Until 2010 Makis Voridis (Μάκης Βορίδης) was mainly known as a politician with a long-term association with the far right. Few wanted to be seen in his company. But the crisis offered Voridis the opportunity to move from the margins. By late 2011 he had entered the main halls of government, and since then he has been constantly in the limelight of Greek political life, with stints as cabinet minister and as parliamentary representative of the main government party. From June 2014 he is health minister in Samaras’ government.
His case is the most spectacular example of how since the start of the crisis the far right was made mainstream. But how such a move was made possible?
COMPRESSING PUBLIC MEMORY
One key is in the way mainstream media keep on reducing Voridis’ far right past to only a couple of ‘embarrassing’ facts and incidents:
- that Voridis succeeded in 1984 Nikos Michaloliakos (Νίκος Μιχαλολιάκος) – the current leader of Golden Dawn – as head of the youth wing of EPEN (ΕΠΕΝ), the main political party of the far right in the 1980s, founded in 1984 by the imprisoned leader of the 1967-74 junta, George Papadopoulos (Γιώργος Παπαδόπουλος).
- a photograph from May 1985 showing Voridis, axe in hand, leading a small gang of EPEN members, at the time of heightened tensions in Athens, as police attacked anarchist strongholds in the town centre.
These two incidents seem to be the inescapable black pages in Voridis’ past. But once such a rich personal history is reduced to two snapshots, then it is becoming much more manageable. Voridis and his defenders have developed a well rehearsed defence: these are distant memories; if all talk is about the 80s then clearly the man has been mainstream since then; people change, and so on.
By the time he took his first ministerial position in 2011 these arguments seemed to have become the dominant perspective, the Guardian describing Voridis as a ‘reconstructed fascist’. But Voridis was not ‘reconstructed’ in the 1990s, or in the 2000s. What did get reconstructed this was public memory.
RICH AND LASTING LINKS WITH THE FAR RIGHT
So, what did Voridis’ do after the 1980s, the time when the public is left to presume that he drifted to the mainstream? There is a long list of Voridis’ activism in the far right, well up to the crisis of 2010.
- In 1994 Voridis founded the Greek Front (Ελληνικό Μέτωπο), a party that aimed to offer a contemporary ideological dimension to the Greek far right. Two years later Papadopoulos’ EPEN was dissolved, leaving the Greek Front as the main party of the traditional far right in Greece.
- Throughout those years Voridis kept company with a range of interesting characters. A little know story is that following a deadly attack against an Albanian military camp by the paramilitary group MAVI (MABH) in 1994, Voridis was a character witness for the leader of the accused, offering him alibi that on the day of the incident he was attending the Greek Front’s founding conference in Athens.
- In the 2000 parliamentary elections the Greek Front collaborated with Kostas Plavris (Κώστας Πλεύρης) , the doyen of far right since 1974, a Hitler- and junta- apologist and antisemite, who in the previous year’s European parliament elections has collaborated with the Golden Dawn.
- The Greek Front’s name clearly linked to the main French far right party, Front Nationale (FN), still snubbed today even by other European far right parties as extremist. The links with the Front Nationale were, however, not just nominal. The two Fronts have a very similar agenda, feeding from the wider European New Right movement, heavily concerned with issues of migration and national identity. Voridis attended a series of FN conferences in the early 2000s.
- Even more, since the mid 1990s Voridis established close personal relations with the Front Nationale leaders. Jean Marie Le Pen attended Voridis’ wedding in 2005, while Voridis’ best man in that wedding was Carl Lang, erstwhile general secretary of the FN and current leader of the other main party of the French far right, Parti de la France. Lang was also a guest to the christening of Voridis’ son in 2009.
All the above information is persistently ignored by the mainstream media, but it is freely available in both leftist and far right sources; the former have persistently targeted Voridis as the government’s weakest far right link, while the latter represent a more diverse mix of either totally unapologetic activists or splinter and antagonistic fractions.
However, there are two images that have not been picked by any source, and which offer a very clear sign of where Voridis’ politics lay just few years before his move to mainstream politics. They are both hosted in the archives of e-grammes, which was the news-website of the Greek Front.
- The first is a 2004 picture/poster carrying the acronym of the Front’s youth wing, NEM (Νεολαία Ελληνικού Μετώπου), which instead of the letter ‘N’ it carries a runic like symbol that resembles the letter ‘N’, is in large-font and in a different colour from the rest of the acronym. Obviously it wants to attract the audience’s attention, to pass a message. But what message would that be, shown in a defiantly far-right webpage? Is it an accident that the character clearly hints to fascist runic symbols? Or is it just a lightning metaphor?
- Less ambivalent is a 2004 poster for the 4th Nationalist Youth Festival (3rd from the top in the website), which again features prominently a geometric symbol heavily reminiscent of fascist aesthetics. Even more, it is also very similar to the main geometric symbol used by the neo-nazi Golden Dawn.
There are two questions arising from these images.
Are these links accidental, intentional or malicious misreadings of artistic expression? No matter how they are read, however, the burden is, of course, on any far right group that uses such images to make it clear that they are not intended to make such links. The extremist far-right thrives in semiological innuendos.
But most crucially, why did Voridis allow the production of such pictures? The answer here is clear. Until the late 2000s Voridis was preoccupied with ruling over Greece’s disparate far right fractions, and he had no hopes, or wishes to enter mainstream politics. But the crisis changed the political landscape: the establishment started using openly the discourse of the far right, and the politicians of the far right saw the doors of the establishment opening to them. Voridis was the main man to benefit from this change.
Voridis has always stood out among his peers. A privately educated lawyer, his public appearance exudes a cosmopolitan confidence that is not characteristic of the typical image of the rightwing extremist. In 2005 Voridis merged Greek Front with LAOS (ΛΑΟΣ), the new main party of the far right, and in 2007 he was elected for the first time as an MP. His parliamentary performances soon attracted the praise of the nationalist press, (e.g. an interview for Eleftheri Ora, or the comments in Antinews). Crucially, even centrist voters were ready to acknowledge that his frequent TV appearances stood out. Smooth-talking, with great rhetorical skills, promoting a seemingly logical and non-ideological line of argument, Voridis seemed different from the usual loud political guests of Greek talk-shows.
A PAST THAT DOESN’T PASS?
Still, at least until the autumn of 2010 anyone talking about Voridis had to address the general negative consensus that he was a man of the extreme right. In September 2009 the centrist daily To Vima published an opinion piece that signalled out Voridis and Thanos Plevris (son of Kostas Plevris) as the two ‘blacklisted far right’ candidates MPs of LAOS.
A year later, in October 2010, in a period of party infighting, LAOS’s own leader, Giorgos Karatzaferis (Γιώργος Καρατζαφέρης), in an interview to the centrist daily Ethnos declared that Voridis’ past would always hinder the realisation of his political ambitions, cunningly noting that ‘Voridis has a story that I have covered with great art’.
Voridis, it seemed, had fooled no-one.
And then his public image was transformed. In November 2011 LAOS – until then snubbed as extremist – was entering a coalition government with New Democracy and PASOK, and Voridis became a cabinet minister. All his links with the past were allowed to disappear from public discourse. Even when the nationalist and pro-government Antinews complained about Voridis taking as aides to his ministerial office a long list of ex Greek Front members, nobody batted an eyelid and the story was left to quietly die out.
How did such a swift shift from pariah to prince take place?
The dramatic change in Voridis’ public image in such a short time was facilitated by the media and political establishments, working in tandem, seeing in him, and in the wider far right discourse, a useful counterweight to the leftward turn of Greek politics. Exploring the ways in which this transformation was managed offers a good example of how public opinion and public memory have been manipulated in the years of the crisis. It also shows the shifting attitudes of the establishment towards political extremism.
FORGETTING No.1: THE MEDIA
The best example of this process comes from the most respectable Greek broadsheet, the liberal Kathimerini, owned by the Alafouzos (Αλαφούζος) business-family. Back in 2007 the newspaper still described Voridis casually as the most ambitious ‘hardcore far right’ politician of the new parliament, as was the general consensus of the time.
But three years later it led the efforts to change public perceptions. Central in this effort was an interview of Voridis with the paper’s leader writer, Stephanos Kasimatis (Στέφανος Κασιμάτης), in November 2010. The interview started with a very telling preface by Kasimatis: Makis Voridis is rightwing, without wavering and shame. Moreover, for those who adopt the criteria of the established Left, Voridis is, without any second thought, condemnable as ‘far-right’, ‘fascist’, and the usual similar epithets. At least this was the dominant image of him until recently, mainly because of the party that he had founded, ‘Greek Front’, until he became a LAOS member in 2005. [Note that the same month that Kasimatis was writing these lines, Giorgos Karatzeferis, the LAOS leader himself, was describing Voridis as an extremist.]
In just a few sentences Kasimatis set the tone of the wider shift that w
as taking place: Voridis was not far-right but simply rightwing; all accusations against him were coming from the Left; it was the Left that was a negative force in political life; and most crucially, Voridis’ image has actually long changed. Kasimatis was clearly speaking against the grain, in a time (one year before the Papademos government) that both LAOS and Voridis were still generally derided as extremists.
The structure of the interview set the benchmark for what was to follow in Voridis’ mainstream coverage. Heavily editing Voridis’ past, Kasimatis mentioned only the much-discussed axe-yielding photo from 1985 and the founding of the Greek Front, without going into any detail on why this party could be considered as extremist. Voridis was offered ample opportunities to show he was now a changed man, while the many direct references he made to the New Right agenda and its founding thinkers (e.g. Alain de Benoist) – links that are commonly picked as signs of the New Right’s extremism – were left uncommented by Kasimatis. Voridis was not challenged, but was instead allowed to celebrate the new politics he was signifying. This was an interview-manifesto, published in the most ‘respected’ daily of Athens.
Voridis’ past does not haunt him. It barely touches him. Throughout the piece he makes plenty rhetorical balancing acts (e.g. he is not a fascist or a racist but a ‘patriot’; he is not a thug but an ‘activist’) that distract the reader. Crucially, he also tries to introduce major alterations to the two main stories, to confuse them, to de-historicise them:
- he places the axe-yielding photograph 6 months later from when other witnesses and the photographer himself do. He says the photo was taken in November 1985 when violence in the streets of Athens had once more flared-up following the killing in Exarcheia of a 15 years of pupil, Michalis Kaltezas (Μιχάλης Καλτεζάς), by a policeman, Athanasios Melistas (Αθανάσιος Μελίστας).
- he then fully reverses the victim perpetrator story, saying that it was not Kaltezas but Melistas that was killed. These are names that reverberated in the political struggles of the mid 1980s and have a high signifying power even today. It is weird that Kasimatis does not pick them.
The history record is left shaken and a new face has firmly entered the political game.
FORGETTING No.2: THE NEW POLITICAL FAMILY
‘Until yesterday it was impossible to hear in public the ideas that I am defending’, Voridis boasted in the Kathimerini interview mentioned above, in 2010.
A year later it was the political establishment’s turn to open its doors to Voridis. In November 2011 LAOS was one of the three parties participating in the new government of the technocrat Loukas Papademos (Λουκάς Παπαδήμος). Voridis became minister for public infrastructure. The fact that the Far right LAOS, a party that had ‘railed against black people, Jews, homosexuals, and “Gypsies”’, had entered the Greek government was widely condemned across the globe. But in Greece it created no political storm. On the contrary, when the senior New Democracy MP Sotiris Chatzigakis (Σωτήρης Χατζηγάκης) criticised the rising influence of far-right and nationalist groupings in the party he was instantly struck off the party list by the party leader and future prime minister Antonis Samaras (Αντώνης Σαμαράς). This was the period of the normalisation of the image of the Far right. Voridis floated along.
The next move came almost naturally. In the turbulent period of the Papademos government, in February 2012, Voridis abandoned LAOS and switched his alliance to Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy, followed by a number of LAOS MPs and members, including Adonis Georgiadis (Άδωνις Γεωργιάδης) and Thanos Plevris. In the ensuing elections the party base endorsed Voridis with great enthusiasm, voting him first among a number of more experienced conservative politicians in Attica county. By the summer of 2012 Voridi’s had risen to be the parliamentary spokesmen of New Democracy. In June 2014 he was named as the health minister in the New Democracy – PASOK government. And in October 2014 he spoke in parliament in lieu of Samaras, in the confidence vote that the latter had initiated.
FORGETTING No.3: THE NEW CONSENSUS
The transformation of Voridis’ public image is one good example of the ‘short memory politics’ exercised by the establishment throughout the Greek crisis.
Since 2010, and especially since Voridis joined the mainstream, any media coverage of him follows very familiar patterns. A typical example is a long TV interview for the most popular channel, MEGA (Stavros Theodorakis, Protagonistes, 20 November 2011), in which: the interviewer offers as a fact that Voridis has now changed, and has become a ‘serious politician’; the description of Voridis as ‘far right’ is projected as a far left obsession; Voridis is offered plenty of opportunities to say how much he has changed (which he is reluctant to take up, adding thus to his image as a serious and honest politician); a number of mistakes – or calculated errors – in Voridis narrative are left unchallenged (eg. that he was leader of the youth wing of EPEN in the distant 1983).
No journalist has ever quizzed Samaras about the explicit link he has established between New Democracy and Voridis, and his Far right co-ideologues. The only time that Samaras’ embrace of Voridis and the latter’s past were noted in parliament this was by a SYRIZA MP, Stathis Panagoulis (Στάθης Παναγούλης). Responding to his accusation that the Far right is sitting on New Democracy’s front row, New Democracy accused him for being a demagogue.
THE NEW PARIAHS
The new pariahs in the public discourse are those who still insist on referring publicly to Voridis’ past and those who criticise the establishment for facilitating Voridis’ whitewashing. An incident that caught the public attention was in the aftermath of Pavlos Fyssas murder in September 2013, when the old rocker Dimitris Poulikakos (Δημήτρης Πουλικάκος) criticised live the senior political analyst of MEGA, Giannis Pretenteris (Γιάννης Πρετεντέρης), for opening the doors to the far right, including Voridis. Pretenteris engaged in some very theatrical reactions and ultimately did not address any of the accusations, as if they were never aired.
But possibly the most telling moment was when the Golden Dawn parliamentary spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris (Ηλίας Κασιδιάρης), lashed out against Voridis during the public inquiries into whether Golden Dawn was a criminal organisation, in October 2013. Commenting on the fact that his party was constantly derided as ‘fascist’, Kasidiaris turned to the parliamentary spokesman of New Democracy, Makis Voridis, and reminded him of his own extremist past. After hinting about the existence of some unpublicised photos of Voridis in front of Nazi and junta posters, he finished with a rather rhetorical remark: ‘how does this man come today to criticise us, speaking about Democracy?’. Voridis retorted: ‘I have already explained my history, not just once, not just twice, not just ten but thirty times’.
this is an expansion of an earlier GCHP article on Makis Voridis