Greek Right Wing Could Profit From Fires

A right-wing Greek party that has been denounced as anti-Semitic and racist could be benefiting from a popular backlash against the country's main political parties fueled by wildfires that have killed 67 people.

Greek Right Wing Could Profit From Fires
With a general election just over a week away, polls suggest Giorgos Karatzaferis' Popular Orthodox Alarm, a right-wing nationalist party that supports closer ties with the Orthodox Church and opposes Turkey joining the European Union, is gaining ground.

Karatzaferis stares out from campaign posters on bus stops and billboards across the capital, his right fist clenched in a boxing glove, promising to deliver a blow to the political "status quo."

But analysts warn against interpreting increased votes for the party, known by its Greek acronym LAOS, as the rise of the far right in Greece.

Ever since Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis called early elections last month, LAOS appeared likely to win enough votes on Sept. 16 to pass the 3 percent threshold for a seat in Parliament. Opinion polls showed it was attracting dissatisfied voters who traditionally supported the governing conservative party -- just enough to scrape into the 300-seat legislature.

Greek politics have been dominated for decades by two parties: Karamanlis' conservative New Democracy took over from the socialist PASOK party in 2004 elections. Until then, PASOK had led Greece for all but three years since 1981. The two smaller parties in parliament until now have always belonged to the far left.

But the wave of devastating fires and the political bickering that followed have left voters angry with both parties. A bond scandal earlier in the year also had sparked public outrage -- and it is the smaller groups that are benefiting.

"The fires changed the political agenda," said political analyst Giorgos Sefertzis. "They created new conditions ... and certainly a climate that favors this type of expression of protest."

The possibility of LAOS, whose leader was expelled from the now governing New Democracy party in 2000 and who won a seat in the European Parliament in 2004, entering the Greek legislature "is developing into a certainty," Sefertzis said.

LAOS and its candidates are a cause for concern, said Moses Constantini, head of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

"We are more worried about the candidates Mr. Karatzaferis has on his ballot, who all have written or have said certain things against the Jews," Constantini said.

A January 2005 report on global anti-Semitism by the U.S. State Department described LAOS as a "small, extreme right-wing party (that) supports virulent nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia."

It said Karatzaferis "regularly attributes negative events involving Greece to international Jewish plots. He used the party-owned television station to denounce politicians with Jewish origins and to claim that Jews were behind the Sept. 11 attacks."

But Karatzaferis has since toned down his rhetoric, and vehemently denies accusations of racism or anti-Semitism.

His party charter states that "we are against any type of social marginalization, any phenomenon of racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism, and we fully respect all nations and religions," he said during a radio program this week. "Anyone who doesn't agree isn't in the party."

Analysts say he looks set to win the support of people dissatisfied by the two main parties, rather than people who espouse his views.

"This vote that will possibly put him into Parliament is not an ideological vote, the people who are voting for him are not people who are afraid of immigrants or are extreme," said political analyst John Loulis. "They are people who are disappointed by the two-party system and are reacting with a protest vote. There isn't an ideological element which is pointing voters in that direction. Nor is there the danger of a strong extreme right-wing party in Greece."

If Karatzaferis is successful, it would be the first time since the end of Greece's 1967-74 military dictatorship that a fifth party -- or one accused of holding far-right views -- would have won a seat in parliament.

Karamanlis indicated late Wednesday that the possibility of losing votes to LAOS was worrying New Democracy.

"I understand that there is bitterness. But now is not the time for a negative vote," he said in a pre-election speech.

While Karatzaferis does have a core support base, at the moment "it's much more a symbol, a vote of dissatisfaction with the major parties than anything else," Loulis said. "His ideological core is very, very small."

LAOS has been hovering at just above 3 percent in recent polls, with some of the latest showing it at 4 percent. Loulis said that voters traditionally return to the two major parties in the week before the election -- and there is no way of telling what will happen until voting day itself.

Last Mod: 09 Eylül 2007, 15:18
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