New Democracy Needs to Sort Out Its Relationship To The Extreme-Right

New Democracy’s positions on a variety of issues are solidifying into a hard right-wing stance, sometimes even reversing a previous moderate outlook. Along with this unfolding shift to the right, a recent development serves to remind us that New Democracy’s relationship with the extreme-right is not as far back in the past as one might have hoped. The elite in New Democracy’s headquarters might shudder at the thought of petty extreme-right thugs who vandalise Jewish cemeteries and petrol-bomb Roma homes. But they are part of the same political ecosystem.
By Augustine Zenakos

New Democracy is the successor party to the post-war Greek right. That legacy ensured a certain ideological identity: conservative, “family values” oriented, nationalist in the specifically anti-left sense, sympathetic to state repression in the pursuit of “national security”. This identity, however, did not make New Democracy identical to its post-war predecessors. In fact, it was different in, among others, a very crucial aspect: during the decades that followed the Colonels’ junta, it functioned less like a springboard and more like a leash in its relationship to the extreme-right. But the extreme-rightists were still its people.

It was mainly the right that undertook the task of disentangling the state from fascist rule, immediately after the dictatorship. It was hard going. It never happened completely. Few of those responsible were brought to trial, mainly just the principals. The army tree was not shaken too much. The judiciary was scarcely touched. There were flagrant cases of unpunished army and police torturers. The student and youth movement talked of a junta with a democratic facade.

Although, quite reasonably, never enthusiastic about the glorification of communist resistance during the Nazi occupation, and in its earlier years openly hostile to the law restoring full civil rights and awarding honorary pensions to the communists that fought both in the resistance and the Civil War, New Democracy seldom engaged in much extreme rhetoric, and when some of its officials did, this hardly ever set the dominant tone. But the relationship was there. Its voter base, as well as its lesser officials and sometimes its MPs, did include active supporters or collaborators of the junta. Its “activist” youth organisations included openly fascist elements. There was a “dialogue”, an “accommodation” of sorts, with the darkest corners of the extreme-right. Quite a few people were certainly not proud of it. But it was there.

So, concern over the relationship between New Democracy and the extreme-right was quite pronounced in the immediate post-junta years. But then it subsided. More optimistic –and more affluent– times followed. There were fascists around of course. They beat people up, set a few bombs off. There were political parties that openly praised the Colonels. Golden Dawn was around; it has been around since the 1980s. They terrorised minorities and clashed with leftists and anarchists. But overt support for the extreme-right was minimal. Nobody, apart from –it has to be said– some parts of the left and the anarchists, considered it a big problem. We would occasionally read about some contact or other between New Democracy circles and a fascist cell, Golden Dawn was mentioned a few times by a few industrious journalists, but it was all mostly written off in the end as a hangover from a repressed past.

New Democracy is often billed as centre-right. While there are certainly those who would like to see it transformed into just that, this transformation never really materialised. However, the party did and still does include many moderate elements. After the brief stint in power of Constantinos Mitsotakis, between 1990 and 1993, there were those who defined themselves as liberals, though it has to be said that they mostly meant it in economic terms. Between 2004 and 2009, New Democracy leader and Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis talked of a “middle space”, where the moderate left and the moderate right basically formed a centre unified in all but name, that was defined by consensus politics. There were some relatively progressive positions – on a “composite name” agreement with the Republic of Macedonia, for instance.

Then, in 2010, it all came crashing down. Neo-Nazis prowled the streets, beat up and knifed immigrants almost every night, occupied city squares, and got elected to the Athens Municipal Council. Then, in 2012, they got into Parliament. We found ourselves talking about the extreme-right again. This time, it was more difficult to believe it would just go away if we didn’t dwell too much.

New Democracy had come a long way since its founding in the 1970s, and one might have been justified to expect that the renewed rise of the extreme right would have provoked some soul-searching. It did not seem to. New Democracy had elected a leader from the furthest fringes of the right, Antonis Samaras. An ardent nationalist, Mr Samaras had served as Foreign Minister in the early 1990s and presided over the debacle that was Greece’s policy in the Macedonian question. Coming to power in 2012, and feeling threatened by SYRIZA, formerly a small party that had risen to be the main opposition, Mr Samaras adopted a harsh anti-left rhetoric, steeped in Civil War references, and openly supported a “horse-shoe” theory, where SYRIZA and Golden Dawn were said to be “two extremes” that put democracy in danger. Brazenly anti-immigrant, he pursued a policy of violent pushbacks in the Aegean, and looked on as Greek police were accused of torture.

New Democracy has often tried to credit Antonis Samaras with taking Golden Dawn down, as it was during his term that its leadership was arrested and prosecuted, resulting in the “criminal organization” trial that is still ongoing. The truth is a little different. The rhetoric of the Samaras government habitually conflated Golden Dawn attacks, including murder and attempted murder, with SYRIZA’s left-populist opposition tactics and its support for public protests and demonstrations. Mr Samara’s government secretary, a hard rightist named Takis Baltakos, who famously once said that he was not in the least bit interested in human rights to none other than the representatives of the National Commission for Human Rights, was in very friendly contact with Golden Dawn MPs, and even advised them that the case against them was a set-up. Golden Dawn had enjoyed a near immunity from arrest and prosecution, up to the point where public pressure erupted after the murder of Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013. Only then did the government take action, with the Minister of Public Order Nikos Dendias suddenly realising that he sat on a large number of case files on Golden Dawn that could be examined in relation to each other by the prosecuting authorities. Only then was Takis Baltakos sacked. Only after this murder, which incidentally was the first murder of a Greek, did the hitherto equivocal New Democracy position on Golden Dawn become an outright condemnation.

The election of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, son of Constantinos, to the leadership of New Democracy led some to believe things were about to change. It was a reasonable expectation. Mr Mitsotakis is a hard economic liberal –a neoliberal would be more accurate–, but was considered a moderate and even a progressive in social issues. Most importantly, he has never been tainted with any relation to the extreme-right. That said, he did rely for his election on the support of Adonis Georgiadis, a former member of the extreme-right party LAOS, who secured the hard rightist vote. Mr Mitsotakis presumably repaid him by making him vice-chairman of the party. Mr Georgiadis subsequently felt the urge to issue a public apology for his past anti-Semitic views, which was considered by many to be a right of passage to the moderates club. In any case, disregarding some hardcore SYRIZA supporters that insist on calling him a “far rightist”, Mr Mitsotakis is as removed as one can get from the extreme-right in New Democracy.

Which makes it all the more exasperating to see New Democracy’s positions on a variety of issues solidify into a hard right-wing stance, sometimes even reversing a previous moderate outlook. Macedonia is a case in point. Although it was a New Democracy government that adopted the “composite name solution” as its national policy in 2008, Mr Mitsotakis offered tacit encouragement to the nationalist demonstrations that attempted to dissuade the SYRIZA government to negotiate along those very same lines, and stated that he would not support the renewed negotiations under UN mediation. In fact, the New Democracy line has been hardening across the board. Recently, the party opposed a law that facilitates transgender people in correcting their data kept by public authorities. Another law permitting the cultivation of cannabis for pharmaceutical purposes was met with indignation, and was characterised as some sort of conspiracy to promote drug trafficking. And New Democracy officials have pledged to scrap a law that alleviates prison overcrowding by reducing sentences, to reopen “Type C” maximum-security prisons that have been decried as unlawful and inhumane by human rights organisations, and to reinstate DELTA motorised police units, which have been implicated in cases of extreme brutality, unprovoked violence and torture.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis (right) embraces Adonis Georgiadis in celebration, after his election as leader of New Democracy. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / SOOC

Kyriakos Mitsotakis (right) embraces Adonis Georgiadis in celebration, after his election as leader of New Democracy. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / SOOC

Along with this unfolding shift to the right, a recent development serves to remind us that New Democracy’s relationship with the extreme-right is not as far back in the past as one might have hoped. Among those arrested, a few days ago, in connection to two extreme-right terrorist groups, “Combat 18 Hellas” and “Independent Meandrian Nationalists”, there is a former member of the National Council of “Nea Dexia”, meaning “New Right”, a party founded by well known lawyer and op-ed columnist Failos Kranidiotis. Mr Kranidiotis, before founding New Right, was a member of New Democracy. He was also a member of the Political Committee of the party, and a close personal friend of Antonis Samaras. The person in question, a Piraeus based lawyer and a founding member of DIESY (Hellenic Conservative Network, a right wing advocacy group), has also been a member of the New Democracy university student organisation. Since leaving New Right, he is reportedly a member of another small party, this one founded by an unabashed supporter of fascist dictatorships, a man named Kostas Plevris. Mr Plevris was formerly a member of LAOS, the party that launched the career of Adonis Georgiadis, New Democracy’s current vice-chairman. His son, Thanassis Plevris, was also a LAOS member. He was also elected MP, first with LAOS, then with New Democracy. This web of relationships is not something from the troubled past of the 1970s. It reaches up to only a few years ago, and one might be justified to think that it is still very much intact.

New Democracy –or New Right for that matter– is not obliged to answer for people formerly associated with it. But the association is telling. It appears that the barriers between right and extreme-right are not all that solid. These people talk to each other. They know each other. Their paths cross all the time. The elite in New Democracy’s headquarters might shudder at the thought of petty extreme-right thugs who vandalise Jewish cemeteries and petrol-bomb Roma homes. But they are part of the same political ecosystem.

A political ecosystem that includes fascists, neo-Nazis and street thugs is obviously not fertile ground for a party of centre-right liberalism. If then one takes into account the recent shift to a phobic social conservatism manifested in New Democracy’s recent discourse, things look grimmer still.

Mr Mitsotakis is a young leader and an educated man. He does not belong to the extreme right. He is probably appalled at the mere thought. But he has to decide. Will New Democracy sort out its relationship to the extreme right?

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