Far-right movement gathers strength as Greek election nears
Extreme nationalist party likely to enter parliament
Protest votes over forest fires threaten status quo
Helena Smith in Athens
Thursday September 13, 2007
Of all the political party stands on Panepistimiou, the boulevard that runs through central Athens, there is one that stands out as the country prepares for general elections on Sunday. Oddly, it the smallest of all the stalls: a cubicle next to a white plastic table with three plastic chairs. Only an umbrella, adorned with the insignia of the far-right Popular Orthodox Alarm (Laos) and the posters of its leader, Giorgos Karatzerferis, promising to throw “a punch at the status quo”, indicate that it is a political stand at all.
But it is here that the crowds have stopped – either to glance over leaflets excelling the glories of Greece or to wish its youthful attendees “good luck”. In an election palpably denuded of the passion of previous campaigns, supporters say the party's programme outlining “clear alternatives to rusty policies” cannot be given away fast enough.
For almost the first time since the collapse of military rule 33 years ago, a group that has been internationally denounced for supporting “virulent nationalism, anti-semitism, racism and xenophobia” appears set to muster enough votes to enter the Greek parliament.
“We offer something different to the decadence and corruption that has rotted our state,” says Lefteris Liviaratos, a student radiologist and member of the party's youth wing. “Since [the return of democracy in] 1974, Greeks have been held hostage to a two-party system that works on the exchange of votes for jobs, and that has to change. Laos is not here for money, it's here for ideas.”
Those ideas, which range from “respect for our history, heroes, religion and traditions”, to “no more immigrants”, have gained strength among an electorate suspicious of globalisation and infuriated by the governing conservatives' inept handling of the forest fires that left 65 dead after raging across the country last month.
The party also has a special appeal to the 20% of the population who live below the poverty line, with its straight-talking former body-builder leader being particularly popular among working-class men.
“Our leader, Giorgos Karatzerferis wasn't born in any presidential palace,” said Renos Arvanitis, 22, referring to the scions of the dynasties that have ruled Greece for decades. “He is a man of the people. He really cares for the poor who, on 700  a month, can't live dignified lives.”
But while the party draws on a long tradition of super-patriotic, populist, reactionary views – and virulently denies that it is racist or xenophobic – analysts believe that protest voters, rather than its ideologues, have given it a sudden boost. At the last election, four years after its foundation in September 2000, the party was unable to muster the 3% of votes necessary to enter the 300-seat parliament. Now, with less than a week to go, and with neither the ruling New Democrats nor the main opposition socialist Pasok party expected to easily win a parliamentary majority, the prospect of voters defecting to Laos is cause for mounting concern.
Indicative of the jitters that the catch-all group has given the government, the prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, last week denounced it as a “party of extremes”, heightened his own nationalist rhetoric and appealed to traditional conservatives not to cast protest votes. Before calling the snap election, six months ahead of schedule, the conservatives who had been consistently ahead in the polls, looked set to be re-elected for a second term.
“This is a far-right party Greek-style,” said Professor Dimitris Sotiropoulos, who teaches political science at Athens University. “There was no Nazi or fascist culture here, so it is not in the mould of Jean-Marie Le Pen's party, but more populist in character. But it is threatening, given that racist, xenophobic and ethnocentric views do exist in Greece, and worrying that echoes of Mr Karatzerferis's opinions are influencing voters in other parties.”