Can Europe Make It?

Harnessing ‘the right within’ in Croatia and Greece

How ‘right-wing factions’ enable governing parties to draw support from the more socially conservative layers of both societies.

Vassilis Petsinis
4 February 2020
Andrej Plenković, Croatian PM, at the start of the Croatian Presidency of the EU Council, January, 2020.
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Philipp von Ditfurth/PA. All rights reserved.

Croatia and Greece are governed by nominally conservative parties of the centre-right (Croatia: Croatian Democratic Community/HDZ; Greece: New Democracy/ND). The leaders of both parties (HDZ: PM Andrej Plenković; ND: PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis) have shifted the official party-narratives more firmly towards the centre. This corresponded to the programmatic expression of commitment to the process of European integration and the adoption of more 'humanitarian' stances on hot-button issues such as the migration crisis.

Nevertheless, both HDZ and ND comprise 'right-wing factions'. These are characterized by more socially conservative outlooks on policy-areas such as minority issues; LGBTQI rights, abortion, and other gender-related themes; relations between clergy and state; the management of the migration crisis; and the implementation of stricter 'law and order' agendas – coupled with the occasional communication of soft Eurosceptic standpoints.

Herein, attention is paid to the dynamics and the long-term implications behind these factions. Would these 'right-wing factions' be capable of prompting a shift of both parties further to the right? Or are their functions restricted to the accommodation of target-groups not fully covered by the official party-narratives?

‘The right within’ and minority rights

The implementation of the legislation on minority rights has been rather controversial in Croatia – especially in regard to the public use of the Serb Cyrillic script. This has been the case particularly in the Eastern Slavonian town of Vukovar, a landmark in the Croatian ‘Homeland War’ (‘Domovinski Rat’) and symbol of resistance to the Yugoslav People’s Army/JNA during the conflict of 1991. On this occasion, the mobilization of HDZ’s ‘right-wing faction’ involved the coordination among local party-affiliates (e.g. the mayor of Vukovar, Ivan Penava) and extra-parliamentary actors (the Croatian War Veterans Association/UHRV).

This engagement culminated in a series of mass protests against the public use of Serb Cyrillic script (2013-16). On the political macro-level, throughout 2018, HDZ’s ’right-wing faction’ and grass-roots groupings (Narod odlučuje/’The people decide’) had been campaigning for a referendum in order to amend the Constitution (article 72) and reduce the number of the ethnic minorities’ representatives at the Sabor (parliament) to six. This endeavour ran parallel to recent allegations over historical revisionism about Ustaše and the Second World War among certain members of HDZ’s ‘right-wing faction’ – the European Parliament MP, Ruža Tomašić, in particular.

In Greece, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement/PASOK and the Radical Left Coalition/SYRIZA ‘traditionally’ garner the lion’s share of political preferences within the officially-recognized Muslim minority of Thrace (northeast). Nevertheless, throughout the last couple of decades, ND has satisfactorily succeeded in networking inside the minority’s ranks and attracting several MPs to the party-organization. Furthermore, even though certain affiliates of ND’s ‘right-wing faction’ (including the Minister of Development, Adonis Georgiadis) have been accused of voicing antisemitic and ethno-nationalist standpoints in the past, no such public statements have been issued recently. Thishints that, by contrast to the case of HDZ, minority issues do not seem to centrally occupy the political engagement of ND’s ‘right-wing faction’ – largely as result of the firmer embedding and the more extensive elaboration of minority rights in Croatia’s constitutional framework.

‘The right within’ and gender-related themes

To grasp the wider implications of opposition to LGBTQI rights in Croatia, one should take into consideration the pact between Croatia’s religious authorities and the political establishment, as stipulated in the Vatican Contract. Inside this semi-formal arrangement, HDZ granted its assent to the constitutional referendum on the same-sex marriage ban (December 1, 2013) and condones the Church’s opposition to sexual education. More recently, the party’s ‘right-wing faction’ shifted its focus towards certain guidelines of the Istanbul Convention (2017) (e.g. civic partnership for same-sex couples) and mobilized its target-groups across the country in cooperation with Catholic Church groupings. Furthermore, HDZ’s ‘right-wing faction’ opposes any proposals for the liberalization of the legislation on abortion and has been endeavoring to internationalize their campaign through the systematization of links to conservative think-tanks based abroad (mainly Poland).

Despite the absence of a structured frame comparable to the Vatican Contract, the Greek Orthodox Church has been successful in preserving its partner-like relation with the state. ND’s ‘right-wing faction’ insists on maintaining this partnership intact whereas the parliamentary vote on the new legal framework that officially recognized same-sex couples as legal subjects (December 2015) witnessed an intra-party split between the liberal and the conservative factions.

Nevertheless, on January 13, 2020, the Minister of Transportation, Kostas Karamanlis, ordered the removal of certain anti-abortion billboards that appeared in the Athens metro because they were arguing ‘against an absolutely guaranteed and indisputable right of women’. In this light, although ND’s ‘right-wing faction’ adopts or condones several of the Church’s prerogatives on gender-related themes, it appears that the Vatican Contract has facilitated a more efficient cooperation between HDZ’s ‘right-wing faction’ and the Church as well as the prospects for international engagement.

‘The right within’ and the migration crisis

Since autumn 2015, HDZ has been questioning the long-term viability of EU quotas for refugees. Empirical surveyshave found out that the majority of the party’s affiliates hold that immigration policy must remain under the authority of sovereign states (the highest percentage among Croatia’s largest parties). However, Croatian PM and HDZ-chairman, Andrej Plenković, has refrained from resorting to cultural argumentation against the accommodation of refugees/migrants on Croatian soil but concentrated on the limited infrastructure. In all of this, one should not overlook allegations over the maltreatment of refugees and other migrants on the Croatian-Bosnian border. Nevertheless, unlike the Polish and/or Hungarian precedents, no segment within HDZ appears to see much scope in the ‘weaponization’ of the party’s scepticism over EU refugee quotas. Within this context, one should also take into consideration the fact that most refugees tend to view Croatia as a transit country. Therefore, it is parties of the radical right (e.g. the Croatian Party of Rights/HSP) that have been predominantly active in mobilization campaigns over the migration crisis.

In Greece, PM Mitsotakis tends to align with the standpoints of EU core-states (Germany and France) over the more ‘flexible’ management of the migration crisis. The Greek PM has frequently criticized Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini over their hard stances on this issue as well as on a variety of other policymaking areas. Nevertheless, Adonis Georgiadis and other representatives of ND’s ‘right-wing faction’ have been habitually referring to refugees and other migrants as ‘illicit immigrants’ and have been elaborating suggestions for ‘discouraging’ additional waves of newcomers from accessing Greece’s territory. Taking into consideration Greece’s greater geographic proximity to the refugees’ countries of origin, as well as their denser concentration therein, it becomes transparent why the migration crisis emerges as a hot-button issue of paramount significance for the governing party’s ‘right-wing faction’.

To this one might add that the latest developments further to the right of the party-spectrum (namely, Golden Dawn’s state of disarray and the feeble electoral weight of Greek Solution/EL) provide one more trajectory for a more effective capitalization on the migration crisis by ND’s ‘right-wing faction’.

‘The right within’ and law and order

In a comparable vein to a string of conservative, centre-right, parties across Europe, the programmatic principles of HDZ adhere to upholding law and order and guaranteeing the safety of Croatian citizens. However, whereas HDZ primarily concentrates on more ‘standard’ areas of the criminal code (e.g. drugs and human trafficking, acts of physical violence, football hooliganism, etc.), the case of ND, since the parliamentary elections of September 2019, has become more idiosyncratic and context-specific. The governing party has focused its engagement on certain quarters of inner Athens – the neighbourhood of Exarchia, in particular. This is the Greek capital’s alternative hub and home to a network of anarchist collectives since the 1980s, the equivalent of which have been a lot less active in Zagreb or elsewhere in Croatia. As part of the government’s call for a ‘return to normality’, the Public Order Minister, Michalis Chrysochoidis, has pledged to cleanse Exarchia of its ‘casual rioters as well as the drug-trafficking gangs that operate in the area’.

Throughout the last few months, this project largely centred on the evacuation of squats occupied by anarchist collectives where refugees had been temporarily housed (often in cooperation with anarchist groupings from western Europe).

Proponents of these activities by the anarchist collectives contend that, in light of the deficient management of the migrant crisis by consecutive Greek governments, the temporary settlement of refugees in ‘parallel structures’ such as the occupied squats alleviated their frustration and helped provide a temporary solution. Nevertheless, the evacuation process has been continuing steadily with little active opposition beyond the anarchist and the extra-parliamentary radical left spheres.

This has also contributed to the drastic reduction of anti-systemic mobilization, largely as a consequence of the wider state of political passivity within Greek society since autumn 2015. Although Minister Chrysochoidis originates from the ranks of erstwhile PASOK, his law and order project enjoys the unequivocal endorsement of leading figures inside ND’s ‘right-wing faction’ such as Adonis Georgiadis, (Minister of Agriculture) Makis Voridis, and MP Thanos Plevris.

Prospects for a ‘right-wing turn’?

The last decade has witnessed various instances of gradualist and, apparently, more successful (e.g. the participation of Latvia’s National Alliance/NA in a string of coalition governments) as well as maximalist and, ostensibly, less effective (e.g. the participation of the League in Italy’s previous coalition government) right-wing entryism.

The essential difference between the aforementioned cases and the ‘right-wing factions’ of HDZ and ND is that, in the latter cases, we have to do with the engagement of segments subordinated to the official line of two centralized and vertically-structured political parties. Nevertheless, if only on the basis of electoral geography, both parties still draw a lot of their support from the more socially conservative layers, especially in specific parts of the two countries (Croatia: Dalmatia and Slavonia; Greece: Peloponnese and Northern Greece). Consequently, the operation of the ‘right-wing factions’ within each party has considerably enhanced the ability of HDZ and ND to attract votes from these target-groups.

Although far from being marginalized, at this given moment, neither ‘right-wing faction’ appears to be capable of triggering a fully-fledged, and potentially more Eurosceptic, turn further towards the right.

On the one hand, the state of Croatia’s economy and dependence on the EU’s Structural Funds decisively regulates the prospects for a ‘right-wing turn’ comparable to the Hungarian and/or Polish precedents. On the other hand, Greece remains equally dependent on Brussels in regard to the management of the migration crisis, regional security, and other policymaking areas of vital concern. Nevertheless, one tentative prediction is that the operation of HDZ’s and ND’s ‘right-wing factions’ may impede or complicate a more liberal turn in decision-making over selected areas (e.g. Croatia: minority rights and gender-related themes; Greece: relations between Church and state, liberalization of the police and security forces).

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