Barred from polls, a Greek neo-Nazi seeks way back to politics

Ex-Golden Dawn member Ilias Kasidiaris launches a party before the May 21 vote, but the Supreme Court disqualifies it.

Ilias Kasidiaris, former Golden Dawn member, delivers a speech at the Greek Parliament.
Ilias Kasidiaris, former Golden Dawn member, delivers a speech at the Greek parliament [File: Wassilios Aswestopoulos/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

A Greek fascist sentenced to 14 years in jail for organised criminal acts says his candidacy in this month’s general election is a democratic litmus test for his country.

Ilias Kasidiaris used to be the spokesman for the 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 more than 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, the LGBTQ community 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 his own party, the Greeks-National Party, in the May 21 general election. Opinion polls give him about 3.5 percent of the popular vote, 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’s lawyer said outside the Supreme Court after the decision, reading from a written message from her client.

“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 said.

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.

After Golden Dawn was indicted and parliament stripped it of its state funding, its MPs diverted their salaries to party coffers so it could still function. Kasidiaris is adopting that political profile.

Protestors wearing masks to help protect from the spread of coronavirus, chant slogans during an anti-fascist protest outside a court in Athens, Greece.
Protesters wearing masks to help protect from the spread of coronavirus, chant slogans during an anti-fascist protest outside a court in Athens, Greece[File: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images]

The ruling New Democracy conservatives have sought to banish neo-Nazism from parliament once and for all. In a country that suffered Nazi occupation and nearly a million deaths during World War Two, many see fascism’s re-emergence as a national disgrace.

Two years ago, the government passed an amendment barring felons convicted of 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 bar felons from being party members or behind-the-scenes controllers of parties.

In April came a third 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 saying 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.

Ilias Kasidiaris
Kasidiaris delivers a speech during a pre-election rally in Athens [File: Yorgos Karahalis/Reuters]

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 competitors.

“He was looking at opinion polls and weighing the issue,” socialist leader Nikos Androulakis said 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 percent of the vote – not enough to give it the 151 seats it needs to form a government alone, and Mitsotakis has suggested he is unwilling to form a coalition.

Political motives

Kasidiaris’s lawyer, Vaso Pantazi, agreed that New Democracy’s motives were political.

“The amendments happened as we approached elections,” she told Al Jazeera. “… You need to do them in neutral time; otherwise, someone feels they are aimed at him personally.”

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 leaders launched a bitter civil war from 1944 to 1949. Communists were sent to penal colonies throughout the 1950s and 60s.

The fear of a communist resurgence caused a seven-year suspension of democracy when a group of colonels seized power. After they fell in 1974, Greece restored the Communist Party, and its new constitution steered away from banning anyone from office on the basis of ideology.

Even Golden Dawn was not convicted for its beliefs.

“Golden Dawn wasn’t convicted because it’s fascist or Nazis,” Interior Minister Makis Voridis said 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, Pantazi said.

“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,” she said. “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.”

‘Dire test’

Constitutional lawyer Yiannis Drossos agreed that the government’s approach has weaknesses.

“This is not a court ruling. This is an administrative decision taken by justices, which means that probably it will be put under judicial review at a later stage,” he said of the disqualification of the Greeks-National Party.

He told Al Jazeera the amendments on which the decision were 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 said she believes 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,” she said. “It will take years, but some things are not done for the end result. They are done for history.”

Source: Al Jazeera