Can Europe Make It?: Analysis

The bio-politics of lockdown in Greece

Has there been a consolidated ‘right-wing shift’ within Greece’s ruling party amid the persisting COVID-19 crisis?

Vassilis Petsinis
26 April 2021, 10.44am
Protest in Athens against police brutality, 14 March 2021
Pacific Press Media Production Corp. Alamy. All rights reserved.

In February 2020, shortly before the escalation of the COVID-19 crisis across Europe, I speculated on the prospects of the ‘right-wing faction’ within Greece’s ruling party, the centre-Right, conservative New Democracy, to shift the party further to the Right. This faction has a more nationalist orientation and socially conservative outlooks on areas such as foreign policy and security issues; relations between Church and the state; and the implementation of a stricter ‘law and order’ agenda.

Back then, the conclusion was that although this faction's operation within New Democracy was of a crucial significance for the attraction of conservative voters, its potential to engineer a fully fledged shift of the entire party to the Right was regulated by intra-party constraints.

However, since spring 2020 Greece has seen several incidents of police violence, as part of the alleged aim to implement the lockdown measures for the prevention of COVID-19 infections. This includes the alleged beating up of a civilian who was said to be ignoring the curfew by policemen in the Nea Smyrni neighborhood of Athens. This incident was followed by violent ‘reprisals’ on police units by anarchist groupings between 7-9 March 2021.

Taking into consideration that New Democracy’s right-wing faction has been largely vested with authority over issues pertaining to law and order, including the lockdown measures, the question here is: can one speak of a ‘right-wing shift’ within Greece’s governing party amid the COVID-19 crisis and if so, to what extent? Before attempting to answer this, and in order to comprehend the latest developments in Greece more efficiently and through a comparative lens, one should look to the imposition of lockdown measures by other conservative governments in south-east Europe.

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COVID-19 and the conservative Right in Serbia and Bulgaria

On 15 March 2020, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić officially declared a countrywide state of emergency in an attempt to “fight against an invisible adversary” and counter the spread of coronavirus. As part of the package of emergency measures, the military was ordered to guard hospitals while police were assigned to monitor those quarantined or in self-isolation for 14 or 28 days. Those who violated quarantine were to face imprisonment for “up to three years”. Meanwhile, the country’s prime minister, Ana Brnabić, announced the restriction of movement and the deployment of military units along Serbia’s borders.

The imposition of this strict lockdown was swiftly characterised as an authoritarian turn by Serbia’s opposition. The coalition Savez za Srbiju (‘Alliance for Serbia’), and its leader, Dragan Đilas, rushed to interpret the temporary limitation of civic freedoms as ‘the final phase before the establishment of a dictatorship’ by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, Srpska Napredna Stranka (SNS).

Meanwhile, smaller opposition parties with a vibrant grassroots component, such as the Movement of Free Citizens (PSG) led by actor Sergej Trifunović, issued calls for civil disobedience under the banner of ‘Bukom protiv diktature (with noise against the dictatorship). This consisted of public manifestations by quarantined citizens across Serbia, at pre-arranged times, making noises ranging from loud music to repeatedly banging kitchen utensils. Due to the opposition’s fragmentation, this mobilization and the ensuing boycott did not prevent the astounding victory of SNS (61.60% of the vote) in the parliamentary elections of 21 June 2020.

In Serbia, the government's decision to impose a stricter curfew backfired and was met with large-scale riots

Nevertheless, the SNS-led government's decision to impose a stricter curfew in early July backfired and was met with large-scale riots organized by grassroots groupings – some of which were nationalist – in the capital, Belgrade. In the end, the government softened the measures against the spread of the pandemic but a considerable percentage of Serbian youths in particular have now decided against conforming to the measures – largely in protest against what was perceived as an authoritarian turn and an emphatic display of power by President Vučić and his allies.

In contrast, Bulgaria’s ruling party, the centre-Right, conservative GERB, is not as predominant in its national parliament (Sobranie) as the SNS is in Serbia’s Skupština (national assembly) and its emergency measures were not as strict as those in Serbia. Bulgaria, like Serbia, had countrywide protests last summer, commencing on 9 July, but these were prompted mainly by persisting allegations over endemic corruption, as well as PM and GERB chairman Boyko Borisov’s attempt at hijacking the state institutions, and only to a secondary extent by the COVID-19 restrictions. Nevertheless, the heavy-handed attempts at supressing the demonstrations, in an alleged endeavour to curb the spread of the pandemic, triggered the escalation of tensions between security forces and protesters by September 2020. As in Serbia, a non-negligible percentage of Bulgarian youths started refusing to observe measures against the spread of coronavirus, largely in opposition to governmental policies.

COVID-19 and navigating Greece’s conservative Right

In contrast to Vučić in the SNS and Borisov in GERB, and in a fashion comparable to Croatia’s prime minister, Andrej Plenković, in the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has been programmatically envisaging New Democracy as a conservative party with an enhanced centrist/liberal component.

Nevertheless, well before the outbreak of COVID-19, the party’s ‘right-wing faction’ (e.g., vice-president Adonis Georgiadis and the minister of interior, Makis Voridis) had set a top objective to ‘cleanse the centre of Athens from casual rioters and drug-trafficking gangs’. One of the police operations, with the aim to evacuate squats occupied by anarchist collectives in the Koukaki district of Athens, resulted in the physical beating and arrest of film director Dimitris Indares at his home (which neighbored a squat) on 18 December 2019. Although the minister of public order, Michalis Chrysochoidis, originates from the ranks of the erstwhile, centre-Left PASOK, his law-and-order project enjoys the unequivocal endorsement of the governing party’s right-wing faction.

During the first wave of the pandemic (spring-summer 2020), a strict curfew was put in force in Greece, with severe limitations imposed on public mobility and restrictions on travelling inside the country. With the exception of prominent figures from the far Right (e.g. Golden Dawn’s formerly leading affiliates, Ilias Kasidiaris and Ioannis Lagos), no political forces actively contested the lockdown measures. The government rushed to portray its management of the first wave of the pandemic as a ‘success story’ and temporarily reopened the tourist industry by the beginning of the summer 2020.

Stricter law and order policies, in already tense political environments, may lead to an increase in non-compliance

But the management of the second wave was less successful and Greece's number of new infections skyrocketed by November 2020. This led the government to re-impose an even stricter curfew. Since summer 2020, there has been a not necessarily politicized opposition to the lockdown by groups of youths gathering and socializing in squares and parks, especially in Athens and Thessaloniki. Meanwhile, the latest controversy over the hunger strike and state of health of Dimitris Koufontinas – a member of the far-Left, urban guerrilla group, Revolutionary Organization 17 November, who was convicted on terrorism charges – has also revitalized the grassroots activism of anarchist and Trotskyist groupings.

Against the background of these developments, the recent toughening of law and order policies by the government can be interpreted as an endeavour by New Democracy’s right-wing faction to enhance the groupness of the party’s bases of support – the more conservative and right-wing ones, in particular. To this one should add a state of perplexity (if not confusion), among the governmental agencies over the rising number of infections and how to handle this bleak situation.

However, as seen in Serbia and Bulgaria, the legitimization of stricter law and order policies, with the alleged objective of combating COVID-19, amid already tense political environments, may lead to an increase in non-compliance, if not civil unrest. This argument acquires a greater weight when tougher policies may even result in acts of police violence such as the recent incidents in Nea Smyrni.

What next?

The past few years have seen the inability of the Radical Left Coalition (SYRIZA) to mount a coherent and effective opposition campaign against New Democracy. According to a series of polls, SYRIZA’s popularity hovered around 25-27% between 2020 and 2021, while New Democracy’s was between 45 and 47%.

New Democracy’s solid lead, especially following the management of the first wave of COVID-19, has emboldened the government to proceed with its tougher ‘law and order’ policies. Intellectuals affiliated to SYRIZA or the broader Left have recently began more vocally accusing New Democracy of a decisive shift further to the Right, which they compare to that of Viktor Orbán’s FIDESZ party in Hungary.

Despite the qualitative differences in their political origins and the national contexts, parties such as FIDESZ in Hungary or VMRO-DPMNE in the Republic of North Macedonia, have, like New Democracy, operated as ‘umbrella organizations’ that hosted conservative and liberal segments. The gradual overtaking (or ‘hijacking’) of the entire party organization by right-wing cohorts can be enacted during times of ground-breaking changes in global politics and, ideally, amid a crisis. Orbán’s FIDESZ provides an appropriate example: the period extending from the Hungarian economic crisis (2006-08) to the European migration crisis (2015-16) saw the consolidated shift of the party further to the Right.

In the case of New Democracy, the necessity to control a large population amid a global health crisis facilitated the engagement of the right-wing faction and enhanced its status within the party structures – as reflected in the systemization of stricter law and order policies. Even if not tantamount to a firm shift of New Democracy further to the Right, the upgraded status of the governing party’s right-wing faction freezes any prospects for the liberalization of the police and security forces and exacerbates the polarization of society along ‘Right vs Left’ cleavages. Taking into account the persisting claims of far-Right sympathies inside the ranks of the Greek police (e.g. the electoral appeal of Golden Dawn among quite a few officers until not so long ago), this turn may ultimately foment an escalation in the clashes with militant anarchist (and other) groupings on the street level.

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