Is Greece Taking the First Steps in a Democratic Backslide?

In the early morning of the Seventeenth of November, 1973, a tank crashed through the wrought-iron gates of the Athens Polytechnic University. The university had been occupied for the previous three days by student activists, who demanded the end of the military Junta that had ruled Greece since 1967. The students had blocked roads, attacked government buildings, and broadcast revolutionary messages over a pirate radio station inside the campus. As the military reasserted control over the area, they clashed with the young protesters, killing forty and injuring over two thousand. This horrible spectacle seemed to be the zenith of the Junta’s power. Less than a year later, the Junta collapsed, and Greece began the gradual process of democratic restoration. On the next Seventeenth of November, the Third Hellenic Republic held its first parliamentary elections. Since the 1970s, Greece has been governed by a stable, if flawed democracy. Political violence and civil unrest has punctuated the nation’s otherwise successful 45-year run of democracy. The legacy of dictatorship has lingered in the country’s political climate, but recent developments have led many to accuse the Greek government of the gradual erosion of democratic freedoms through legal means, or democratic backsliding.


Greece’s national police force has had a problematic history. In the past few decades, the Hellenic Police has met with criticism from both left-wing groups within Greece and international organizations, who have accused them of human rights violations. In 2012, Amnesty International issued a report alleging frequent excessive use of force against political demonstrators and the torturing of suspected criminals. Of particular note was the 2008 murder of a fifteen year old boy by the police, which created an international outcry. The International press freedom watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders has accused the Hellenic Police of permitting and sometimes engaging in violence against journalists at left-wing protests. In light of the 2021 murder of investigative reporter Giorgos Karaivaz, the organization dropped Greece’s press freedom ranking to from 70th to 108th worldwide, the lowest in Europe.

Critics have blamed these instances of misconduct on the police force’s ties to Greece’s far-right. Greek leftists have accused police officers of failing to protect them from violent attacks by the Golden Dawn movement. In 2012, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights announced that the ties between Golden Dawn and the police were “under scrutiny,” but no investigation proceeded from then.


In memory of the 1973 Polytechnic uprising, police have been prohibited from entering university campuses without permission from the school’s administration since the 1980s. However, in 2019 the freshly elected New Democracy party scrapped the ban. New Democracy Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitosakis claimed that universities had been infested by “drugs and basements full of petrol bombs.” When New Democracy won a landslide victory in the 2019 elections, they had campaigned on the apparently noble goals of ending “vandalism, intimidation, thefts, traffickings, beatings and illegal trade” on university campuses. But in their three years in power, these goals have grown into something more sinister.

In 2020, as Covid-19 spread through Europe, Greece adopted some of the world’s strictest pandemic response measures, which were aggressively enforced by the Hellenic Police Department. Citizens were prohibited from “nonessential travel” within the country, under the penalty of fines and loss of car registration. Those who breached isolation orders could face up to fifteen years in prison, if found to have indirectly “caused” the death of another person. In November of 2020, ahead planned demonstrations commemorating the anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising, the Greek Chief of Police prohibited all public gatherings of more than three people. Organizations such as Amnesty International and the Athens Bar association condemned the order, but the protests, which proceeded as planned, were broken up with tear gas. Ironically, arrested protesters were held together in small, unventilated rooms where Covid could easily spread, unlike the outdoor, distanced, and often masked demonstrations that the police had attacked.

These harsh measures have receded with the retreat of Covid-19 in Europe, but they have been replaced with systemic policy change designed to strengthen state power and fight New Democracy’s radical opponents. In 2021, the government enlisted more than one thousand new police officers to form a special nationwide campus police force. These “university protection teams,” as they are called by the government, would have the power to arrest and charge students for charges as vague as “noise pollution” and the posting of signs- well within the domain of protected political speech.

Attacks by the government on free-speech have not been limited to universities. In November 2021, the Greek parliament passed a bill criminalizing the spreading of misinformation “capable of causing concern or fear to the public.” In January of this year, Prime Minister Mitosakis denounced journalists who had reported on the alleged bribery of New Democracy politicians by Novartis Pharmaceuticals, referring to the story as “character assassination.” The journalists, who were summoned before the Greek Supreme Court, have been charged with “misuse of public authority” and face jail time.


Reactions to the recent occurrences in Greece have ranged from muted to non-existent. The EU Commissioner for Values and Transparency warned the Greek government that its annual Rule of Law Report will pay “particular attention to developments pertaining to the press freedom” in Greece, but did not lay out any method of recourse. The international human rights community has criticized the government’s actions, but other European democracies have been silent. The changes in Greece have been too small and too quiet for any countries to raise objections, despite the blatant disregard they show for the principles of free society. More importantly, the authoritarianism on the rise in Greece is perpetuated by a government that is neoliberal, economically centrist, and staunchly NATO-aligned. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has received only minimal criticism for his significant erosion of the country’s democracy, but that minimal criticism may be partially the result of his “Putinist” label. Orban is a threat to a stable EU, while Mitosakis is not. As Europe (and by extension its Anglophone allies across the sea) are faced with a host of threats externally and internally, they may decide that good relations with the New Democracy government are more important than the principles their states were founded on.


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