Ilias Kasidiaris in the 2017 © Giannis Papanikos/Shutterstock

Ilias Kasidiaris in the 2017 © Giannis Papanikos/Shutterstock

With an amendment to an existing law, political parties with actual leaders convicted of crimes might soon be banned from running in Greek national elections. The decision started a heated debate over the boundaries of democratic political participation in the country

02/03/2023 -  Mary Drosopoulos Thessaloniki

In view of the upcoming national elections, the Greek government is exhausting the possibilities provided by the Constitution to ensure that criminal organisations will not have the right to participate in electoral processes. An amendment tabled in Parliament on the 2nd of February 2023 targeted political parties fronted by “strawmen”, who serve as an apparently legitimate façade.

This builds on an already existing provision (article 92, law 4804/2021), which bans parties whose leader, secretary general, board members, or legal representatives have been convicted for certain offenses against the state from participating in elections.

In a global perspective, the dilemma of whether convicted criminals can or should be politically active has wide implications. This is a much disputed topic in Western Balkan governments, where the ongoing presence of people associated with war and crimes against humanity has been a bone of contention, affecting the process of nation building, restoration of justice, and post-conflict reconciliation.

In the case of Greece, this topic touches upon dark pages of the country’s modern history. The provision tabled in Parliament has blocked the activity of a political party called Hellenes/Greeks, formed in 2020 by convicted Ilias Kasidiaris, a once leading member of the outlawed neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. During the last months, Kasidiaris had been running an electoral campaign behind bars.

During a cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis stressed the importance of this decision for “the protection of democracy from criminal organisations and persons who appear in the guise of political parties”.

The government claims that the provision is compatible with the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, stressing that “it does not violate the principle of proportionality, as it does not prevent anyone who has been convicted even for serious crimes against the state from being a candidate Member of Parliament, unless they are the actual leader of a party running for elections”.

“Democracy absolutely cannot be tolerant of its enemies, those who use it to plot against it”, read a statement by the Hellenic Ministry of Interior, among others.

One week later, lawmakers voted in favour of the constitutional legitimacy of this provision. Kasidiaris responded by sending an extrajudicial letter to the president of the Parliament to request that the amendment which aims to exclude the Hellenes from the upcoming elections be withdrawn.

While the government appears determined to “shield democracy” and has found an ally in the Socialist Party (PASOK), other voices express criticism, fearing that such drastic measures might eventually undermine democratic institutions in the country.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the main opposition party Syriza, accused the government of hypocrisy and of trying “to steal right-wing votes”, claiming that it had done nothing to stop Kasidiaris’ campaign from prison, but only took measures to ban his party when statistics started predicting that Hellenes would probably get enough votes to enter the Greek Parliament.

The official stance of Mera 25, the party founded by Yanis Varoufakis, is that a provision not supported by relevant policies designed to combat fascism and neo-Nazism might end up having a counter effect and even lionise criminal figures.

The comeback of a fascist commando

The extreme-right Golden Dawn was once Greece's third-biggest political force. The inception of the organisation can be traced in the fascist ideology surrounding the extreme-right military dictatorship in power between 1967 and 1974.

Golden Dawn started gaining momentum from the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008 and on, by appealing to Greek indignados during the years of austerity. It eventually entered the Greek Parliament in 2012 and lived its years of glory at a time when the country was under the extreme pressure of its failing economy, on the one hand, and on the other hand a humanitarian crisis caused by the massive influx of refugees and migrants.

Amid social and political polarisation within and beyond the country, young Ilias Kasidiaris embodied the ‘modern patriot’. A self-styled neo-Spartan, he would often dress his provocative speeches in the garments of ‘orthodox ethos’, ‘tradition’, and ‘unconditional love for the homeland’.

His personal interpretations of ancient Greek wisdom would merge with references to Nazi ideals, aimed at validating his racist, macho talk. He did not just spout pompous words of bravado: he went as far as slapping on camera a female MP of the Communist Party and well-known journalist, Liana Kanelli. The infamous incident, which was broadcast live during a popular morning show, led to his arrest, but also consolidated his public image of an ultra-orthodox masculine figure, which many would find appealing.

For quite a few years, a significant part of the Greek population would not only tolerate, but even applaud Golden Dawn members’ violent public acts of xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny. The far-right leader and his peers would be perceived as “good old-fashioned patriotic Greeks” , quoting Greek writer and journalist Taki Theodoracopulos in 2013, only two months before activist Pavlos Fyssas was assassinated by party members.

A 2020 article attempts to answer why the Greek state had been turning a blind eye to Golden Dawn’s public campaign of violence for over three decades: reasons included Greece’s ‘long tradition of impunity for racist attacks’, but also political interests and priorities extending beyond national boundaries.

In 2020, with a historic ruling, the court decided that Golden Dawn had been operating as a criminal organisation under the guise of political party. Its MPs were found guilty of hate crimes and sowing terror by setting up and coordinating violent militias in their constituencies, targeting mainly refugees, migrants, and members of the LGBTQI community.

Ilias Kasidiaris was sentenced to 13.5 years in prison. One year before, however, upon seeing the reputation of Golden Dawn rapidly declining and the party failing to enter Parliament, he had started distancing himself from the extreme neofascist ideology he had been associated with; his next move was to establish his own party.

Campaigning behind bars

Following its leader’s conviction, the party continued its activity, despite (or perhaps, assisted by) Kasidiaris’ imprisonment. Sources speak of favourable conditions under which the former Golden Dawn member is being held.

From his prison cell, Kasidiaris has been running a vigorous political campaign, using Twitter and YouTube to communicate directly with his growing audience. Facebook had reportedly deleted his account back in 2013, for “inappropriate content, hate speech and hate symbols”.

Last November, Kasidiaris used a recorded message on YouTube to announce the launch of his new book, written behind bars, and even invited fans to join him physically in a presentation that would be held at a hotel in Athens.

Figures show that imprisonment has boosted Kasidiaris’ popularity on social media. According to a 2021 article , “during the first year of his imprisonment only, his channel on YouTube had gained an additional 31,900 subscribers and 7,295,506 views”. The latest statistics provided by Social Blade Stats speak of a rapid increase in the number of his followers, with the Hellenes front man insisting that the electoral battle is not over.

Amid heated public debate over the amendment, the last word on the matter will go to the Supreme Court, the authority that will decide which parties can run for elections and which should be excluded.

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