National populism and xenophobia in Greece

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‘National exceptionalism’ has long served as an antidote to the many disappointments that being a Greek has often entailed. But historically, has this now opened the door to populist forces in Greece’s political culture?

Aristos Doxiadis Manos Matsaganis
27 November 2012

‘National exceptionalism’ is one of the founding myths of modern Greece – perhaps the main one. The idea that the Greek nation is not just distinct but radically different from (read: “superior to”) all others is steeped in history. Current members of the Greek nation learn early in life to assert a direct line of descent from the Classical Greece of Homer, Pericles and Socrates, to take pride in the latter’s achievements, to claim them as their own.

Never mind that in 1830, when Greece emerged as a modern state (with decisive support by the Great Powers), after a long War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire (with the active involvement on the battlefield of many hundreds of philhellenes from Western Europe and beyond), most Greeks did not define themselves as Greek, and many did not speak the Greek language (itself the subject of many transmutations and bitter controversies over the last two centuries) .

The notion that an unbroken line connected Modern Greece to the glory that was Classical Greece proved extremely useful in diplomacy, in 19th century nation- and state-building, and later as a morale-booster and an antidote to the many failures and disappointments that being a Greek often entailed.

‘Fatherland-Religion-Family’ (1946-1974)

After the 1946-1949 Civil War, the mantle of nationalism was monopolised by the victorious Right, claiming for its own supporters (some of which had collaborated with the Nazis in 1941-1944) exclusive membership of the national community, and portraying the defeated communists as enemies of the nation. The nationalist rhetoric (“Fatherland-Religion-Family”) reached an apogee with the Colonels’ coup d’état of 1967, and came crashing down together with the military regime in 1974. The event that triggered the Colonels’ downfall, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, which led to the division of the island lasting to this day, showed that more often than not it is nationalism itself that lies at the roots of the most catastrophic national tragedies.

‘National Popular Unity’ (1974-1996)

With rightwing nationalism entirely discredited, and the ruling conservative party (New Democracy, founded in 1974 by Constantine Karamanlis) firmly pro-European and more liberal than ever, the late 1970s witnessed the transformation of nationalist energies. This time it was the new socialist party PASOK (also founded in 1974, by Andreas Papandreou) that played the game of holier – i.e. more patriotic - than thou. Its rallying cry, the platform of ‘National Popular Unity’, blended anti-imperialist sentiments, quite diffuse on the left then as now, with the conviction that the ‘People’ were the sole depositories of wisdom.  Belief was reasserted in the timeless allure of the ‘national character’ .

Early PASOK was a movement not a party (Papandreou never tolerated internal dissent, and had no time for party democracy and other such bourgeois niceties); it was radical (it promised ‘socialism’); it was fiercely nationalist (“Greece to the Greeks”, a slogan borrowed from Nasser’s “Egypt to the Egyptians”) and anti-Turkish; it was anti-western: i.e. against the US, against NATO, and against Greece’s entry into the European Economic Community (in 1980, as the Karamanlis government officially signed the accession treaty, PASOK mobilised its supporters and joined KKE in mass demonstrations against “the EEC of monopolies”) .

This recipe proved a winner. PASOK’s meteoric rise to a mass party that won one general election after the other and ruled the country for 21 out of the 30 years from 1981 to 2011 amounted to a triumph of national populism.

PASOK in power moderated its anti-western stance, but never entirely abandoned it for as long as Papandreou remained in charge. Under Costas Simitis, PASOK leader and Prime Minister in 1996-2004, a pro-European party discourse was tacitly adopted. Too tacitly, most probably: the new party line, taken forgranted at leadership level, never really convinced the rank and file. By that time, the anti-American and anti-European sentiments of party activists were too deeply entrenched to let go of.

In the meantime, the Berlin Wall had come down, shattering all remaining illusions of ‘proletarian internationalism’. Moreover, much nearer home, and too close for comfort, Yugoslavia had imploded into full-scale war, with extensive ‘ethnic cleansing’ practised on all sides. Both events caused a resurgence of nationalism in Greece, this time across the political spectrum…

The previous rise of the far Right

Hostility to immigrants and a reasserted Orthodox identity were key ingredients to the success of LAOS (the ‘Popular Orthodox Rally’). The party (founded September 2000), originally a breakaway of New Democracy, exploited the shrewdness and media savvy of its leader George Karatzaferis to make a splash.

Rather moderate by the standards of Golden Dawn, the agenda of LAOS emphasised law and order, and featured calls for the repatriation of those illegal immigrants in excess of a certain limit and ‘not needed’ for their skills. The party also made symbolic gestures towards die-hard supporters of the 1967-1974 military junta, including the demand that those officers still in jail for their role in the coup should be released ‘on humanitarian grounds’. On the whole, LAOS managed (for a while) to attract ‘traditional conservative and ultra right voters, who were disaffected with New Democracy and its shift [to] the centre of the left-right ideological scale’ .

In electoral terms, although it failed to enter the national parliament in March 2004 (having won 2.2% of the vote), LAOS entered the European Parliament in June of the same year (4.1%). It did better in the general election of September 2007 (3.8% and 10 MPs), and better still in October 2009 (5.6% and 15 MPs), having achieved its best ever result in the European Parliamentary election of June 2009 (7.2% and 2 MEPs).

As described earlier, at about this point the party’s fortunes ebbed. Its decision to enter the coalition government of Loukas Papademos in November 2011, itself a confirmation that LAOS had gained the respectability it coveted, proved fatal: its share of the vote shrank first to 2.9% in May 2012, and lower still to 1.6% in June 2012. As of now, the party, left with no seats in Parliament, is in disarray - with some of its former MPs (including the two Ministers under Papademos) having joined the New Democracy of Antonis Samaras.

Xenophobic nationalism as mainstream ideology

As the previous narrative demonstrates, undercurrents of xenophobic nationalism have now become accepted parts of popular culture and are present in the political discourse of all mainstream parties.

In the light of this, it should come as no surprise that a recent survey found that 63% of respondents thought “the Greek nation superior to other nations” (up from 43% in 2011), or that 65% said, “they were willing to support what the country did irrespective of whether it was right or wrong” (up from 41% in 2011).

On the whole, national populism PASOK-style (since the mid-1970s) and the “Macedonian Question” (since the early 1990s) has built on deeply rooted notions of “national exceptionalism” and helped legitimise xenophobic nationalism once again – in the media, across the political spectrum and in society at large. Mass immigration into Greece, first from the Balkans and Eastern Europe, then from Asia and Africa, gave this a further boost. The current economic crisis, often experienced as impotence and humiliation, has made it the default reflex of both left and right. It is only in this broader context that one can make proper sense of the recent electoral success of Golden Dawn, Independent Greeks and – in a different sense - SYRIZA.

This article is an excerpt from Aristos Doxiadis and Manos Matsaganis’ pamphlet for the Counterpoint “Europe’s Reluctant Radicals” series, which investigates the reasons for the recent fragmentation of the Greek political system and the rise of populisms on both the left and right of the political spectrum. They focus in particularly on the success of the left-wing Syriza and the shocking growth of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in a wide-ranging discussion that covers Greece’s economic and social structure, the recent influx of immigrants into the country, Greece’s history of protest, and the new forms of national populist economic theory and action that have taken root since the debt crisis.

It forms part of an editorial partnership with Counterpoint launched in a guest week in November 2012. The partnership will continue over the coming months with articles timed to coincide with events to disseminate the ten pamphlets commissioned through Counterpoint's project 'Recapturing Europe's Reluctant Radicals" , funded by the Open Society Foundations.


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