With the 21 May election in Greece fast approaching, Georgios Samaras examines the recent surge of ultranationalism in Greek politics. He argues that a process of normalisation of far-right practices is taking place, as echoed in other European countries, including Hungary and Italy
Over the past four years, the Greek state has faced significant challenges. The government's flawed policy responses to these challenges have caused much controversy, and attracted harsh criticism. On top of this, a series of political scandals has rocked Kyriakos Mitsotakis' government. All this has raised concerns that Greece may be shifting towards ultranationalism. A growing number of scholars, meanwhile, diagnose the phenomenon as democratic backsliding.
The Greek government's handling of migration has become a highly controversial topic. The non-stop pushbacks at the country's borders are in direct violation of Europe's asylum system. These pushbacks have drawn widespread condemnation from human rights organisations, which accuse Greece of putting vulnerable people at risk.
Moreover, the latest report from the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) confirms that pushbacks have indeed taken place. Yet the Greek government has remained silent on OLAF's findings. The report highlights serious concerns about the mistreatment and abuse of migrants, including cases of violence and illegal deportations. The government's failure to address these allegations casts serious doubt on its commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
The Greek government has dismissed allegations of human rights violations against migrants, shifting the blame onto Turkish authorities
Both the Greek state and the European Union have normalised these pushbacks. Neither side has acknowledged their human rights violations, and, concerningly, have issued only vague responses.
Despite journalistic evidence and continuous investigations by international charities, the Greek government has dismissed such allegations. Instead, they have shifted the blame onto Turkish authorities, claiming that they are spreading propaganda. At government briefings, journalists have questioned the Greek Press Secretary about alleged migrant pushbacks. Dodging the questions, the Secretary instead disputed journalists' credibility. Public challenges to the government's migration policy has even resulted in journalists being attacked.
The Greek spyware scandal – Greece's answer to Watergate – has revealed sinister government wiretapping of journalists and political opponents. The scandal was exposed when it emerged that the government had licensed and sold a mysterious spyware, Predator. Notably, Predator spied on the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) leader and MEP, Nikos Androulakis, as well as on several journalists. At first, the government strenuously denied the existence of this software and its involvement in the scandal. More recently, however, several top ministers have acknowledged the government has distributed the spyware to other countries.
The Mitsotakis government has licensed and sold spyware and used it for surveillance of journalists and political opponents
Scholars are becoming increasingly interested in how these practices normalise far-right ideologies and semi-authoritarian measures in European liberal democracies. Most alarmingly, recent developments within the European Parliament suggest a reluctance to hold governments accountable for such actions.
The Greek government has also promised to address the continued threat posed by the remnants of the far-right neonationalist party Golden Dawn. In 2020, after a trial lasting over five years, Golden Dawn was found guilty of running a criminal organisation within Greek politics for almost a decade. Despite investigations into their activities and the imprisonment of several party members, some are attempting to make a political comeback through an appeal trial or even by creating new parties.
In 2021, to tackle the problem, Interior Minister Makis Voridis drafted legislation, which has undergone multiple revisions, to strip Golden Dawn's convicted MPs of their political rights. To circumvent this legislation, former Golden Dawn spokesperson and MP Ilias Kasidiaris led the establishment of a new political party, Hellenes, and selected a new leader to run it. Kasidiaris has already registered Hellenes to participate in the 2023 election, though it remains uncertain whether the Supreme Court will step in to ban its participation.
This is uncharted waters for Greece. New Democracy's apparent shift towards the far right has resulted in certain of its factions gaining popularity. And the government's ineffective approach to dealing with Golden Dawn's remnants raises concerns about how the public will respond. The shy voter phenomenon could once again influence the final results on 21 May. Yet the voting behaviour of far-right voters is generally unpredictable.
In 2014's European Election, Greek voters rewarded Golden Dawn with nearly 10% of the vote; its highest performance until then. Yet, just months previously, the party had been implicated in the murder of young left-wing rapper Pavlos Fyssas.
The recent surge of ultranationalism means Greek politics is sailing through uncharted waters. It is difficult to predict how the Hellenes saga will end in the forthcoming election
It is difficult to predict how the Hellenes saga will end. However, the Mitsotakis government's toothless attempts to quash it are certainly cause for concern. Who did Mitsotakis appoint to draft the legislation that will strip Golden Dawn MPs of their political rights? Current Minister of the Interior Makis Voridis, a former member of pro-dictatorship youth EPEN. This does not bode well for the outcome.
Greece has been struggling to combat extremism for years, but its efforts have been unsuccessful. It is becoming increasingly apparent that rather than battling against it, Greek conservatism is attempting to normalise extremism for electoral advantage.
This normalisation of far-right politics and ultranationalism has already eroded the quality of democracy in Greece. And it has parallels with what has been happening elsewhere in Europe. Italy now has a Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, who presents herself as a conservative politician but has neo-fascist ideas. Current developments in Greece could lead to the more extreme form of democratic backsliding seen in Hungary under Viktor Orbán.
Greece needs to show unwavering determination to safeguard its democratic institutions. This is crucial not just for the country, but for Europe as a whole.