Taking a taxi through central Athens last week with a friend who was visiting from the UK, our driver was keen to point out every monument we passed. It was only when we reached Omonia, a patch of the inner city that was among the hardest hit by the financial crash of 2008, that his tone changed. “It’s not safe around here,” he warned. “All these migrants. They’re not like us; they don’t value their lives.”
That would be a tough judgement at any time. And it sounded all the tougher just a week after some 600 migrants had died when their boat capsized in the Aegean. But these are testing times. After last month’s elections, Greece now has what is reckoned to be its most right wing government in decades. In particular, parliament now includes for the first time three far-right parties – notably the hardline Spartans. Common themes are anti-abortion views and a hostility towards LGBTQ+ rights.
And then, of course, there’s immigration. When news broke of the recent shipwreck, it spread quickly across social media. Images of the teeming boat appeared in my feed along with a sense of outrage at the coastguard’s apparent reluctance to intervene. The contrast between the hunt for the Titan submarine and the search for survivors of the boat disaster, and the way the two were covered by the media, was profoundly disturbing.
A journalist friend from the city of Patras monitors the darker side of the web. “Lots of people were writing comments saying that they were happy about the shipwreck,” he told me. “These are the same voters who a few years ago put the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in the Greek parliament.” When the Spartans won four seats in parliament this time round, it came as no surprise to him. “The unfortunate thing about the whole affair is that the Greek state did not ban the party from the elections.”
The leaders of Golden Dawn were jailed back in 2020, but that hasn’t stopped them from holding political sway. Former frontman Ilias Kasidiaris has been broadcasting from behind bars to his legions of loyal supporters on YouTube, encouraging them to vote for the Spartans. Alongside Greek Solution, a pro-Russian party, and the ultra-Orthodox Niki party, the Spartans and their far-right allies picked up 12% of the vote.
The previously little-known Spartan party had no campaign programme and is widely seen as a front for Golden Dawn’s ultranationalist ideologies. At the helm is Vassilis Stigas, a former army aviation officer who, following the result, publicly thanked the jailed head of Golden Dawn for his support.
While the far-right’s bounce back into the political mainstream may have caught many Greek voters off guard, the re-election of incumbent prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was less of a shock. And while his centre-right New Democracy party may have secured 158 seats in the country’s 300-seat parliament, the PM is far from controversy-free. He has been accused of illegally pushing migrant boats back out to sea, and his party has been embroiled in the wiretapping of an opposition candidate – a kind of “Greek Watergate”. That’s not to mention the train crash that claimed 57 lives earlier this year, sparking protests across the country as people rallied against the negligence and underinvestment in public services.
That Mitsotakis can succeed in the face of scandal seems to prove one thing – Greek voters still value stability. Under this Harvard-educated prime minister, the Greek economy grew by almost 6% last year and foreign investment is on the up. “Everyone’s mum voted for Mitsotakis,” a friend told me recently. “My mum told me she thought he was the only one with the grace, patience and maturity to run a country.” The mothers of Greece are usually proved right in most things – Mitsotakis will have to see off Greece’s extreme right if he is to prove worthy of their support.