The reinforcement of the European extreme right coincided with the crisis of the 1970s, accompanied by transformations in production, changes in social structure of European societies and the inability of the dominant political forces to face up to the new conditions1.
The economic crisis is certainly not the only explanation for the rise of the far right. From the 1970s until now, the transformation of political parties from being social interest brokers in the state, to cartel-parties, with subtle differences and a greater dependency on the state and the media2, have favoured the far right. The latter benefits from the effects of the convergence of the dominant forces, because it is easier for the right to penetrate the state (as the dominant forces did), taking advantage of the rules of political competition that a cartel-party system favours3.
As the current economic crisis converges with, and exacerbates, pre-existing crises of political representation (that have been shown to encourage the emergence and growth of right-wing extremist formations), the relationship between the far right and the economic crisis is increasingly discussed today.
After the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, the various organisations of the Greek far right remained below 1% in the polls4. However, a recent poll finds a record 9% for LAOS, and a high popularity rating for its leader5. Such findings are confirmed by the ability of LAOS – the electorally most important party of the far right since 1974 – to impose positions and rhetoric on dominant parties and force even those who were talking of LAOS as a “temporary phenomenon” to adopt a more serious stance towards it.
In this brief report we will investigate how the crisis affects LAOS’s positions, and how, in the middle of the crisis, it has forged relationships with other parties – particularly the traditional right-wing Greek party, Nea Dimokratia (ND).
Our main argument is the following: in the current conjuncture, and due to the overall positioning of the political system around a central challenge, namely the acceptance of the Memorandum of Cooperation with the IMF and the EU-ECB, LAOS is attempting to use the crisis as an opportunity for further de-stigmatisation and legitimisation, moving to the right within the economic liberal spectrum, clinging to the government party and presenting itself as a force of “national responsibility” and “common sense”.
Like many extreme-right parties, LAOS denies being one. Its frequent transformations surprise many; however, the ambiguity, the tacticism, the discrepancy between official party speeches (programme, declarations) and its daily interventions (alliances, statements and articles in the party press and the internet6) are stable elements of a catch-all strategy carried out by the parties of this political family. Dimitris Psarras has identified the characteristic doublespeak of LAOS, which combines a “policy of bile” (addressing the fans through party channels)with a“Trojan Horse” tactic, presenting itself to the “national audience” as a supporter of mainstream views7.
Transformations of the extreme right certainly do not negate the possibility of analysing the phenomenon. Fifty-eight different characteristics by which a party can be classified as extreme right have been identified. The most common are: Nationalism, racism, rejection of democracy and the demand for a strong state, all of which are present in the case of LAOS8. This often is not evident, given the multiplicity and volatility of these terms:
a) After the war, cultural differences partly replaced racial differences (racism was reformulated in differential and cultural terms9). In Greece, the claim of national, religious and cultural identity precedes this version of the extreme right, as an antidote to the “ethnocidal globalisation” and “religious discoloration”.
b) Nationalist ideology is by definition multi-faceted. In Greece, in 1974, with the collapse of the military dictatorship, the pre-dictatorship and extra-parliamentary mechanisms of power (royalty, military, para-state organisations), and their ideology – a primitive anti-communist nationalism – also collapsed. Since that time, the right (and most of the political forces that in the 1990s were converging towards the centre), focused on a nationalism of growth, oriented toward European integration.
c) The extreme right, when seeking parliamentary presence, does not appear so extreme as to be considered undemocratic. In Greece, this show of democracy is often limited to one anti-party, anti-political speech, and sometimes “faith” in the Constitution concerns only specific aspects or its own interpretations of this.10
d) The request for a strong state sometimes refers only to the “defence of law and order”; at other times it is also associated with a strong welfare state, most often one which is nationally and culturally circumscribed. In Greece both aspects are present.
These clarifications should make the specific position of LAOS clear, clearer than the passe-partout term “populist”, which is often used for LAOS and in analysing different political phenomena11.
LAOS benefited from the convergence of parties in the “middle area” and from the “modernisation” of Greek nationalism. At the same time, it fought, and still fights, for the consensus of the “political centre” to move towards the right, ensuring through the party media its continuity with the former anti-communist nationalism, the pre-dictatorship pillars of power and, at times, with the dictatorship itself. With the assistance of the mainstream media LAOS hyper-politicises the issues of national identity and does the same with issues of “national concern”, such as immigration, through its aggressive agenda of “law and order”.
However, while Georgios Karatzaferis, the President of LAOS, used to say that he supports right-wing positions on “national” issues, he claims to have “leftist sensibilities” for social and economic issues (thus attacking the modernist central left). In the economic crisis it became obvious that LAOS was, and is, on the far right of the political spectrum, not only in terms of the “classic issues” on the agenda of the European extreme right (“law and order”, immigration, identity and moral values), but also in terms of economic liberalism. This happens in the case of most issues, despite the fact that its positions can change, or cancel themselves out, with characteristic ease.
For example, the clear orientation of the party to market forces and small businesses is accompanied by attacks on bankers and cartels: “Any action which affects the small businessman leads to thousands more unemployed workers, while the department stores of capital will continue to operate smoothly at the expense of the broad popular masses”, says a party statement in December 2008. In order to solve this and other problems through a “responsible” catch-all strategy, Karatzaferis proposes the creation of a government with the participation of experts, headed by the former Governor of the Bank of Greece (2009).
As it did in 2009 with the right-wing government of Karamanlis, LAOS aligns its position with the ruling social-democratic party, playing the “wise power” that puts the “national interest” above all else. An unexpected aspect of this is the acceptance, by an openly anti-Semitic party such as LAOS, of the economic collaboration between Greece and Israel. This is not the only anomaly. Since early 2009, LAOS’s economic program has been sliding toward neoliberalism without any pretext: accommodating illegally built housing, no tax on luxury cars, abolition of corporate taxes, laundering of black money, no declaration on the sources of income, institutionalisation of the informal economy, divestiture of public institutions and buildings, elimination of labour and social-security rights as well as the privatisation of forests. These are just some of the measures proposed by the party before the implementation of the Memorandum, in the name of the exceptional circumstances of the crisis. In a recent interview, Karatzaferis proposed the lengthening of working time, a 2-year increase in retirement age, discretionary financial arrangements and new incentives to companies to open casinos. In explaining why he voted for the Memorandum Karatzaferis staid: “We are voting on whether we will have to pay pensions and salaries on the 1st of next month”.
For LAOS, its acceptance of the Memorandum came with an electoral price, and so it recently did an about-face and discovered that “the Memorandum entails a lack of national sovereignty”. However, Karatzaferis insists that “he did not regret it”. In fact, this ambivalence has two objectives: on the one hand, it enables continued communication with the traditional “rightists” both inside and outside LAOS (the name of the party, LAOS, is an acronym meaning “people” – even if its policies are not so friendly to them). On the other hand, LAOS seeks to present itself as a moderate force, in other words, as a “third pole” between PASOK and ND – similar to the political position of the now defunct “Political Spring”, the party founded by current President of ND Antonis Samaras. Paradoxically, ND’s criticism of LAOS, which claims it props up PASOK, helps LAOS.
There are two ironic aspects of this position. The first is that an intermediate position between ND and PASOK formerly claimed by “Political Spring” led to the latter’s dissolution. The second is that by raising the dispute over the Memorandum, ND ensures that the gap between LAOS and PASOK is reduced in the opinion polls.
Recently, ND introduced a bill to repeal the university asylum laws. It is also consistently criticising, from a right-wing position, the (anti-)immigration policy of the government. This is possible because of the overall landscape of the political scene, which, especially after December 2008, concentrated on the transformation of social issues into ethical, “national” and law-and-order ones. This has resulted in the hardening of immigration policy and much more pressure on the radical left (SYRIZA). The contribution of LAOS to this trend was of paramount importance, as both the left (PASOK, ND and the pro-Memorandum Democratic Alliance of D. Bakoyanni) and the right (the neo-Nazi group Chryssi Avgi, which gained support in 2010) have an anti-immigrant stance and hostility to SYRIZA. The modernist Democratic Left of F. Kouvelis has also taken anti-immigrant positions, maintaining, at the same time, a “critical” pro-Memorandum stance in the name of “responsibility”. Quite naturally, on the question of LAOS participating in a coalition government with ND, LAOS’s president responded positively; “provided that this government expels immigrants”.
Under these circumstances, a clear shift to the right by ND, and a PASOK which has found in LAOS a willing and responsible ally, the far right character of Karatzaferis is perceived as less problematic. At the same time this makes it easier for LAOS to claim political responsibility and to be seen as a centre-right party. What is becoming clear is that the right shift of the whole political system and its adherence to PASOK have given LAOS the opportunity to de-stigmatise itself and present itself as rational political force of the centre. In recent days, its leader is declaring that the party will definitely govern…
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