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Barred from elections, a Greek NeoNazi is back in the political game
Former Golden Dawn member Ilias Kasidiaris has launched a new party. Greece’s supreme court has disqualified it from running in an election, but that could be unconstitutional
A Greek fascist sentenced to 14 years in jail for organised criminal acts says his candidacy in this month’s general election is the country’s democratic litmus test.
Ilias Kasidiaris used to be the spokesman for the deposed and disbanded Golden Dawn, a party that entered parliament in 2012, at the height of Greece’s economic woes, following the 2008 global financial crisis.
A little over a year later, its 20 MPs were led to prison in handcuffs. The Supreme Court prosecutor saw the murder of a left-wing rapper at the hands of a Golden Dawn functionary as part of a pattern of violence against immigrants, gays and leftists, and successfully prosecuted Golden Dawn as a criminal organisation.
Kasidiaris has appealed his conviction and been active in prison, tweeting messages to supporters. This year he entered Greeks–National Party, his own vehicle, for the May 21 general election. Opinion polls give him about 3.5% of the popular vote – roughly half a million ballots – enough to enter parliament.
But on Tuesday the Supreme Court’s First Section, which vets parties ahead of elections, disqualified the party.
“Tonight, the democratic system was dissolved and half a million Greeks are deprived of the cardinal right to vote for the party of their choice,” Kasidiaris’ lawyer said outside the Supreme Court after the decision, conveying a written message from him.
“Greeks-National Party was illegally targeted, because it is the cleanest and most honest party on the domestic political scene. We expected this unprecedented upset, and are totally prepared for the next day,” the statement went on.
When it was elected, Golden Dawn styled itself as a financially honest party, aiming to strike a contrast with a mainstream political scene that had mismanaged the country into bankruptcy. When, in the wake of its indictment, parliament stripped it of state funding, its MPs diverted their salaries to party coffers to continue its ability to function and do social work. Kasidiaris is adopting that political profile.
The ruling New Democracy conservatives have sought to banish Neonazism from parliament once and for all. In a country that suffered occupation and almost a million deaths during World War Two, many see its re-emergence as a national disgrace.
Two years ago, the government passed an amendment barring felons convicted for organised crime from leading political parties – a move designed to exclude Golden Dawn members from the political process.
In February, after Kasidiaris placed a retired army officer in charge of his party, the government broadened that amendment to include felons from being mere party members or effective controllers of parties they had put straw men in charge of.
In April came a third legal amendment saying that the First Section of the Supreme Court must vet parties in a plenary session to give its decisions transparency and legitimacy.
But two days later, Supreme Court deputy president Christos Tzanerikos resigned after claiming he was approached by a senior member of the government and told that he would be appointed to the head of an independent authority if he steered the First Section the right way on the Kasidiaris issue – suggesting the government did not feel its three amendments were ironclad. The government denied the allegation.
New Democracy’s attempts to put a lid on fascism have now unleashed a legal and political storm.
Since the turn of the century, four splinter parties to the right of New Democracy have won seats in parliament. Opposition parties accuse prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of acting solely to disenfranchise new competitiors.
“He was looking at opinion polls and weighing the issue,” said socialist leader Nikos Androulakis on the campaign trail. “In recent months he saw Kasidiaris going up, which makes one-party government harder,” he said, referring to the fact that the more parties that enter the 300-seat legislature, the fewer the seats available for distribution among them in proportion to their share of the popular vote. “Only then did he bring a law against Golden Dawn,” Androulakis concluded.
New Democracy is projected to win about 32% of the vote - not enough to give it the 151 seats it needs to form a government in parliament, and Mitsotakis has suggested he is unwilling to form a coalition.
Kasidiaris’ lawyer, Vaso Pantazi, agrees that New Democracy’s motives were political. “The amendments happened as we approached elections… you need to do them in neutral time, otherwise someone feels they are aimed at him personally,” she told Al Jazeera.
New Democracy had few options. Banning a party in Greece is practically impossible. Article 29 of the constitution says any party may enter an election “if it serves the free functioning of the democratic system.” Under that vague formula, even the Communist Party of Greece, which hews to Stalinism and considers Nikita Kruschev the beginning of the end of communism, has been accepted into the legislature for half a century.
Greece tried banning the communist party after its leadership launched a bitter civil war in 1944-49. Communists were sent to penal colonies throughout the 1950s and 60s. The fear of a communist resurgence caused a seven-year hiatus in democracy, when a group of colonels seized power. After they fell in 1974, Greece restituted the communist party and its new constitution steered away from banning anyone from office on the basis of ideology. Even Golden Dawn were not convicted for their beliefs. “Golden Dawn wasn’t convicted because it’s fascist or Nazis,” said interior minister Makis Voridis in parliament. “Golden Dawn was convicted because it committed crimes… We’re talking about criminals, convicts.”
The only way the government could ban Golden Dawn from parliament was to go after them as individuals. Its legal amendments claim that Golden Dawn members’ inability to “support the free functioning of the democratic system” is based on their felony convictions.
But even that is unconstitutional, says Pantazi. “The Greek constitution requires an irrevocable criminal conviction to bar any citizen from elected office. So a person has to be found guilty on appeal to the Supreme Court. Here we have the unique situation of a person with a first conviction being stripped of the right to office… while he still enjoys the presumption of innocence,” she said.
Constitutional lawyer Yiannis Drossos agrees that the governnment’s approach has weaknesses. “This is not a court ruling, this is an administrative decision taken by justices,” he said of the disqualification of Greeks-National Party. “Which means that probably it will be put under judicial review at a later stage,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said the legal amendments on which the decision was based had put the constitution to a “dire test”.
Kasidiaris has decided his best course is to fight the judiciary and parliament as publicly as possible.
Pantazi believes that Kasidiaris will be vindicated once his case exhausts domestic appeals and reaches the European Court of Human Rights.
“Greece will be condemned for trampling on the presumption of innocence, as it is condemned for a number of violations. It will take years, but some things are not done for the end result, they are done for history,” she said.