By Harry van Versendaal
The discrediting of Greece’s mainstream political parties, brought about by the four-year debt crisis, has opened a political can of worms by strengthening the hand of far-right extremists, says Nikos Skoutaris, a European constitutional law expert at the London School of Economics.
Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition during a two-week workshop in Thessaloniki on nationalism, religion and violence in Greece and SE Europe, Skoutaris voices concern about the right-wing shift of the Greek political agenda as reflected in the government's decision to repeal the migrant citizenship law and the controversial decision to shut down public broadcaster ERT.
“A far-right xenophobic agenda has become steadily more influential on the Greek political scene,” he says.
Locked in an uneasy government coalition, the once-dominant New Democracy and PASOK have been leaning to the right in a bid to dampen the influence of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. Currently polling in third place, the party is widely connected to an upsurge in racially motivated attacks.
Skoutaris is critical of government foot-dragging in introducing legislation against hate speech, but remains skeptical of an all-out ban on the party. “We do not need to outlaw Golden Dawn but make sure that the state applies the criminal law,” he says.
The 32-year-old academic is a senior research fellow at the LSE's European Institute, where he has developed a research project on the constitutional accommodation of ethno-territorial conflicts in Europe. Skoutaris is program director of the Thessaloniki seminars, which have brought together over 30 experts from some 20 institutions.
The event is organized by the International Hellenic University in partnership with Charles University in Prague, the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) of Cyprus, and with the support of the LSE's Southeast Europe research unit, LSEE.
From the mid-1990s and for more than 15 years, Greece’s Socialist and conservative parties won elections by hijacking the center of the political spectrum. Three years into the crisis, voters as well as parties have all but deserted the middle ground. Are you concerned by the growing polarization of Greek politics?
More than the desertion of the middle ground, I am increasingly concerned about the rise of far-right extremism. This extremism, however, is not evident just in the presence of Golden Dawn in the Parliament and its increasing popularity in the polls, but also in the adoption of a far-right political agenda and discourse by the dominant political parties. The Loverdos incident with the HIV-positive prostitutes, the debacle concerning the amendment of the Ragousis citizenship law and even the way that the government decided to shut down the public broadcaster without having secured Parliament’s approval are some of the incidents suggesting that a far-right xenophobic agenda has become steadily more influential on the Greek political scene.
How can coalition partners PASOK and New Democracy, the two parties that dominated Greek politics for almost 40 years, enforce the rule of law when they are seen as the main culprits behind the collapse of the country’s social contract?
It is true that PASOK and New Democracy bear the greatest responsibility for the financial and political collapse of Greece. And in that sense it is only fair for one to wonder how they can enforce the rule of law and set a new paradigm when they have failed to do so, so miserably, during the 40 years of their rule. I do not think there are any easy answers to this question and personally I am rather pessimistic as I do not believe that the current political elites – especially the ones connected to those parties – can live up to the challenges of this rather arduous task.
Has toleration of leftist violence in the post-1974 period also led to the rise of far-right extremism in Greece, as some analysts and historians have argued? Has the Greek left enjoyed a certain level of immunity that needs to be re-examined?
The argument concerning the “rise of the two extremes” is well known. I am neither a historian nor a sociïlogist nor a political scientist, so my view is not one of a specialist but rather of an unsophisticated constitutional lawyer who tries to follow Greek politics and make sense of it. With this in mind, I would associate the rise of far-right extremism with the delegitimation of the Greek political elites through the crisis and the emergence of Greece as a “failed state” rather than with the fact that the Greek left has resorted to practices that could be deemed illegal in certain instances. If there is a question that I would pose to the left – being a leftist myself – it is whether a discourse that supports violent forms of struggle for social justice still serves its strategy. My personal view is that a real and radical transformation of the democratic functioning of the Greek state and of capitalism in general is absolutely necessary. However, I have my doubts whether the rhetoric of the left has managed to express it in a sufficient manner.
Meanwhile, Greek conservatives, but not just them, have lashed out at attempts by revisionist historians, as it were, to challenge the dominant historical narrative and question “myths” seen as key to collective memory and national self-understanding. Do you think that this is a bad timing for this because of the crisis?
I do not think there is such a thing as bad timing when it comes to research in any area of knowledge and in particular the social sciences. To put it the other way round and with regard to the attempts to which you refer, I do not remember anyone saying at any moment in Greek history that “now is a good time to deconstruct the national myths.” Social scientists have an obligation to research and present their results to society. And personally, if the dilemma is between a painful truth and a comforting lie, I choose the former even at times when Greek society suffers.
Do you think that the proposed anti-racism bill could curb the wave of racially motivated crimes and the influence of Golden Dawn?
No, I don’t believe that any law could curb racially motivated crimes or the influence of a neo-Nazi party, at least not in the short term. Those are very complicated issues that could only be successfully dealt with through long-term comprehensive policies that would also contain a strong educational dimension. This does not mean that as a society we should not put out a strong political message that we do not tolerate any form of racism, including anti-Semitism. In that sense, I consider the recent debacle concerning the anti-racism bill as more evidence of the unwillingness and the incapacity of the Greek political elites – and the governing coalition in particular – to show that they can rise to the challenge that the existence of far-right extremism poses.
Would a ban on hate speech, including genocide-denying legislation, not imply restrictions on free speech?
To the best of my knowledge there exists no legal order where the right of expression is unfettered. To give but one example: In Greece one may not “offend the honor of the President of the Republic.” So, the right question is not whether we should have restrictions, but rather what kind of restrictions and what the scope of those restrictions should be. As I see it, keeping social peace in a Greek state that wishes to respect multiculturalism warrants such restrictions.
Do you think it would be a good idea to outlaw Golden Dawn altogether?
First of all, let me point out that the legal toolbox that the present constitutional framework provides for does not contain a procedure according to which we could outlaw Golden Dawn in the same way that the German or the Turkish constitutional orders do. Of course one could argue in favor of the amendment of the constitution to the effect that such a procedure would be included. It is a matter of belief and conviction whether one supports this idea of “militant democracy” according to which a constitutional order can outlaw political parties.
Personally I am not convinced, not least because international experience suggests that such procedures have proved ineffective. Political parties that were outlawed “resurrected” merely by changing their names and paying lip service to constitutional rules. The cases of the Turkish Islamist parties or Vlaams Blok / Vlaams Belang in Belgium are indicative.
Notwithstanding the absence of such procedures, one also has to note that a number of Golden Dawn members have clearly committed criminal offenses. Take for example the Ilias Kasidiaris incident on Antenna TV [where the Golden Dawn deputy and spokesman slapped a female Communist Party MP multiple times] or the repeated protests outside the Hytirio Theater in Athens [which led to the cancellation of the staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi”]. To deal with those incidents, we do not need to outlaw Golden Dawn but make sure that the state applies the criminal law.
More worrying is the fact that members of Golden Dawn claim to be enforcing the rule of law. In a democratic state where rule of law applies, it is state institutions that are entrusted with the exercise of its powers. Golden Dawn members and their militia have no right to enforce the law, as it were, by checking immigrants’ IDs in flea markets or requesting truck drivers from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to remove their country code bumper stickers. The Greek state, if it wants to call itself democratic, has to make sure that it does not share the so-called monopoly of violence with Golden Dawn members, even if they are elected.