Populist Right Finds Fertile Ground in Greece

Nick Malkoutzis

6 mins - 26 de Junio de 2023, 10:15

Centre-right Kyriakos Mitsotakis was re-elected for a second term as Greek prime minister on Sunday, but he will preside over the most right-wing Parliament the country has seen since democracy was restored in 1974 - following a seven-year military dictatorship.

While Sunday’s result is undoubtedly a political and personal victory for Mitsotakis, whose party gained 40.5% of the vote and 158 of the 300 seats in Greek Parliament, the emergence of several fringe parties and the rise of the far right threatened to overshadow his moment of glory.

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The three new parties include the far-right Spartiates (Spartans), a reincarnation of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party that was elected to Greek Parliament in 2015 before its leadership was convicted of forming a criminal gang in 2020, leading to several senior members being jailed. One of the convicts, Ilias Kasidiaris, backed Spartiates from his prison cell. After Sunday’s results were announced, the leader of Spartiates thanked Kasidiaris for providing the “fuel” to get the party elected with 4.7% in the first election in which it took part.

This chilling moment was a reminder that the far right, which came to prominence during the country’s long economic crisis, has not gone away. Some experts and politicians claimed in 2019 that the election of Mitsotakis, who presents himself as a mild-mannered, pro-reform centrist, signalled the defeat of populism and the far right in Greece. Their analysis was too neat, too imbued with wishful thinking, to be accurate.

As if the return of the far right to Parliament was not enough, Sunday’s elections also brought a new kind of right-wing party to the frontlines of Greek politics: religious fundamentalists. A few weeks ago, few people knew much about the ultra-conservative Niki party, but on Sunday it won 3.7%. It has leveraged the backing it received from some Greek Orthodox clerics, particularly in northern Greece, and a fledgling public discussion around identity politics, including abortion rights and LGBTQ+ issues.

The last of the three fringe parties was Plefsi Eleftherias (Course for Freedom), with 3.1%. The party is the personal vehicle of former SYRIZA official Zoe Konstantopoulou. Despite its background, Plefsi cannot be described as leftist. The party has no policy programme and its only goal is to engage in populist rhetoric that will appeal to the “anti-systemic voters.”

These three parties joined the ultra-nationalist, pro-Putin Greek Solution party, which was re-elected with 4.5%. This means that the four parties in question won just over 16%of the vote combined, more than centre-left PASOK, which strengthened its position as Greece’s third largest party after it increased its support to 12.1% on Sunday.

In fact, the backing for the four populist parties was almost as much as the main opposition party, SYRIZA, won. After gaining just 20.1% in the first election last month, the left-wing party’s share of the vote fell further to 17.8% on Sunday. SYRIZA’s collapse could partly explain the rise of the fringe parties in the sense that during their rapid rise about a decade ago the leftists attracted many enraged voters hitting out at the system rather than engaging with any political ideology.

However, this cannot fully explain why 13% of the Greek who cast ballots on Sunday did so in favour of right-wing racists, zealots and conspiracy theorists. To get a more complete picture, we also need to look at how the government has acted over the last four years.

The prime minister sought intentionally to dial down the toxicity in Greece’s public debate, after the turbulent years of the crisis and the EU-IMF bailouts, and presented himself as a technocrat prime minister that could find “common sense” solutions to Greece’s problems. However, he married this with the adoption of some hard right positions on issues around which New Democracy feared it might lose voters to far right and nativist parties. 

From the moment he came to power in 2019, Mitsotakis made a point of toughening up Greece’s immigration strategy. He accused SYRIZA of running an “open border” policy while in power.

Although this approach has received strong public backing, any reports about pushback of boats carrying asylum seekers or complaints about the mistreatment of migrants have been dismissed as the work of foreign journalists seeking to undermine the Greek government or activists in the pay of human traffickers or foreign powers. This toxic environment has benefited the far right, as was evident from the fact that the recent sinking of a fishing boat carrying hundreds of migrants off the coast of Greece appears to have only boosted the support for right-wing parties during the final days of the election campaign.

As we have seen throughout Europe, when mainstream parties try to dominate on issues to do with the identity by adopting extreme, quasi-authoritarian rhetoric and policies, they invariably end up feeding the nativists and far right.

The rise of these fringe parties could come back to bite Mitsotakis. While he has a comfortable majority in Parliament, the newcomers, as well as Greek Solution, have a platform from which they can engage in the most populist and reactionary opposition to whatever the centre-right government tries to do over the next four years. Unpopular policies will be dismissed as the work of traitors and any shortcomings will be viewed as the failure of liberal technocrats who do not have the country’s interests at heart.

Over the last four years, Mitsotakis has successfully navigated numerous exogenous challenges, including the COVID Pandemic, the energy crisis, and soaring inflation. But he may find that over the next four years, his biggest test will come from within the Greek political system, where the populist right has found fertile ground and will be seeking to flourish at his expense.
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