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Distance does not deter political involvement

The presence of Greece's main political parties in Australia might not have much pull, but allegiances still remain strong, even if it's more ideological than participatory

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Adam Rorris, SYRIZA supporter.

"We champion our rights abroad, nothing more." - New Democracy's Andreas Tsitsanis
13 May 2014

The Greek diaspora brought many things with them to Australia; their language, their traditions and their European spirit.

What isn't mentioned as often is the fact that many Greeks migrated with strong political ideologies that they hoped to uphold in their adoptive country.
For many, fleeing the civil war was a way to feel safe to show their political views, albeit thousands of miles away.

Greece's major political parties have had a presence here for decades, even though their branches don't have much say in policy making in Greece.
Their main purpose is to champion migrant rights, even if they align themselves with different ideologies.

The branches that exist here from Greece's current political parties were created with the purpose of promoting the party's ideals in a more ideological way since they can't directly affect policy.

For instance, New Democracy, Greece's right leaning party, has a direct relationship locally with the Liberal Party.

The New Democracy branches in Australia are the most prolific of the Greek parties here, and hold a number of branches in Melbourne and Sydney and one-offs in Tasmania and South Australia.

They have thousands of members, with more than 3,000 in Melbourne alone, says founder Andreas Tsitsanis. A big jump from the initial 250 when the party launched its first branch in 1982.

New Democracy was a late comer to Australia, setting up a branch a few years later than the Communist Party (KKE) and PASOK (the centre left leaning party of Greece).
Mr Tsitsanis says the need to have political representation to make issues from the diaspora known to Greece is the main reason these parties still exist today and is why they are still relevant.

"We help our national interests, the issues of Greece; the Cyprus issue, the Macedonian issue and the Turkish issue," he tells Neos Kosmos.

"We fight for those issues and our job is to persuade Australians to uphold our Greece issues. That's our main purpose."

This united front makes for quite a different atmosphere between the Greek parties in Australia. The bi-partisan approach is miles away from the in-fighting and bickering the parties are known for in Greece.

In fact, PASOK Australia branch head, Angelos Haritou, says the parties have very amicable relationships.
'There is more of a mature approach to Greek politics here," he tells Neos Kosmos.

"Here we're all friends, not foes."

That ease might also come from the fact that these branches don't have much say in the running of the party in Greece.

They are effectively championing the ideals of the party, rather than the actions they take during this hard time for Greece.

"We can't make any decisions in Greece, so we make our counterparts in Greece aware of the issues that are affecting us in Australia in regards to Greek law," says Mr Tsitsanis.

"We champion our rights abroad, nothing more."

PASOK is a good example of this, says Mr Haritou.

The party is in dire straights at the moment, with their vote polling to less than 6 per cent. They used to have 40 per cent a couple of years ago.

The party has lost many of its faithful thanks to its policies in order to face the crisis in Greece and due to internal strife, but Mr Haritou believes their socialist ideals will always be relevant and, with better leadership, the party can return to a majority.

He can't say the same for members here. Sadly, the PASOK movement in Australia has fallen to miniscule levels. From more than 2,000 members in the '80s and '90s, the party now stands with just 240 members. It still holds two branches in Melbourne and two in Sydney, but there is not much hope that the party can survive the times.

Mr Haritou says most of the current members are over 60, and that no second or third- generation Greek Australians have an interest in the party, concluding that the party presence in Australia will leave with their aged members.

Even his own children aren't members and he says they don't have much of an interest in Greek politics, especially when they have no power to affect it.
On the other hand, New Democracy's Mr Tsitanis says there are quite a few second-generation Greek Australians with the party in Australia.
"Yes, we have members that are second-generation, from the third not so much. They're too young and they don't know what's happening in Greece at the moment," he says.
"It's because the second generation have a strong relationship with Greece, they travel a lot, they study there and they're interested in bi-lateral issues.
"They're inspired by the political atmosphere in Greece."

The political atmosphere in Greece has changed, and now the biggest opposition is coming from the new left-wing SYRIZA party.

Its Australian counterparts are quite new, so new that no formal branches exist. Most followers are Greek Australians interested in the party's differing policy on austerity measures in Greece.

In fact, there are many non-Greeks interested in SYRIZA's rapid progression in parliament.

When SYRIZA Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Kostas Isihos visited Australia last year, auditoriums were packed with many Labor Party members, Greens supporters and unionists, says economist and SYRIZA follower Adam Rorris.

"What they were interested in is how SYRIZA managed to climb so quickly, from being a very small and inconsequential party," Mr Rorris tells Neos Kosmos.

The party currently is the second biggest political party in Greece and holds the opposition majority in the Greek Parliament at 27 per cent. In 2009, its vote was just 4.6 per cent.

Although its presence in Australia is in its infancy, SYRIZA can have a presence in Australia if there is a need for it.

Mr Rorris doesn't believe there will be an Australian SYRIZA branch opening anytime soon.

"I just don't see the need for it," he says.

"The only way it might happen is if new migrants came out and they were young and interested and they wanted to do it."

At the moment, the SYRIZA movement piggy-backs on the left-wing movement here in Australia. There are no formal meetings and most Greek Australian followers aren't ready to create a more formal structure to their discussions.

If Greek Australians are granted the ability to vote in Greek elections, there might be more of a push for people to align themselves with a certain party.
New Democracy certainly thinks their memberships will increase if Greek Australians are given the vote.

"Most members want the right to vote in Greek elections while in Australia," Mr Tsitsanis says.

"Many of our members travel to Greece to vote.

"If we are given the right to vote, I think more people will want to become members of New Democracy."

The thought isn't mutual, says PASOK's Angelos Haritou. He doesn't believe PASOK's presence will increase in Australia until fundamental changes happen in the party.

"PASOK has come to this point many times before," he says.

"After these elections, there will be some changes in the party and the vote will increase."

Greece will head to the polls for their local elections on May 18, and again for the European Parliament elections on May 22.

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