Greek Politician 'Merkel Is Like Hitler'

The right-wing populist Independent Greeks are junior partners in Greece's new government. They have a reputation for hating German Chancellor Angela Merkel – and will be unpleasant negotiators in Brussels. But what really makes the party tick?
Pavlos Haikalis, Independent Greeks lawmaker.

Pavlos Haikalis has a way of making harsh sentences sound pleasant.

"Merkel is like Hitler," he says, smiling amiably. "He occupied our country, and she is waging an economic war."

Mr. Haikalis looks relaxed as he leans back in an armchair in his office in downtown Athens, a cup of coffee on a table in front of him. It's a sunny afternoon, just days after the election that brought a left-right coalition government to power in Greece.

Mr. Haikalis, a jovial, rotund and balding man, is one of the most recognizable faces of the smaller coalition partner in Greece's new government, the Independent Greeks.

The right-wing populists, who claim they have nothing against Germans, now form part of the government with the radical leftist Syriza.

January 25, 2015 was a triumphant day for Mr. Haikalis and the Independent Greeks. He beams when he talks about the election. "All the polls deliberately downplayed our prospects, and now we're in the government!" he said in an interview.

The 65-year-old member of parliament is a well-known figure in Greece. He is a comedic actor who usually plays a humorous father figure, which explains his popularity among viewers across party lines. It also accounts for his strong influence within the party, though he has not held government office.

He has been involved with the Independent Greeks since the party was formed in 2012, in protest against Greece's debt repayment agreements with the troika, the lender of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Merkel is like Hitler. He occupied our country, and she is waging an economic war. Pavlos Haikalis, Independent Greeks lawmaker

From the very beginning, the most important goal of Mr. Haikalis' party was to enter a coalition government with Syriza.

But the Independent Greeks party chairman, Panos Kammenos, who is now Greece's defense minister, promised his party would lay down unnegotiable red lines in return for its participation with the leftists in the government. Reaching mutual decisions from the left and right, especially on domestic issues, may prove difficult although Greek Independents are optimistic.

In one of their campaign ads, a little boy is shown playing with a model railway – an analogy for modern politics. Sometimes you have to drive fast, sometimes slow, so you don't get derailed. At the end, the boy's mother comes into the picture and calls out: "Alexis!" The allusion to Greece's new prime minister, Alexis Tsirpas, made the ad a viral hit.

What Mr. Haikalis and his fellow party members did during the campaign sounds pleasant and friendly in his sunny office.

But what red lines does the right-wing party, with 13 seats in a parliament dominated by 149 leftists, want to establish? Mr. Haikalis lists his party's demands: a strict immigration policy, a conservative family policy, no restrictions on the Greek Orthodox Church and no backing down in the dispute with Macedonia over the neighboring country's name.

When it comes to issues like these, the amiable Mr. Haikalis resorts to figures and percentages, such as the number of immigrants his country can "endure," which is lower than the current influx. It isn't an issue he likes to talk about, at least not with journalists.

The most important thing, he says, is that "we have joined forces to save Greece."

However, the signs of a first rift in the coalition have emerged. Party leader Mr. Kammenos has indicated his party will not back a forthcoming bill granting citizenship to children of immigrants living in Greece.

According to Greek daily newspaper Ekathimerini, Syriza officials are playing down the divisions between the coalition partners, saying that the bill would likely pass with support from opposition lawmakers anyway.

Nevertheless, the two parties are very much in agreement they want to renegotiate Greece's debt repayment terms and austerity measures.

This common ground is probably what prompted Syriza to reject the center-left Potami party as its coalition partner, because many of the left-wingers in the party are suspicious of Potami’s economically liberal approach.

Mr. Haikalis scored points with Syriza voters for alleging that members of the former governing party were attempting to bribe people ahead of the election.

Or, as Mr. Haikalis put its: "It's no longer a question of left or right. It's a question of whether you are for or against austerity and corruption."

Quelle: Bloomberg
Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos hashing out a coalition deal with Syriza's Alexis Tsipras.

 

The German government – not the German people, as Mr. Haikalis repeatedly points out – plays a special role in this struggle.

The Independent Greeks are demanding war reparations from Germany and repayment of loans Greece was forced to pay to Nazi Germany, another issue on which the party agrees with its coalition partner.

The party claims this was an injustice for which Greece was never repaid, and that it remains an important concern today. And then Mr. Haikalis makes another anti-Merkel statement: "Merkel wants to turn Europe into a German colony. This no longer has anything to do with the European idea."

Such accusations may sound extreme, but they are commonplace in Greece.

Citizens there are furious over the austerity measures and cuts in social benefits, which are largely blamed on the German government. The Independent Greeks' voters are disappointed supporters of the New Democracy party of former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

The disillusioned New Democracy members would never vote for a leftist party but are too moderate to vote for the fascist Golden Dawn party, several of whose members are being investigated for suspected murder of an opponent.

Or, as Mr. Haikalis puts it: "We are democratic, but we have a patriotic faith."

Before the election, the Greek media dismissed the Independent Greeks as religious fanatics, not right-wing populists.

The Greeks have a nickname for the party, "The Sprayers," because some of it members have publicly supported the so-called "Chemtrails" conspiracy theory, which holds that people are regularly sprayed with chemicals from aircraft to make them compliant.

The image, as unfair as it may be, has stuck to the party like chewing gum.

A rumor currently making the rounds in Syriza suggests that Mr. Tsipras knows perfectly well what sort of a party he has become involved with and how could it adversely affect the country's image.

The Independent Greeks had allegedly slated politician Nikos Nikolopoulos for a government office. But Mr. Nikolopoulos triggered a scandal some time ago when he berated the then prime minister of Luxembourg as a "faggot" in a text message.

Mr. Tsipras reportedly vetoed the appointment of Mr. Nikolopoulos. The Independent Greeks have neither confirmed nor denied this report.

Meanwhile, a visit to party headquarters on Syngrou Street, a few buildings from New Democracy headquarters, reveals what it can sound like when party members are not as adept at interacting with the media as Mr. Haikalis.

It's a Tuesday afternoon, and the multistory building is all but deserted.

Most of its occupants are either watching the swearing-in of cabinet ministers on television or attending the ceremony at the parliament building.

There is one man, however, a candidate for a rural district, who didn't make it into the parliament and happens to walk into the hallway at this moment – and who is happy to talk about his party.

He has only been a member of Independent Greeks for a few weeks, he says, but he gave it his all in the election campaign.

As he raves about the party, he occasionally says things that no longer sound soft and amiable at all. Without hesitation, he identifies the slogan "Greece for Greeks" as the party's main objective.

What happens when we ask the actor, Mr. Haikalis, about the extreme statements made by his fellow party members?

He smiles warmly and firmly shakes hands to say goodbye.

"As a party, we don't have a problem with homophobia or xenophobia. But privately, anyone can think as he pleases," he said in parting.

This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. Elisa Simantke is a Berlin-based reporter who covers European Union policy. To contact the author: [email protected]