Economic, political crisis catapults far right LAOS into the mainstream

By Harry van Versendaal

Embarrassing foot-dragging by the mainstream parties and growing political turmoil, even for Greece’s anarchic standards, has enabled a small far-right party to claw its way up the greasy pole of domestic politics by successfully asserting itself as champion of a crisis coalition government and accelerator of political developments.

In a bid to ease a crisis that brought Greece closer to a default and a eurozone exit, leaders of the PASOK socialists, New Democracy conservatives, and ultranationalist LAOS party last week agreed on an interim administration under technocrat economist Lucas Papademos. Since its establishment in 2000, LAOS has campaigned on an anti-immigrant, nationalist platform.

“A leadership vacuum presented an opportunity for LAOS, which used it to its own advantage by seeking, and imposing, its own participation in the government,” Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Greece’s debt crisis proved too big for PASOK to tame, causing the dramatic fall of its leader George Papandreou from the country’s top seat. The endgame came after Papandreou’s explosive decision to put a 130-million-euro rescue package agreed with euro area leaders in October to a referendum. The announcement rattled financial markets and sent shock waves through Greece’s European peers. It also proved a catalyst for political developments at home, as Papandreou eventually agreed to step down and make way for a cross-party government.

The power-sharing deal was struck after 10 days of Byzantine negotiations and cringe-worthy political theater. After a boycott from Greece’s left wing parties who rejected the talks as “anti-constitutional,” the provisional government brought together deputies from PASOK, New Democracy and LAOS. (LAOS, which means “the people” in Greek, is short for Popular Orthodox Rally).

“With the two biggest parties unable to govern, and the rest unwilling to govern, LAOS appeared to be the only party that wanted to accelerate developments,” Georgiadou said.

LAOS chief Giorgos Karatzaferis repeatedly called on Papandreou and conservative leader Antonis Samaras to join hands for “the good of the country.” A previous bid between the two politicians to strike a unity government in June fell through.

Greece’s communists, better known after their acronym KKE, have branded the transitional government the “black alliance,” attacking LAOS officials as the “ideological heirs of dictator [Ioannis] Metaxas” — a reference to the country’s leader between 1936 and 1941. SYRIZA, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, has levelled similar accusations.

But a lot of the vitriol, critics agree, is hypocritical. By choosing to stay in the political safe zone, parties on the left effectively gave LAOS more space for maneuver in the bargaining, and more influence in the new government.

“Those who see threats in LAOS’s participation in the government should not overreact now. Not because their fears are unfounded, but because they did nothing to prevent this from happening in the first place,” Georgiadou said.

Cynical conservatives

LAOS, which garnered less than 6 percent of the vote in the 2009 general elections, is over-represented in the 48-member Cabinet with one minister, one alternate and two deputy ministers.

The reason for this interestingly lies with New Democracy — which itself is underrepresented in the new Cabinet. Samaras — who has given critics many reasons to question his commitment to the interim administration — is said to have wanted a heavy LAOS participation in the transition government in order to prevent the party from trawling for New Democracy supporters while in opposition.

Reservations about LAOS’s role have also been voiced inside PASOK, while a Muslim PASOK deputy this week voted down the new government in a vote of confidence.

Critics outside Greece were not too impressed either. France’s Socialist Party expressed “shock” at the news while the Central Committee of German Jews was also adamant, saying that “a professed anti-Semite [such as Karatzaferis] cannot serve in a government with which the German government will need to negotiate billions in aid.”

Greece depends on loans from a 110-billion-euro rescue package agreed in 2010, when mammoth borrowing costs blocked Greece from international markets. That bailout later proved inadequate, forcing the a new loan agreement in late October that will also see a writedown on Greece’s privately held debt by 50 percent.

Past imperfect

To be sure, misgivings about LAOS are justified. Its officials have often made extremist and intolerant comments in the past.

“We are the only real Greeks. We are not from these Jews, homosexuals or communists,” Karatzaferis said in 2000. Two years later in a debate with Israel’s ambassador to Greece, he seemed to dismiss the Holocaust as a myth. “Let’s talk about all these tales of Auschwitz and Dachau,” he had said.

The past of LAOS’s Makis Voridis, the new minister for infrastructure, transport and networks, is also a political minefield. In the early 1980s he led the EPEN (National Political Union) youth group that was founded by ex-dictator Georgios Papadopoulos from inside Korydallos Prison. Five years later, Voridis was kicked out of the law school student union for engaging in extremist acts. In an infamous picture taken at the time, he is seen wielding a hand-made ax (he later said it was for self-defense).

In the mid-1990s, Voridis established the Hellenic Front (Elliniko Metopo), a nationalist party with close ties to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France. In 2005, Hellenic Front merged with LAOS and Voridis was elected to Parliament two years later.

Voridis, who showed up at the swearing-in ceremony carrying his child in his arms, has toned down his language over the years. Seeking to resonate with a largely middle-class electorate worried about rising crime and economic insecurity, he has sought to wed his trademark law-and-order rhetoric with talk about public sector reform.

His party leader, the media-savvy Karatzaferis, has done his fair share of airbrushing himself. In an interview with Reuters this week he denied he was an admirer of Adolf Hitler, describing him as the “greatest criminal” of the 20th century. He also said he regretted previous remarks that Jews were warned to leave the World Trade Center before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

And then there is Adonis Georgiadis. A sort of televangelist who is mocked for hawking his wares (nationalist history books in pseudoscientific disguise), the new development deputy minister began his tenure with changing office signs for ones using the accent system dropped in the early 1980s. But despite his colorful antics, his career has very often verged deep into bigoted territory, such as defending Holocaust denier Costas Plevris in court.

Political filter

The rise of the right is not exclusive to Greece, of course. A mix of xenophobia, Europskepticism and unemployment has sent far-right politicians making it into parliament in many European countries including Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

Some analysts argue that letting populist parties join a government — provided they have enough votes — is the best way to moderate their message and influence.

“If a party is regarded as populist, it’s also safer to have them inside the government sharing responsibility for the difficult decisions rather than having them outside stirring up reactions on the street,” Kevin Featherstone, head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Georgiadou is not so sure.

“Extreme parties that take over government posts are obliged to adopt less extreme positions, to abandon the politics of protest and to become more institutional and systemic actors,” she said.

“But that does not mean that their voters will be willing to follow,” she added, explaining that voters who disagree with how their party evolves will turn to new groups and organizations to vent their extremist sentiment.

One does not need to look too far. When LAOS decided to back Nikitas Kaklamanis, the New Democracy candidate, in the race for Athens mayor a year ago, the neo-fascist Chrysi Avgi group succeeded in swaying far-right voters to elect its own representative in City Hall.

Although LAOS’s participation in the provisional government does not necessarily mean it will inflict permanent damage to the political system, Georgiadou argues that its participation in the government nevertheless sets “a bad precedent.”

Others remain more sanguine.

“Given the depth of the crisis, a wider political base for the government is essential,” Featherstone said, adding that this needs to be as broadly based as possible to be effective.

“Including LAOS achieves this aim, but the exclusion of Dora Bakoyannis, a centrist, was a missed opportunity,” Featherstone said of the Democratic Alliance party that claimed to have been left out after a Samaras veto.

By any measure, the cross-party government marks the end of politics as it was known in this corner of Europe. Like every government, this one too will be judged by its results. But the LAOS contingent — whose part in the coalition risks alienating the core of their grassroots supporters — would seem to have more reasons to make this work than their coalition partners.

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