Greek populist parties and the disoriented mainstream

The results of May's legislative elections in Greece may derive from the degree of public anger at the EU-IMF rescue package. Nevertheless, immigration was featured very prominently in party programs and public discourses as the main security concern – a trend not limited to the radical right.

In a country scarred by the experience of a fascist regime (1936-41), a brutal period of Nazi occupation (1941-44), and a military junta (1967-1974), there was arguably little meaningful political space and social demand for a mass far-right party. In elections held between 1974 and 2009 two main political groupings tried but failed spectacularly to reconstitute a radical right-wing pole in the fringes of the Greek party system. The more traditionalist EPEN (National Political Union) and the radical, activist Chrissi Avgi (Popular Nationalist Movement - Golden Dawn), independently and in a short-lived alliance in 1984-85, achieved an insignificant share of the vote - from the 1984 high of 2.29% to typically less than a percentage point. Nevertheless, a new breed of Greek right-wing populism found a credible outlet with the formation of LAOS (Popular Orthodox Rally) in 2000. A splinter group from the main conservative party ND (New Democracy), it sponsored a novel synthesis of 'anti-establishmentarianism', hyper-nationalism and reverence for the Greek tradition. LAOS built a modest electoral base ranging from 3.8% at the 2007 parliamentary elections up to 7.15% at the 2009 European elections.

Does immigration explain the far-right vote?

A significant rise in inbound migration to Greece from the early 1990s onwards - initially from countries of the former communist bloc but later involving large numbers of people from countries of Asia and Africa – gradually placed immigration high on the political agenda, although this change was not fully visible until the last decade. Official census data captures this rise in immigrant population - from 1% in 1991 to more than 6% in 2001 and to a significantly higher (but still unconfirmed) figure in 2011. But, in addition, there are no reliable figures to chart the level of irregular immigration in Greece, although it is estimated that the overwhelming majority of those who enter the European Union illegally do so through the Greek naval borders.

Still, not unlike the situation in other European countries, debates on immigration have been conducted on the basis of popular perception and not official figures. The discourse describing immigration as putatively uncontrollable, disproportionate in size, and problematic in economic profile has gained steady currency in Greece throughout the past decade, fuelled by a rise in criminality in urban areas and sensationalizing media reports. LAOS in particular placed immigration issues at the centre of its populist electoral platform, calling for a total ban on further non-EU immigration and for the expulsion of 'illegal immigrants'. The party also adopted a highly emotive language of national sovereignty and defense of national identity that underpinned its regular anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic outbursts. In the period following the 2009 elections, anti-immigrant violence rose substantially, particularly in those neighbourhoods of Athens's city centre with the highest concentration of immigrant populations. It was there that Chrissi Avgi made a spectacular comeback, deploying vigilante teams as 'defence squads' for the alleged protection of 'Greek' residents. As a result, the party contested the 2010 municipal elections in Athens with notable success, receiving 5.3% of the aggregate vote in the capital and 12-14% in some neighbourhoods.

Then came the legislative elections of May 2012, conducted against a backdrop of severe economic depression and anti-immigration hysteria. It was not just Chrissi Avgi (Golden Dawn) - with its shocking proposal to put land mines across the Greek-Turkish border in order to stop immigration - or LAOS with its trademark ban-expulsion twin campaign. A new political party, Independent Greeks, was created in early 2012 - again as a splinter group from the conservatives resulting from its leader's disagreement with ND's support for the EU-IMF rescue package for Greece. It entered the electoral contest with a strong anti-immigration agenda. The party programme introduced the notion of a 2.5% quota for non-Greek population residing in the country. It advocated for maximum-security detention facilities in distant and isolated places, the mass expulsion of illegal immigrants, and a hierarchy of 'preferred' immigration by country of origin, heavily biased towards western and Latin American countries.

Meanwhile, given the centrality of the issue of immigration in public opinion, the political competition on this issue engulfed mainstream parties as well. Shortly before the elections, the socialist-led government trumped the card of instituting a network of detention facilities for illegal immigrants across the country, euphemistically called "centres of closed hospitality". It had also pursued the construction of a security razor wire fence along the land border with Turkey - a major entry-point for illegal immigrants. Not to be outdone, the conservative ND fought the elections with a slogan calling for a campaign of "reclaiming" urban centres from 'criminality' – which they directly tied to the problems cause by the seemingly unmanaged immigration of the past two decades and the failure of previous governments to take decisive action against it.

Immigration as a security threat calling for extraordinary measures

The results of the May 2012 elections may have been largely determined by the degree of public anger at the EU-IMF rescue package for Greece and the desire to deliver a shock protest vote against the two main established parties in this respect. Nevertheless, immigration also  featured very prominently in party programmes and public discourses as a fundamental security concern. The 'zero-sum' mindset of populist parties claiming that national prosperity and identity are competitive, finite resources targeted immigrants on numerous levels. They were depicted as a source of criminality and even terrorism - the latter accusation particularly reserved for those with a Muslim background - and therefore as a security concern. These were undesirable competitors for scarce economic resources, especially at a time of severe financial contraction and social insecurity. In sum, they were the archetypical 'others' of the Greek 'European' and 'Christian' culture and were framed as an identity or even a biological threat to the Greek nation. Polls delivered a shocking but largely incongruous result. Chrissi Avgi was the most spectacular beneficiary of the pervasive securitization of the immigration debate, rising from 0.29% (in 2009) to 6.97%; while LAOS, admittedly covering a similar (if less radical in programme and style) territory on the spectrum of attitudes to immigration, fell below the 3% threshold required for parliamentary representation.

But two other parties scored the biggest success in the elections: the second, SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), and the fourth, Independent Greeks, both narrowly behind the two mainstream parties – ND on centre-right and PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) on the centre-left. These two challengers stood on diametrically opposed positions with regards to immigration. While Independent Greeks capitalized on its highly emotional discourse on national sovereignty and its hard line on immigration, SYRIZA advocated for the legalisation (in various forms ranging from) of the majority of immigrants who entered Greece before the end of 2010 – and proposed various measures to do so, ranging from granting temporary to long-term residency permits, to full-fledged naturalization

With the deepening economic contraction likely to remain at the forefront of the political debate for years to come, and the rooting of a defensive 'zero-sum' mindset across large sections of Greek society, public attitudes to immigration will continue to be filtered through the prism of existential 'crisis' and a multi-layered 'siege' mentality. Whether Chrissi Avgi maintains or improves on its recent electoral breakthrough in the longer term - the party managed to maintain its share of the vote in the June 2012 elections, emerging as the fifth largest political party in the new parliament -, the fact remains that its recent performance has largely legitimized the most extreme, virulent anti-immigration platforms as acceptable outlets for substantial protest vote. Even if immigration is likely to have been eclipsed as an agenda item in the elections of 17 June by the more pressing concern of Greece's immediate financial future, the issue is here to stay, framing the broader discussion as a matter of existential security that requires and fully justifies extraordinary action.

This has significantly weakened the appeal of a human rights perspective on immigration or a moderate, pragmatic approach based on effective, long-term 'migration management'. As the political landscape of Greece is being violently redefined as we speak, with prior categories of 'big' and 'small' parties turned upside down in the polls, it is less clear than ever how 'mainstream' and 'extreme' positions on immigration map on the volatile register of Greek politics.

In the meantime, neither everyday discrimination and violence against immigrants nor public hysteria are likely to diminish. Recently, action squads organised by Chrissi Avgi terrorised for days immigrants detained in special facilities in the outskirts of Patras. The level of public tolerance towards, or even support for, such actions is difficult to gauge accurately. But there are increasing pressures - from public opinion, populist politicians, and mass media - for the proverbial 'tougher line' on immigration. Regardless of the electoral strength of blatantly anti-immigration parties, there is a substantial public consensus that immigration has become a major security threat to the well-being and identity of the Greek society and 'nation'; and this is a perception that most parties - from the populist right to the mainstream left - are increasingly willing to address by advocating 'exceptional' security measures in contravention of human rights.

Unless there is a concerted effort to manage public perceptions of immigration against the backdrop of a worsening socio-economic environment, Greek 'mainstream' parties will continue to respond reactively to pressure. Their choice is stark. They either risk alienating part of their voters, or are enticed into endorsing and effectively 'mainstreaming' a discourse on immigration with a far more populist and often extremist provenance.

About the author

Aristotle Kallis is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Lancaster University. Among his latest publications: Genocide and Fascism: The Eliminationist Drive in Fascist Europe, Routledge 2008.