September 05, 2007

Far-right given election boost by Greek fires

Concerns are mounting that the political fallout from devastating wildfires in Greece could open the door to far-right extremists in elections to be held a week on Sunday. Public anger at the response to the fires is fuelling discontent within the country's two main political parties and pushing many voters into the arms of fringe groups who could enter parliament for the first time.

Among those seeing a significant bounce in opinion polls is the extreme-right Orthodox Rally (Laos) party who are expected to break the 3 per cent threshold needed to gain seats at the 16 September elections.

"These fires have seen the popularity of the smaller parties rise," said Dimitris Sotiropoulos, a senior analyst at the regional think-tank Eliamep. "This is as a result of the incapability of the state to prevent the fires, then to deal with them and finally to resolve the situation."

Greece is set for one of its tightest elections in recent memory with as many as 20 per cent of voters undecided and a legal blackout on opinion polling in the closing fortnight of the campaign. The final surveys before the blackout gave Laos 4 per cent of the projected vote, narrowly ahead of the left-wing Syriza party. The two main parties, conservative New Democracy and socialist Pasok, both polled less than 40 per cent, with neither claiming a substantial advantage. The uncertainty has raised the prospect of a coalition government, which could hand a key role to a minority party able to gain even a few parliamentary seats.

The far right has traditionally struggled to get an electoral foothold in a country that has suffered under a military dictatorship as recently as the 1970s. But Laos with its mix of xenophobia, nationalism and Orthodox Christianity, may have struck a chord with a country shocked both by the scale of the destruction and the torpid response of mainstream parties.

In the past fortnight, Greece has been plunged into a state of emergency as the worst wildfires for a century decimated forests and farmland, consumed villages and killed more than 60 people. Several smaller fires were still burning yesterday when the first rain fell in after a scorching summer of record-breaking temperatures.

The ruling conservatives have been roundly condemned for their lethargic response to the crisis but Pasok, their perennial opponents, do not appear to be attracting disgruntled voters either.

In a bid to avoid accusations of profiting from the fires, both parties suspended campaigning during the crisis but that has afforded precious breathing space to the fringe parties who have festooned Athens with aggressive election posters.

Taking centre stage in the battle of the minnows has been the Laos party leader George Karatzaferis who is to be seen all over the city wielding a boxing glove and calling for all Greece to become "one fist".

The country has been gripped by conspiracy theories and Mr Karatzaferis' aggressive and simplistic campaign featuring a scantily-clad bleach blonde nightclub performer, Effi Sarri, singing a party anthem about Christ and country has gained unexpected traction. The increasingly rattled government has sought to deflect critics by placing the blame for the wildfires on arsonists but it has done little to help its own cause by making confusing statements about "asymmetrical terrorist threats" and an "organised plan" to destabilise the country.


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