Austerity, Anti-Immigrant Fervour Drives Greek Elections


By Andy Dabilis

After two years of protests, strikes and riots against austerity measures that have cut their pay, raised taxes, slashed pensions, and with 150,000 public workers set to lose their jobs, Greeks will go to polls on May 6th to elect a new leader and parliament.

Fuelled by anti-austerity rage and politicians espousing anti-immigrant platforms, the elections take place in an atmosphere of high anxiety. The two dominant parties, the PASOK Socialists and New Democracy Conservatives, are sharing power in a shaky hybrid government, overseen by former ECB Vice-President Lucas Papademos. But the coalition has seen its combined support slip to 40%, less than half what they garnered in 2009 elections, because of its support for austerity.

Greece is surviving on two bailouts of 139 billion euros in a series of rescue loans from the EU-IMF-ECB Troika which has warned it will cut off the money if the new government attempts to tinker with the reforms.

The neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn is rising and stands to win seats in parliament, driven by its public appearances urging Greeks to empty the country of the 400,000 illegal immigrants they blame for crime, prostitution and other ills.

Most mainstream politicians are staying out of the public limelight, leaving leaders to address their followers. But PASOK’s new leader, Evangelos Venizelos — the former finance minister who doubled income and property taxes and taxed the poor — said he will hold a May 4th rally in Athens’s main Syntagma Square, home to two years of protests, strikes and riots.

With polls showing neither New Democracy nor PASOK getting enough votes to win outright, they face either forming another coalition of ideological opposites or the prospect of more elections until a government can be formed. The coming election may be the most critical one in Greece since the 1974 fall of the ruling right-wing military junta and the restoration of democracy.

“One cannot be very optimistic that the elections will yield a strong government, nor that the coalition governments that seem at the moment, feasible, are going to be strong, effective and efficient,” Takis Pappas, a political science professor at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, Greece, told SETimes.

The anger over austerity has pushed Greeks towards anti-bailout parties and extremists such as Golden Dawn, whose leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, won a seat on the Athens City Council in 2010. The party is filling a political vacuum by making public appearances at places where Greeks gather.

Smaller parties will benefit from the country’s highest court, as they will be given proportionate coverage on television, overriding a standard which gave only groups already in parliament most of the air time, heavily weighted towards PASOK and New Democracy. The ruling parties also have been blistered for voting themselves 30.2m euros in taxpayer money for campaigning at a time when many Greeks are hurting.

“People know who the responsible people are: the two major parties that ran the country for the last 35 to 40 years. And that’s why you see their percentages so low,” Marios Evriviades, an assistant professor of international relations at Panteion University in Athens, told SETimes.

“The splinter groups have no ideology that binds them other than being anti-bailout, that’s all that unites them.” He added, “The end of the two-party system is in sight.”

But it’s the zeal against immigrants that is the underlying current, and Golden Dawn’s growing popularity has pushed other parties to take a tough stand against illegal immigrants who use Greece as an entry point to seek asylum, or go to other EU countries. A poll by Kapa Research showed 61.7% of Greeks approve of anti-immigrant platforms.

In what critics say is a campaign ploy, Citizens Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, a Socialist, is setting up 30 detention centres around the country to house 30,000 immigrants.

“Whoever is not entitled to international protection, and is simply illegal, will be repatriated according to existing procedures,” he said.

George Karatzaferis, leader of the right-wing LAOS group, which is in danger of failing to gain seats over anger that he briefly participated in the coalition, told SKAI TV that putting illegal immigrants on islands used to exile Communists during the junta was a “good solution.”

“I don’t want them to become a majority,” said Karatzaferis, while defending the right of Greeks to bear arms. “Imagine a foreigner coming to rape your daughter and wife. You will shoot him; there is no discussion about that,” he said.

John Nomikos, director of the Athens-based Research Institute for European and American Studies, said the risk illegal immigrants pose is genuine

“The politicians will make a big issue of illegal migration as part of their campaign to ‘fish’ votes,” he told SETimes. “After the elections, the politicians and their parties will come to the issue of ‘business as usual’ and illegal immigrants will continue to come from the Greek-Turkish borders and the islands.”

Communist Party (KKE) leader Aleka Papariga criticised the backlash. “We cannot throw them into the sea,” Papariga said, telling SKAI TV that the migrant population has contributed to the Greek national wealth.

George Tzogopoulos, a Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens, said illegal immigrants are being used to distract voters from the economic crisis and austerity.

“It’s the normal populist rhetoric of Greek politicians and you can’t differentiate between PASOK and New Democracy,” he told SETimes. “Greek people don’t trust them anymore.”


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