Greece Moves to Block Extreme-Right Party as Election Nears

Greece’s government has moved to block from Parliament an extreme-right party seen as a successor to the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn, which shot to prominence a decade ago but was effectively banned after being declared a criminal organization.

On Wednesday, a government-sponsored bill in Parliament that bars from the legislature parties whose leaders have been convicted of serious crimes and are deemed a potential threat to democracy passed with the votes of the ruling conservatives and the opposition Socialist party, who control a total of 178 seats out of the 300 in the house. The main leftist Syriza party abstained, and smaller opposition parties voted against it.

While it was not explicitly mentioned in the bill, the new legislation would effectively disqualify National Party — Greeks, a party founded by a former top official of Golden Dawn, Ilias Kasidiaris, on the grounds that he is a convicted criminal.

Government officials have named Mr. Kasidiaris as the target of the bill and on Tuesday he sent an injunction to the speaker of Parliament demanding that it be revoked.

Mr. Kasidiaris, who has a tattoo of a swastika that he describes as an ancient Greek symbol and has long expressed support for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, is serving a 13-year jail sentence, but he has campaigned for his new party from his cell.

The government’s move came after opinion polls showed that National Party — Greeks would exceed the 3 percent threshold for entering Parliament in elections that are expected in April.

Mr. Kasidiaris and other leaders of Golden Dawn were found guilty in October 2020 of running a criminal organization that attacked leftist critics and migrants, and the party, which shot to prominence in 2012 during an economic crisis, was disbanded.

The party remained popular even after the arrest of its leadership in 2013, when the murder of a leftist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas, was linked to a member of Golden Dawn. Its lawmakers secured re-election in 2015, while facing criminal charges, and remained in Parliament until 2019, when they failed to win re-election.

While the dire conditions that allowed Golden Dawn to thrive are gone — Greece’s economy has been growing since it emerged from its last bailout in 2018 — the new party, which Mr. Kasidiaris founded in 2020, has been gaining popularity amid a broader rise of nationalism in parts of Europe. It campaigns on issues like the deportation of undocumented immigrants and “zero tolerance” for crime.

A recent opinion poll put support for Mr. Kasidiaris’s party ahead of the general elections expected in April at around 3.4 percent.

But about 70 percent of respondents in the same poll also said the party should be stopped from running in elections, which may have emboldened the government.

The bill passed on Wednesday built on a 2021 law that prevented convicted criminals from running as party leaders in elections. The new law extends that ban to a party’s nominal head as well as its “true leadership,” reflecting fears that Mr. Kasidiaris might control legislators from behind the scenes.

The bill also stipulates that parties should serve “the free functioning of the democratic Constitution,” a change that some critics said could leave the door open for abuse.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the measure’s aim was “not to ban ideas but to safeguard the democratic constitutional order,” noting that similar provisions existed in other European countries. “We have a duty to protect democracy from its enemies,” he told Parliament on Tuesday.

While supporting the fundamental aim of the ban, some Greek opposition parties argued that it was too broad.

The leftist Syriza party said the legislation could be subject to “misinterpretations” and proposed restricting the ban to parties with Nazi or racist ideologies. Greece’s Communist Party said it included “dangerous generalizations and preconditions for the participation of parties in elections.”

Nikos Alivizatos, an expert in constitutional law who was attacked by Golden Dawn members and supporters in 2010, said the provision could lead to “innocent” parties being blocked, and that it would have been better to target violent groups and to simply ban convicted criminals from running as legislators, not just as party leaders.

“It’s dangerous to move beyond the criterion of the direct use of violence, because then it becomes an almost philosophical issue, and there is room for varying interpretations,” Mr. Alivizatos said. “The price of every democracy is to tolerate someone who might be a fascist.”

In a speech in Parliament before the vote on Wednesday, the leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, argued that Mr. Mitsotakis’s primary aim was to eliminate an electoral rival to his right. “He’s not concerned about blocking Nazis, fascist groups or about cracking down on far-right and nationalist populism,” Mr. Tsipras said. “He’s concerned about getting the votes of the far right and nationalists.”

Since Golden Dawn’s demise, other, less extreme parties have emerged on the Greek far right including the nationalist Greek Solution, which has 10 seats in Greece’s 300-member Parliament. But none has espoused a neo-Nazi ideology like Golden Dawn.

In promoting his party, Mr. Kasidiaris has sought to cast it as patriotic and anti-establishment and has recorded phone messages for his YouTube channel on topics ranging from Russia’s war in Ukraine (he opposed Greek support for Ukraine’s war effort) to migration (he called for all undocumented migrants to be deported). He has managed to do this despite a ban on cellphones in Greek prisons.

In a post on Twitter on Tuesday, Mr. Kasidiaris said the legislation passed on Wednesday, which he said was targeting him, was unconstitutional and violated the European Convention of Human Rights and the principle of free elections.

The prime minister insisted that it was not Mr. Kasidiaris’s beliefs that had prompted the intervention, but the crimes for which he, along with other Golden Dawn leaders, was convicted.

“No one wants to see parliamentary representation again become a vehicle for violence against citizens, leading to brutal murders, injuries and abhorrent pogroms,” Mr. Mitsotakis said on Tuesday. “No one wants to relive the thuggery οf the past.”

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