Since he began his political career at the unusually young age of 28, Panos Kammenos has made a name for himself by being involved in high-decibel attacks on opposition politicians. For years, he was one of New Democracy’s attack dogs, poised to bite the neck of any passing detractor. Now a party leader, Kammenos finds himself struggling for political survival as his propensity for blood and bluster proves his very undoing.
His failure on Monday to respond to complaints from Independent Greeks MPs about his leadership prompted the kind of furious ranting that Kammenos, usually with the aid of a sheen of sweat, has made his trademark. “He is a coward,” barked Yiannis Manolis, another politician who has shunned the sotto voce school of oratory.
Manolis, not a deputy but responsible for the party’s dealings with unions, leveled a grave accusation against Kammenos, saying the Independent Greeks leader lied when he claimed he did not submit a document setting out the preconditions for his party to join a coalition government to President Karolos Papoulias following May elections.
Leaked details at the time suggested that Kammenos was demanding the post of defense minister for himself and the option to pick several members of the board of the public company that would manage Greece’s hydrocarbons. Kammenos claimed that he had been set up, either by associates or by the president’s office. The latter was an unprecedented accusation, even by the questionable standards of Greek politics. Kammenos’s assertion that he would take the matter to court never materialized.
In fact, not a lot materialized with the Independent Greeks. Founded in February, the nationalist party capitalized on the growing anti-austerity and euroskeptic mood. Kammenos also tapped into the antagonistic feeling toward Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel by sprinkling his speeches with ample references to the Second World War, occupiers and traitors. In fact, he launched his movement in Distomo, the village where more than 200 Greeks were killed by Nazi troops in 1944 – as if its residents hadn’t suffered enough already.
However, the Independent Greeks, made up mostly of politicians who quit New Democracy because they refused to approve Greece’s bailouts, harnessed the public’s discontent and with the use of social media managed to create the impression that the party carried weight and wasn’t just a beach ball to be knocked about for fun over the summer months.
The party’s showing in the May elections, when it gathered 10.6 percent of the vote, was remarkable given the short time it had been in existence. But Kammenos appeared like a little boy lost at the negotiations to form a coalition government, which were chaired by Papoulias. The minutes from those meetings show the right-wing politician with nothing to offer. The fiasco over his so-called “non paper” to Papoulias emphasized how out of his depth Kammenos was.
Support for the Independent Greeks dropped to 7.5 percent in the June elections and the party has since been unraveling faster than a ball of yarn rolling down a hill. As the government prepared a bill to end nepotism in Parliament, Kammenos – who had claimed he would fight the establishment – was forced to defend his decision to make his cousin a parliamentary employee.
As Parliament prepared in October to vote on the latest austerity package, Kammenos called on SYRIZA to join forces with the Independent Greeks and have both parties’ MPs resign in order to trigger new elections. Constitutional experts quickly pointed out that there was no legal basis for Kammenos’s strategy. His constitutional faux pas is one of the criticisms the MPs, who say they were not consulted, leveled at their party leader this week.
Apart from Manolis, Independent Greeks spokesman Christos Zois also quit the party, followed by secretary Michalis Yiannakis, Dimitris Stamatis, and MPs Costas Markopoulos and Yiannis Kourakos. The party looks set to lose more in the coming days. Kammenos, who has been a parliamentarian for the last 19 years, had the temerity to label Manolis and Zois “professional politicians.” But his claims of being an outsider who will bring down the establishment ring hollow now. The only thing in danger of collapsing is his party. His bombast will not be enough to keep it together.
The question, though, is where will its members and supporters go if it disappears. The drift of this 7.5 percent one way or another could prove decisive in any new elections. New Democracy, SYRIZA and even Golden Dawn are likely to stake a claim to some of this support. It might be Kammenos’s parting gift to Greek politics that he becomes more influential in his absence than he ever was when he was present.