A dose of the right medicine for New Democracy

By Harry van Versendaal

Some three months since ousting a veteran MP for suggesting that “extremist right-wing droplets” had infiltrated the party, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras last week welcomed two far-right politicians into the fold.

Makis Voridis and Adonis Georgiadis were both expelled from the ultranationalist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), the junior partner in Greece’s coalition government, for supporting the terms of Greece’s loan deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The perennially ambivalent LAOS rejected the deal and withdrew its support from the government. Meanwhile, Samaras, who had vehemently opposed the first loan deal in 2010, ousted 22 deputies for turning down the second aid package.

Analysts have interpreted the recruitment of the two politicians as an attempt to offset the damage of losing the 22 MPs and, on a more strategic level, as a bid to rally a party base disaffected by ND’s involvement in the coalition government.

“Damaged from his involvement in the coalition, Samaras wants to siphon votes from crumbling LAOS,” historian and political blogger Vasilis Liritsis told Kathimerini English Edition.

Going mainstream came with a hefty price for the party of Giorgos Karatzaferis, who saw its popularity tumble to 5 percent, from 8 percent during its heyday in 2010. Meanwhile, the neo-Nazi Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) party has surged to 3 percent, hitting the threshold for entering Parliament.

“For ND, having the two far-right politicians on board is part of a bigger strategy to eat into rightist territory,” Liritsis said.

However, some observers point out, this is not an indiscriminate overture to the far right. The conservatives are only trying to woo politicians who backed the bailout deal.

“ND needs to show its electorate that the memorandum was not only supported by PASOK and other reformists but also by a section of the nationalist far right,” said Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens.

“This is what brought Voridis and Georgiadis to ND,” she said.

Gray zone

Voridis and Georgiadis, who were both given portfolios in the coalition government led by former central banker Lucas Papademos, have repeatedly drifted into democracy’s gray zone by expressing nationalist and anti-immigration views.

Georgiadis, who resigned as deputy minister for development, competitiveness and merchant marine, has made a name for himself as a flamboyant telemarketer and publisher of pseudo-scientific patriotic literature. He has in the past called for the en-masse deportation of Albanian immigrants and, as a lawyer, he has defended historian and Holocaust denier Costas Plevris in court.

Voridis, who has kept his position as minister for infrastructure, transport and networks, was leader of the EPEN (National Political Union) youth group founded in the early 1980s by Greece’s jailed dictator Georgios Papadopoulos. A few years later, he was banned from the student union at the Athens Law School for engaging in extremist acts. A picture of Voridis taken around that time shows him walking down a central Athens street with a homemade ax. In the mid-1990s, he founded the nationalist Hellenic Front (Elliniko Metopo), modeled after Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France. Hellenic Front was absorbed by LAOS in 2005.

“Can you imagine any of them in charge of a ministry dealing with immigrants?” Liritsis said. “These are dangerous people.”

Voridis has gradually gone mainstream, adopting a crafted, airbrushed image. His public language habitually taps into popular concerns about crime, illegal immigration and law-breaking acts of leftist activists. His tough positions tread the limits of political correctness but usually not enough to alienate a mainstream audience.

“I was a political activist of the right,” said Voridis last week while labeling the conservatives as a “big patriotic liberal party.”

“ND’s ideology is tied to two central concepts that belong to the value system of the right: the nation and freedom,” he said.

Endgames

ND has historically had an ambivalent relationship with the far right. Faced with the prospect of election defeat in 1981, the party absorbed the royalist National Alignment (Ethniki Parataxi), although that was not enough to stop Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK from sweeping to power. In 2000, conservative leader Costas Karamanlis ejected Karatzaferis, who went on to form his splinter LAOS party. He still scored a comfortable victory four years later.

“When things are going well for ND, it likes to keep a distance from the far right. However, when they’re not and the party needs to galvanize support, it tries to embody the far right into its core,” said Georgiadou.

This is certainly one of those times. The tectonic plates of Greek politics are shifting as failure to grapple with the deepening financial crisis has sparked an unprecedented rejection of the two-party system that dominated Greece’s post-dictatorship politics, commonly referred to here as the “metapolitefsi.”

Brutal belt-tightening measures, soaring unemployment and a pervasive sense of precariousness and lost bearings are making Greeks responsive to bunker-ish rhetoric from the edges of the political spectrum.

Despite PASOK’s abysmal ratings in recent polls, ND is struggling to keep its head above 30 percent — not enough to form a government on its own. Meanwhile, combined support for the three leftist parties is at 42.5 percent, according to the most recent poll by Public Issue.

Centrifugal politics

Can people like Voridis and Georgiadis boost ND’s unconvincing ratings? Analysts are not so sure. Georgiadou says the strategy would work if it helped convince voters that ND was not drawn by PASOK or European leaders into backing the memorandum but rather did so out of conviction that doing so was in the national interest.

“But if the recruitment of Voridis and Georgiadis was to mobilize the anti-right reflexes of centrist and center-right voters, then any gains on the right could be offset by defecting centrist voters,” Georgiadou added.

That said, most of the damage to the center has already been inflicted by the very presence of Samaras at the helm of the party.

“Look at ND. It’s not just Voridis or Georgiadis,” Liritsis said, pointing at close Samaras associates such as Failos Kranidiotis and Chrysanthos Lazaridis — both members of the nationalist Diktyo 21 think thank. Kranidiotis, a ND hardliner, this week said that with Samaras in charge of ND, LAOS no longer served any political purpose.

“ND has completely lost the middle ground. It is gradually verging into far-right territory, turning more and more into a party reminiscent of the 1950s populist right,” Liritsis said.

The transformation certainly marks a big change from yesteryear, when Greece’s big parties battled for control of the center. PASOK climbed to power in the mid-1990s after Costas Simitis swayed the center, riding the hype of Third Way politics engineered by fellow social democrats like Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder. Again, hijacking the middle ground was key to conservative Costas Karamanlis’s success eight years later.

“The voices of people like Kyriakos Mitsotakis or Costis Hatzidakis are no longer heard,” said Liritsis in referrence to ND’s so-called liberal faction while lamenting the country’s drifting from consensual centrism.

“The sad truth is there’s no party left to express the middle ground anymore.”

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