Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Kyriakos Velopoulos: From TV salesman to European Parliament

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
Kyriakow Velopoulos denies he sold "letters written by Christ" in a television appearance on 15 May 2018.
Athens, Greece - Famous in Greece for selling "letters written by Jesus" on television, Kyriakos Velopoulos, a ranting far-right populist and telepersona, managed to pull off one of the biggest surprises of last week's European Parliament elections.

His party, Greek Solution, was an unheard-of party to most Greek voters until May 27. Its capture of 4.2 percent of the national vote in European Parliament elections that day caught the country off-guard.

It also puts the party in place to take more than a dozen seats in the 300-seat national parliament when Greece holds a national election  on July 7.  

Kyriakos Velopoulos, its rags-to-riches founder, a former journalist, attributed the party's popularity to the fact that he met many of his voters personally.

"I crossed the country three times, door to door," he said in a television interview the day after the election. "Politicians today are too far from the people. If everyone had done their jobs, we might not be here today."

Greek Solution took voters from every party, exit polls showed, but its largest cohorts came from far-right parties. Eleven percent of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party's voters crossed over to Greek Solution, as did 15 percent of those who voted for Independent Greeks, the ruling Syriza party's now-discredited former coalition partner. 

Few voters would argue with many of Greek Solution’s priorities: greater transparency and meritocracy in the public sector; law and order on the streets; journalistic objectivity in television coverage; investment in key national industries and a reversal of Greece's population decline. 

Even some of Greek Solution's more daring ideas would have broad appeal, such as launching an international campaign to oblige Germany to repay war reparations Greece still claims, and enticing diaspora Greeks with tax breaks to move [to sparsely populated areas of the country. 

But some policies raise serious questions. Is there any point in building a 200-kilometre wall along Greece's land border with Turkey to keep out migrants, when the Aegean is an archipelago of thousands of easily-reachable islands? Could Greece legally "send Non Governmental Organisations away" and "immediately deport" irregular migrants while still "offering asylum to those who genuinely need it", as its manifesto proclaims? 

Could Greece "publicly control" its central bank without breaching Eurozone rules? Could it create a parallel "private currency to strengthen the liquidity of the Greek economy" while remaining in the Eurozone and borrowing from markets? Wouldn't forgiving half the burden of tax debtors be unfair to those who pay their taxes? And who will decide what to include in mandatory government playlists of "good Greek music and theatre" on television and radio?

Not only do these party position make little sense. They tap into a playbook of themes shared by the United States's Donald Trump, Hungary's Viktor Orban, Austria's Hans-Christian Strache and Italy's Matteo Salvini - politicians whose connections to Russian influence are being investigated. 

An 'affable clown'?

Velopoulos doesn't seem as threatening as those far-right leaders. "Some people find him an affable clown ... a ranting telepersona," says journalist and political analyst George Gilson. "He sells herbal cures that supposedly come from Mouth Athos."

Athos is a peninsula of thousand-year-old monasteries in northeast Greece, and is one of Orthodoxy's holiest sites.

Gilson believes the party has received financial backing from the Kremlin. "[Velopoulos] has bought tons of time from small local television stations around the country, a very expensive proposition, and there's no transparency as to where this money is coming from ... He often mentions Russia and that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is basically the saviour."

One might underestimate Greek Solution at one's peril. The party isn't about to seize power, but Velopoulos made his ambitions clear when asked whether he would take his seat in Brussels as a Euro-MP. 

 "The mother of all battles is the national election and that's where I want to focus. If you have one vote in 700-odd in the European Parliament, things are a bit difficult. But if you have 18 to 20 MPs in the national parliament, you can perform miracles." 

By pitching Greek Solution as a populist, nationalist, anti-systemic party, Velopoulos stands to reap two major benefits in the upcoming general election, largely because other parties have been tainted by controversy.

Golden Dawn has been discredited since the murder of a left-wing rapper in 2013, for which a party member has been indicted, but which is thought to have been ordered by the party leadership. All 18 of the party's original set of MPs, elected in 2012, are on trial for conspiracy to form a criminal organisation.

Prosecutors see the rapper’s murder, as well as the killing of Pakistani migrant Shehzan Luqman, also in 2013, and a series of other attacks on migrants, as part of a racially motivated Golden Dawn campaign of terror. The party’s voters were evidently ready for a nationalist alternative not as motivated by hate.

Last year, Syriza struck a deal recognising the country's northern neighbour as North Macedonia. What enraged many Greeks was that the agreement recognises Macedonian ethnicity and language. Ancient Macedonians were a Dorian race who wpoke Greek, and Greeks today consider them a vital component of Greek nationhood, not a foreign nationality. The deal tore Syriza's coalition partner, Independent Greeks, between its nationalist instincts and power. Its MPs were split on the ratification vote, allowing the deal to pass but destroying the party. 

Russian influence 

The North Macedonia agreement highlighted rival geopolitical ambitions playing out in Greece today. The US and European Union backed the deal strongly, because it removed Greece's veto on North Macedonia joining NATO. Russia was openly opposed, and two of its diplomats were humiliatingly expelled from Greece for allegedly using the Orthodox Church to agitate against the agreement. 

Gilson sees Greek Solution as Putin's comeback for losing out in the North Macedonia agreement. "Greek Solution is a Russian party… It's a major step in Russia's effort to gain influence in Greece, and in a sense, it's Putin's revenge for the North Macedonia agreement," he says.

Velopoulos's spokesman, Vangelis Fanidis, denies this. "We go with Greece's interest wherever that lies - Russia, America, China. We go logically towards Christian Russia, but it's not a sure thing given Russia's current alliance with Turkey," he told Al Jazeera.

Greece and Turkey have been locked in a territorial dispute over airspace and territorial waters for decades, but this dispute has escalated in the past two years as the two historic rivals seek to establish exploration rights for hydrocarbons.

Fanidis also denies that there has been any outside funding. "Velopoulos's private money is the only source of [party] funding. And he's been audited by the financial crime squad and the tax authorities about this."

Greek Solution has already performed a feat - to be a rising populist presence in an election that has seen all others fall. After a bruising, eight-year recession that saw traditional Greek parties scatter voters to anti-austerity upstarts, Greek politics appear to be gradually coming to normalcy and even maturity. Greek Solution could be the party that bucks that trend.


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