP with Nea Demokratia in 1996, was disbarred in 1998 and founded the Liberal Party. He then cooperated with Nea Demokratia for the 2000 elections and was re-elected, then dissolved his party in 2002 and was re-elected  again in 2004, this time on the PASOK national ballot. He failed to keep his seat in 2009, founded Drassi and competed in the 06 May elections together with the Liberal Alliance, which he is splitting from less than one month later to join forces with Dimiourgia Xana.

The waltz of power within Nea Demokratia is even more mind-boggling. Antonis Samaras, the current leader of Nea Demokratia, was first elected an MP in 1977, and was Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Mitsotakis government (1990-1992), where he advocated a hard line over the issue of formerly Yugoslav Macedonia. He left Nea Demokratia in 1992 and went on to found Political Spring, a conservative, right-wing, nationalist political party. Two other Nea Demokratia MPs joined him in September 1993, causing the fall of the Mitsotakis government. He was then re-elected with Political Spring in 1993 but failed to keep his seat in 1996, supported Nea Demokratia in the 2000 elections, re-joined the party officially in 2004 and was once again elected to parliament in 2007. He then became the leader of Nea Demokratia in November 2009 in a primary which he won over Dora Mitsotakis-Bakoyannis, the daughter of the the prime minister who was overthrown by Samaras's actions in 1993. Dora Bakoyannis, who was herself an MP with Nea Demokratia since 1989, was disbarred from the party after voting in favour of the first bailout in May 2010, which Nea Demokratia opposed. In November 2010, she founded Democratic Alliance, a centre-right liberal party which failed to enter parliament on 06 May and was officially suspended yesterday as Bakoyannis returned to Nea Demokratia.

Another interesting case is that of Kostas Kiltidis, a right-wing politician who started his political career in 1973 as a member of the fascist 4th of August Party (the party's name refers to the coup by fascist dictator Metaxas in 1936). He joined Nea Demokratia in 1978 and was elected to parliament for the first time in 2000. In June 2010, he broke ranks with the party over a major vote on austerity measures and defected to Bakoyanni's Democratic Alliance, but then further defected to far-right LAOS in August 2011. After failing to keep his seat with LAOS on 06 May, he announced that he was returning to Nea Demokratia, with the following statement: "I didn't change parties four times. I can accept silliness but ridicule kills. My home is Nea Demokratia."

Giorgos Karatzaferis, the founder of far-right party LAOS, is himself a former Nea Demokratia MP. He was elected to parliament with Nea Demokratia in 1993, 1996 and 2000, but shortly after this last election was disbarred and went on to establish LAOS, which entered parliament in 2007. After LAOS failed to secure the required 3% of the vote to elect MPs on 06 May, several LAOS officials announced that they were defecting to Nea Demokratia, while Karatzaferis insists that LAOS should compete on its own in the 17 June elections.

LAOS officials leaving LAOS to join Nea Demokratia started as early as February 2012, when LAOS decided to break ranks with the Papademos government coalition and vote against the latest bailout and austerity package. Most notable is the case of Makis Voridis, a hard-line LAOS MP who had been appointed Minister of Infrastructure, Transportation and Networks by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos in November 2011. Voridis began his political career in 1985 as youth leader for the National Political Union, a pro-Junta extreme right political party founded by imprisoned dictator Papadopoulos. It is noteworthy that he took over the youth leader position from none other than N. Michaloliakos, the current leader of the explicitly neo-nazi Golden Dawn party. After several failed attempts to be elected to parliament, Voridis finally joined LAOS in 2007, won his MP seat and became a government minister in 2011. In February 2012, he was disbarred from LAOS, but was asked by Papademos to stay on as a government minister and joined Nea Demokratia. Similarly, Adonis Georgiadis, who as a journalist promoted nationalist and national-socialist books on his radio show, was anointed Deputy Minister for Development by Papademos in November 2011 and defected from LAOS to Nea Demokratia in February 2012.

In the last two days however, we are witnessing further high-level defections from LAOS to Nea Demokratia. These include former football player and LAOS MP Giorgos Anatolakis and Kyriakos Velopoulos, who lists as his top political achievement the organization of a demonstration of 18,000 people in Thessaloniki against the use of the name "Macedonia" by FYROM. A more ominous case is that of Thanos Plevris, the son of Konstantinos Plevris, whom many consider to be the father of Greek neo-nazism. Konstantinos Plevris was among the founding members of the 4th of August Party in 1960, a fascist party openly supportive of the 1967-1974 dictatorship where Kostas Kiltidis (see above) and Golden Dawn's Michaloliakos also took their first political steps. He also happens to be the author of a book titled: "Jews: The Whole Truth", for which he was tried and sentenced under anti-racism laws but later acquitted by the Supreme Court. While K. Plevris failed in his successive attempts to become an MP, first with fringe far-right parties, then in collaboration with Samaras's Political Spring in the 1990s, then with Karatzaferis's LAOS in 2004, he remains a supporter of LAOS. Thanos Plevris's defection from LAOS to Nea Demokratia yesterday even caused a family rift, with Plevris senior condemning his son's decision: "I unequivocally condemn all those who left LAOS." [Update 24/05/2012: It was just announced that Konstantinos Plevris would be on the top of the national ballot for LAOS in the 17 June elections.]

The presence of individuals with such political backgrounds in Nea Demokratia, which is considered by most to be a "normal" right-wing party, is a worrying sign that in Greece, one can be forgiven for promoting  far-right, neo-nazi, racist or extremely nationalistic ideas. On 6 May, parties advocating an explicitly hard-line stance on the key issue of immigration garnered a total of 22.63% of the vote (Independent Greeks 10.61%, LAOS 2.90% Dimiourgia Xana 2.15%, Golden Dawn 6.97%). Two of these parties, Independent Greeks and LAOS, are Nea Demokratia splinter groups, and Antonis Samaras has himself at times come up with exceedingly xenophobic statements, calling for example immigrants the "tyrants of society" on 04 May. However, concern is focused on the rights and well-being of migrants, with a particular focus on Golden Dawn's extremely violent positions. At the same time, political observers are watching with a level of amusement the game of musical chairs among right-wing politicians. What they may fail to notice is that the relationship between Nea Demokratia and the far-right is much more blurred than what you would expect to find between a mainstream right-wing party and a far-right party in, say, France or the UK. The true  radicalization happening in Greece is now visible for everyone to see, and it's a radicalization of the right, where individuals who are nostalgic of the Junta, express ultra-nationalistic sentiments and support more or less openly elements of a fascist ideology are brought back into the political mainstream under the guise of pro-European politicians.

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