CONFIDENTIAL ATHENS 001515 SIPDIS
SUBJECT: Greece’s Surging Far-Right LAOS Party Inches Towards Center
SUMMARY: In the aftermath of their unprecedented success in European Parliament elections in June, the leaders of Greece’s surging, far-right Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) expect to win 6 to 7 percent of the vote and up to 20 parliamentary seats in October 4 domestic elections and are preparing to be a “more responsible party” on human rights and foreign affairs issues. Niki Tzavella, LAOS’ senior Member of European Parliament (MEP) and a party strategist, described to Poloff on September 23 how party chief Georgios Karatzaferis understood that LAOS’ rising political fortunes meant that the party had to move away from its previously ultra-nationalistic and anti-Semitic rhetoric. According to Tzavella, Karatzaferis wanted to make positive gestures to Greece’s Jewish community, was seeking increased contact with American officials, had tempered his tough anti-immigration stance by meeting with migrants and committing to anti-racism declarations, and wished to burnish his foreign relations credentials by orchestrating an “accidental” but substantive meeting with Turkish PM Erdogan on the margins of a future EU meeting. Tzavella said that she and Karatzaferis, both ex-New Democracy (ND) parliamentarians, shared the same ultimate goal of joining LAOS and the ND in a broad center-right coalition–and would continue pressuring ND parliamentarians to defect to their party. END SUMMARY.
2. (U) See ref A for a broader overview of October 4 parliamentary elections.
—————————————- LAOS Well-Placed for a Strong Electoral Showing —————————————-
3. (C) In June European Parliament elections, LAOS rode a wave of discontent among center-right voters over ND’s handling of the December 2008 riots in Athens, illegal immigration, and the economic crisis to win an unprecedented 7.15 percent of the vote, sending two LAOS MEPs–including Niki Tzavella–to Brussels (see ref D). Since then, Karatzaferis has pursued a two-pronged strategy of poaching disgruntled ND politicians and publicly declaring his desire for a LAOS-ND grand coalition. LAOS scored a political coup on September 9 by convincing the ex-chief of the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP), Ioannis Korandis, to lead the LAOS state parliamentary slate. Korandis brings experience managing a government agency, a previous stint as Greek ambassador to Turkey, and also a reputation as a law-and-order leader. With Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis cutting longtime party members from his own slates, ND is in disarray and morale has suffered–all good news for Karatzaferis, who has welcomed three defecting MPs to his party list with open arms. Mid-September polls estimate that LAOS will win 6 to 7 percent of the electorate, nearly double its take of 3.8 percent during the last domestic elections in 2007. With LAOS still reaping the benefits of its clear stance against immigration and enjoying a strong nationalist base in northern Greece, Tzavella noted, she and Karatzaferis secretly hoped to win 8 percent of the vote and up to 20 parliamentary seats. —————————————-
Turning a New Leaf on Anti-Semitism, National Issues? —————————————-
4. (C) Tzavela stressed that LAOS leaders recognized that the party’s newfound political strength required it to be “more responsible,” especially given LAOS’ reputation as anti-Semitic and xenophobic. Tzavela took pains to highlight several ongoing and future initiatives to moderate the party’s positions:
1) Immediately after LAOS’ strong Euro-elections showing, Karatzaferis instructed party delegates to “tone down” irresponsible anti-Semitism and racist remarks;
2) Karatzaferis met with illegal migrants in April to highlight that his proposal for strict immigration quotas was not racist;
3) LAOS MEPs had signed a public declaration against racism, discrimination, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia in Brussels;
4) Tzavela had reached out to the leader of the Thessaloniki Jewish community, David Saltiel, to discuss how LAOS can have better relations;
5) Konstantinos Plevris, who had authored the anti-Semitic “The Jews–The Whole Truth” and who had called Jews “subhuman” and “mortal enemies,” had left LAOS; and
6) soon after the October 4 elections, Karatzaferis would publish a signed editorial in a “major newspaper” supporting the resolution of property restitution negotiations over the Thessaloniki Jewish cemetery.
These actions, Tzavela said, demonstrate that LAOS can be a responsible partner in a center-right coalition–and should allay U.S. concerns about LAOS’ anti-Semitism. (NOTE: Post has refrained from inviting LAOS leaders to events such as the July 4 reception due to Karatzaferis’ previous anti-Semitic statements and his having denied that the Holocaust occurred. See the 2009 State Department Human Rights Report for additional details.)
The Future: A LAOS-ND Center-Right Coalition?
5. (C) Despite LAOS’ recent political success hewing to a far-right, anti-immigration, law-and-order platform, top party leaders appear to be seeking a way to reunite with ND, either in a center-right coalition or possibly by melding LAOS and ND into one entity. In a July 17 meeting, Tzavela said Karatzaferis, ever since being expelled from ND in 2000, hoped to return to his old party–and this desire was part of the reason he had embraced a strategy of calling for a ND-LAOS coalition. During the September 23 meeting, Tzavela noted that she, too, hoped that LAOS could rejoin ND to form a stable coalition focused on private enterprise, market-based economic reforms, and revitalizing the 1970s “glory days” of the Greek center-right. (NOTE: Tzavela herself is a former ND parliamentarian.) However, given the distaste of most ND interlocutors towards the notion of cooperating with LAOS (see refs B and C), Tzavela recognized that ND would have to suffer a wrenching defeat or otherwise undergo a major change of heart before a coalition might be realistic.
6. (C) Tzavela assessed that ND would very likely lose the October 4 elections to PASOK and that Karamanlis would step down as party chief. Tzavela thought his most likely successors were Minister of Foreign Affairs Dora Bakoyianni, Minister of Culture Antonis Samaras, or Minister of Health and Social Solidarity Dimitris Avramopoulos. Samaras and Avramapoulos would probably be more amenable to LAOS-ND cooperation, Tzavela noted, so if either took over ND, LAOS would push hard for a coalition; such a coalition would likely push the liberal wing of ND into PASOK’s arms. Should the vehemently anti-LAOS Bakoyiannis take the helm (or should Karmanlis stay on), however, Karatzaferis would likely continue a strategy of building strength in hopes of forming a coalition later down the line.
COMMENT: Moderation Both a Risk and an Opportunity
7. (C) If LAOS performs strongly in the October 4 elections, gaining 7 or more percent of the vote, Karatzaferis and Tzavela will face two strategic questions: Should LAOS moderate and become a “responsible party,” risking the loyalty of its vociferous far-right, ultra-nationalist base? And, does LAOS stand a chance of pursuing a center-right coalition, even while ND officials at all levels of the party vehemently deny they will ever cooperate? During June European Parliament elections, LAOS profited at ND’s expense due to the timely elevation of law-and-order issues and migration to the forefront of the Greek political agenda. If PASOK comes to power in October, however, ND has a chance to find new leadership, reorganize itself in opposition, and refocus on defending its ideological right flank. With ND potentially returning to its roots on the political right, and LAOS inching towards the center, LAOS faces both a big risk and a big opportunity: This political convergence may deprive LAOS of its political raison d’etre but also might bring Karatzaferis and Tzavela’s vision of a centre-right coalition or merger one step closer to fruition. One thing is certain: ND officials may view LAOS with distaste (see ref B), but they can no longer afford to ignore Karatzaferis at the polls or when planning political strategy–LAOS has become an important force to be reckoned with on Greece’s political right. END COMMENT.
Biographical Information: Niki Tzavela
8. (C) Tzavela openly admitted that she “did not fit the LAOS mold” and reserved the right to chart a political future independent from that of Karatzaferis. Tzavela complained that “no one in the EU Parliament did any work” and said that she would work hard to improve U.S.-EU legislative ties on energy security issues. She hoped to invite the Russian energy minister to Brussels. Other details: — Former ND parliamentarian, speaks fluent English — Worked in a Israeli Jewish kibbutz as a teenager; studied at Howard University — LAOS’ senior MEP in Brussels and Vice Chairwoman of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy super-party; Vice Chairwoman of the U.S. Delegation in the European Parliament and member of the Committee on Industry, Research, and Energy — Was appointed Vice President of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games Committee by PASOK Prime Minister Costas Simitis — Previous Vice President of the Kokkalis Foundation, which runs a program on Southeast and East-Central Europe policy at the Harvard Kennedy School — Previous Executive Director for International Development for the Antenna TV Group Speckhard