By Patrick Strickland
Yonous Muhammadi is a first-time voter. And on Sunday, when he turns up at the ballot box in Athens, he’ll have the chance to cast a vote for himself.
The 45-year-old, a member of the governing radical-left Syriza party, is standing as a candidate in this week’s European Parliament election. He received his Greek citizenship papers three months ago.
Muhammadi fled Afghanistan after he was jailed for nearly a month in a Taliban prison. Since coming to Greece in 2001, he has been attacked twice by far-right assailants, including an incident in 2010 when a group of men stormed the Afghan Community of Greece’s offices and beat him.
The violence has fueled his advocacy for refugees and migrants in Greece, as the country struggles to cope with a large influx of people from North Africa and the Middle East since 2015 and tamp down an uptick in anti-migrant violence.
For Syriza, putting Muhammadi on their list for the European Parliament election — which coincides with regional and local elections — is a way to recapture thinning support among the grassroots activists who once rallied behind the party. It serves as a symbolic rebuke of the rightward shift gripping much of Europe.
The fallout from the refugee crisis sparked heavy criticism of the Syriza-led government’s management of arrivals and of the money it received from the European Union, which otherwise left Athens largely to fend for itself. Last year, some 36 percent of Greeks listed immigration as their top concern, above the economy and terrorism.
At an event presenting the party’s candidates last month, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras introduced the roster as “the face of Greece in a new era” and called on Europeans to unite in an effort to “defeat fascism again, austerity, racism and totalitarianism.”
“I want to be the voice of people in the grassroots in the European Parliament,” Muhammadi told POLITICO, describing his campaign as a response to austerity policies, closed borders and anti-migrant sentiment.
“Now that I have citizenship, I feel that it’s my responsibility to take action and do my best in this way,” he added, saying he hopes to serve as a voice for Europe’s most marginalized communities, including refugees, Roma and the LGBTQ community, among others.
Syriza is going into the election under fire from both the right and left.
The far-left party — which became the largest party in the Greek parliament and the leading party in the governing coalition in January 2015 — has seen a drop in support among voters disappointed with its handling of the refugee crisis and the fallout from the country’s nearly decadelong economic crisis. For some, frustration with the name accord between Athens and Skopje has also been a reason to turn to other parties.
“Not only did Syriza not keep its promises,” it also “fostered racist voices” by going along with the EU’s refugee management policies, said Ntina Reppa, who heads the local list for the Anti-Capitalist Upheaval in Athens, a group of candidates affiliated with the Front for the Greek Anti-Capitalist Left (Antarsya) party.
The Greek government’s implementation of the “punitive” EU-Turkey deal in March 2016 — whereby Greece sent Syrian refugees who arrived on its shores back to Turkey — disappointed segments of Syriza’s left-wing support base, Reppa added.
After the deal came into force, a number of countries along the so-called Balkan route closed their borders, limiting people’s ability to leave Greece and seek asylum in other countries. More than 60,000 refugees and migrants are currently stranded in Greece, according to the Greek Council for Refugees. Of those, some 15,000 are restricted to a handful of Aegean islands until their asylum process is completed.
People “who believed that Syriza would implement a basic left-wing policy” today are “disappointed,” she said.
The migration issue has also provided political ammunition to Syriza’s opponents on the right.
According to POLITICO’s pre-election polling, the right-wing New Democracy party, which belongs to the conservative European People’s Party in the European Parliament, is on track to win 35 percent of the Greek vote and nine seats in the European plenary — a significant bump compared to 2014, when it won 26 percent of the vote and six seats. Syriza, by contrast, is polling at 25 percent, and slated to win seven seats.
Syriza “has been painfully unsuccessful in handling the migration crisis,” said New Democracy spokesperson Sofia Zacharaki.
“The Greek people were remarkable in expressing their solidarity to the refugees and migrants, but they are aware of the unacceptable conditions in the hotspots,” she said.
Far-right party Golden Dawn — which is polling in the single digits and set to lose one of its three seats in the European Parliament — has also played up Syriza’s shortcomings on migration.
It is “the only real issue” it can use to convince voters, said Thanos Dokos, director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. “I think they will milk that cow as much as possible.”
With its European election list, Syriza is banking on the idea that a broad mix of candidates will help the party reconnect with voters.
Among its 42 candidates for the European Parliament: Bulgarian immigrant and current MEP Konstantina Kouneva, Greek-Italian journalist Luciana Castellina, and prominent lawyer Mustafa Ufuk, who is also a member of the country’s Muslim minority.
Muhammadi, who won the Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism in 2016, was among the first batch of 16 candidates to be presented by the party in March, alongside three current MEPs.
It’s unclear what his chances are. According to the voting rules in Greece — where participating in the election is mandatory — people pick up to four candidates in their preferred party. Any seats won in the election are then filled by the candidates with the most votes.
But his prominence on the list suggests the party is confident of his appeal. Muhammadi is “the only refugee [running], and he knows Greece very well,” said Syriza MP and parliamentary spokesperson Nikos Xydakis.
His background campaigning against far-right violence and advocating for refugees makes his campaign an important “symbolic” event, Xydakis added.
Muhammedi “represents the anti-racist community and people fighting against the far right, both Muslims and non-Muslims,” said Naim Elghandour, the president of the Muslim Association in Greece. “As a Greek citizen with an Afghan background, he’s taking an important step for Greece in the European Parliament.”
For Muhammadi, the timing of his campaign is also significant.
At a time when Greece has seen a 14 percent increase in hate crimes — more than half of which last year were targeted at refugees and migrants — Muhammadi sees himself as a challenge and antidote to the spike in anti-migrant feeling in the country.
More broadly, he also wants to counter the rightward lurch of a growing number of center-right European parties he describes as far-right positions on migration.
Among migrants and refugees in Greece, “the fear of attacks” is greater than it was in 2012, after Golden Dawn became the third largest force in the Greek parliament, he said.
Members of the far right, he added, are “not [only] targeting migrants and refugees … They are targeting the whole society.”
“My candidacy brings with it a bigger responsibility than other candidates — Europeans or Greeks who don’t have the same background as me,” he said. “When I now speak with [voters], I understand that my experience is really important: whether it’s my life in Afghanistan, my journey as a refugee, or my struggle here in Greece.”US to extend Iran energy sanctions waiver for Iraq