Old and new causes at play as far-right makes return in Greece

Old and new causes at play as far-right makes return in Greece

New Democracy’s strategy of capitalizing on sensitive political issues that appeal to far-right audiences during Greece’s general election, where the conservatives achieved a landslide victory over their leftist rivals, also fueled the rise of fringe parties, according to political analysts. However, the reasons for the increase in support for these smaller groupings are more extensive and structural, implying deeper underlying causes for their popularity.

The June 25 election witnessed the entrance of three far-right parties into Parliament, including the Spartiates (Spartans), a reincarnation of the Golden Dawn group previously under the political radar until its endorsement from the imprisoned frontman of the now-defunct neo-Nazi organization, Ilias Kasidiaris. Along with the pro-Russian Greek Solution and the ultra-Orthodox Niki (Victory) parties, the far-right secured more than 12 percent of the vote, obtaining 34 seats in the 300-member House. Additionally, populist Course of Freedom, led by former SYRIZA MP and ex-House speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou, garnered 3.17 percent of the vote, a share that gives the party eight seats in Parliament. Despite the party’s roots in the radical left, some analysts now tend to classify it within the LePenist tradition of anti-liberal, populist nationalist parties.

During its first term, the New Democracy government implemented a strict migration policy that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis claimed resulted in a 90 percent reduction in arrivals. Human rights groups have reacted to what has been a combination of deterrents and counterincentives, including the construction of a fence along the Greek-Turkish frontier in the Evros region, the establishment of closed-structure reception centers, and alleged summary deportations commonly known as pushbacks. Conservative officials have refuted claims that Greece engages in pushbacks. At the same time, they have repeatedly accused SYRIZA of favoring an open-border policy on migration.

Furthermore, after the inconclusive May 21 election, New Democracy accused SYRIZA of playing into the hands of Turkey for failing to react to supposed voter manipulation by the Turkish consulate in the Rodopi constituency of Thrace in northern Greece. Rodopi was the only constituency where ND did not secure a majority.

“When a government boasts about having ‘zeroed out’ refugee flows by demonizing refugees and immigrants, or when it denounces its political opponent as a ‘national exception’ and essentially a puppet of Turkey, it has embraced elements of the far-right agenda, and the far-right feels at home,” says historian and author Stratis Bournazos, drawing parallels with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy who strategically positioned himself between the “old” right and the far-right.

Kostis Kornetis, an expert on 20th century comparative European history, also takes note of the conservatives’ politically expedient discourse, but says it is difficult to determine the extent to which the rhetoric actually influenced the rise of far-right parties.

“During the pre-election period, New Democracy did indeed capitalize on these sensitive political issues in a somewhat risky manner, partly aiming to address the concerns of a broader right-leaning voter base. As is common in such situations, a segment of the electorate ultimately prefers a hardcore nationalist party over a lukewarm, mainstream alternative that merely aims to hold on to voters,” he says.

Turning to the controversy surrounding the Muslim minority vote, Kornetis says: “I believe that New Democracy laid a trap for SYRIZA, and the latter fell into it quite easily. Taking more progressive positions in the minefield of national issues requires caution, especially during a pre-election period. The left-wing party slipped on every banana peel it found along the way, resulting in it being labeled as a ‘national exception.’”

Deeper roots

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist who has produced extensive literature on the Greek far-right, agrees that there is no evidence to assess whether New Democracy’s narrative about Rodopi affected voter behavior. She, like all other experts interviewed for this piece, believes that the reasons behind the rise of the far-right delve deeper and trace further back into the past.

Georgiadou highlights the pivotal role of the Prespes Agreement signed by the SYRIZA administration in 2018, which settled a 28-year dispute between Athens and Skopje over the use of the term “Macedonia.” Nationalists in both countries still oppose the deal, claiming that it erodes their identity.

“The strongholds of the far-right parties, particularly Greek Solution and Niki, are predominantly concentrated in Central Macedonia and have been significantly empowered by the signing of the Prespes Agreement and the subsequent reactions that persist in these specific regions. Greek Solution emerged as a direct response to the accord, and shortly after, Niki was also established in reaction to the same agreement. Therefore, the settlement of the Macedonia name issue stands as a significant factor in bolstering these parties,” she says, adding that these also gained from New Democracy’s failure to challenge the agreement, as it had promised before the 2019 elections.

“Coupled with the European sanctions imposed on Russia, which the government supported, the far-right parties, particularly Greek Solution and Niki, capitalized on the opportunity to attract voters from the pro-Russian and pro-Putin segments,” Georgiadou says.

In her view, the primary factor driving the Spartiates’ unexpected surge in the elections was the call from Kasidiaris, urging the voters of both Golden Dawn and the Greek National Party (Ellines) to support the GD splinter group. Unlike the other two fringe parties, Spartiates’ influence is not confined to specific geographical areas but has a broad presence across almost the entire mainland and the islands.

New norm

Most experts agree that conservative ideas have become more mainstream; and they are here to stay. After enduring 10 years of economic crisis, immigration crisis, health crisis, and energy crisis, alongside the war in Ukraine, a prevailing sense of insecurity has driven a substantial number of voters to seek more conservative and “secure” solutions – not only in Greece but also across Europe, Kornetis believes.

“The unequivocal doctrine of ‘security’ has, in essence, triumphed over a nebulous, left-leaning humanism. In this regard, we witness a normalization and outright dominance of New Democracy’s right-wing policies,” he says.

Based on data from last year’s annual survey YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project, the Greeks, at 58 percent, were the most likely among western nations to say reducing immigration should be a “high priory” target for their nation. Meanwhile, a poll last month found that seven out of 10 Greeks approve of the Evros border fence.

Will the composition of the new parliament push Greece’s political pendulum even further to the right?

Bournazos has no doubts it will.

“I believe that the presence of ‘three and a half’ far-right parties in the Parliament – and I use ‘three and a half’ because I think Course of Freedom will also ultimately align itself with the far-right – will shift the agenda toward the right,” he says.

Kornetis, on the other hand, believes it is highly unlikely that the center-right government, having all but conquered the middle ground, will be tempted to adopt more extreme positions soon.

“With 40 percent of the vote and a comfortable majority, alongside an almost vanished opposition, they have no incentive to do so. On the contrary, I consider it highly risky, given their clear hegemony in the political center, which could easily lead to disillusionment,” he says.

“Mitsotakis’ choice to appoint several members from PASOK to key ministries, such as Migration and Justice, is a shrewd move reminiscent, to some extent, of President Emmanuel Macron’s strategy in France, leading to the actual co-optation of the center-left,” he says.

Although it does not offer much consolation, analysts draw attention to the fact that it is not the first time Greece has witnessed such high percentages for the far-right. In the May 2012 elections, the populist nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL) party, which later joined a SYRIZA-led coalition, secured 10.62 percent of the vote, while Golden Dawn won just under 7 percent. Even the crackdown promoted by the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in 2013 did very little to curb the momentum of the neo-Nazi party.

Kornetis acknowledges that despite Greece moving into a new historical cycle, departing from the era of international bailouts, fiscal surveillance, and popular anger, there remains an audience that denounces the political system and seeks anti-establishment remedies for its problems.

“The new element, in my opinion, is a more alt-right version of what we saw in the 2010s, with the tie replacing the boot, but also a theocratic, para-ecclesiastical type of far-right entering the Parliament for the first time,” he says.

For Bournazos, Mitsotakis actually holds the key to fighting the trend. He explains that even though his party has managed to firmly position itself in the center ground and the prime minister himself promotes a reformist, liberal profile, the ideology of “country-religion-family” has remained a pivotal force in Greek political history, providing sustenance to both the right and the far-right.

“The great political wager would be if Mitsotakis, with the political dominance he has attained, were to saw off this core, in the way that Konstantinos Karamanlis did in 1974,” he says of the late conservative statesman and New Democracy founder, who is credited with successfully restoring democracy and constitutional government in the country following the end of the military dictatorship.

“Regrettably, the track record of his government during the first term makes me highly skeptical of such a possibility.” 

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