Twilight of the idols

By Harry van Versendaal

The most poignant message to come out of Greece’s latest ballot was that Golden Dawn, the xenophobic party with the meander emblem that closely resembles the swastika, is here to stay.

Many people had hoped that a number of high-profile, controversial incidents that occurred after an inconclusive vote last month would put voters off by exposing the true character of the party.

They were wrong. Golden Dawn eventually managed to hold its ground and once again secure some 7 percent of the national vote, vindicating those experts who claim that the structural conditions are in place to guarantee that the Greek neo-Nazi party won’t be just a flash in the pan. This would mean that even if the economic crisis were to disappear, the extremist threat would remain.

“I think that Greece’s historical conditions and institutional shortcomings have played a more important role in the party’s rise than the economic crisis,” says Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens. “Golden Dawn has been strengthened by the collapse, or in any case perceived collapse, of the country’s party and political system,” she adds. The party has tried to exploit this by relying on anti-systemic, highly divisive discourse to attract support. “I’d like to thank the hundreds of thousands of Greeks who did not ‘correct’ their vote, as they were urged to do by paid journalists and propagandists, and stayed on the side of Golden Dawn,” party boss Nikos Michaloliakos said in a televised message after Sunday’s vote.

Over the past 10 years, public surveys have consistently found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Asked to rate their trust in politicians on a scale of 0 to 10 in a European Social Survey in 2002, 80 percent gave responses from 0 to 5. By 2010, this percentage had gone up to 96 percent.

The economic crisis has been a catalyst that has accelerated the dismantling of a deeply dysfunctional political status quo. Greece, which depends on a EU/IMF bailout to stay afloat, is currently in its fifth year of recession. Brutal salary and pension cuts, and a significant drop in the minimum wage to under 400 euros, have failed to put the brakes on unemployment, which skyrocketed to a record 22.6 percent in the first quarter of 2012. Textbook stuff. The tumultuous economic environment and soaring crime, in part a result of unchecked immigration into the country, have pushed big chunks of disenchanted, angry or simply insecure people to the far right. The Golden Dawn party was elected on a platform of kicking all immigrants out of the country and placing land mines along the Greek border with Turkey.

“The degradation of public order, the ghettoization of large parts of downtown Athens, and the rise in crime and insecurity are the primary vote-getters for Golden Dawn in Greece’s urban centers,” says Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor at Yale.

With the exception of multiculti idealists on the left, most people here are ready to acknowledge the disruptive fallout from the massive influx of clandestine immigrants. According to Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, 57,000 illegal immigrants — from Africa, Asia and the Middle East — were recorded trying to cross the Greek borders in 2011. More than 1 million are believed to live in Athens today. Under the EU’s Dublin II regulations, Greece has to accommodate all migrants entering the bloc via its borders; transit to other EU countries is not permitted. With the economic downturn resulting in a lack of jobs, many of them are stuck in limbo, unable to move into another European country or back home. Some resort to crime to survive.

Greece’s handling of the problem leaves a lot to be desired. Chronic neglect has been interrupted by sporadic, knee-jerk campaigns — mostly publicity stunts aimed at appeasing voters. Prompted by the rise of xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment, bigger parties have cynically toughened their rhetoric and signed up for heavy-handed measures like the construction of a 12.5-kilometer razor-wire-topped fence along the Turkish border in the northeast. Critics say that government policies such as so-called sweep operations and the construction of detention camps have legitimized hardline policies, while often making xenophobic phraseology part of the political mainstream.

“Politicians have in the past couple of years appeared to aim to further polarize the migration issue, as if they were trying to deflect people’s attention from other issues. But the policy has backfired,” blogger Achilleas Plitharas says. That said, he is less willing to share another oft-heard view, mostly shared among centrist liberals here, that leftist tolerance of anti-establishment acts and language — like the makeshift gallows in Syntagma Square and slogans about the 1967 military regime — in fact helped prepare the ground for the rise of Golden Dawn.

“I don’t think that the vast majority of those protesters went down some neofascist path. Nor do I believe that the Indignant movement pushed people toward Golden Dawn,” Plitharas says of the massive anti-austerity demonstrations in Athens last year, adding however that the extremist party has tried to exploit the tense political environment.

Youth magnet

Unlike mainstream political parties that seek to establish a balanced organizational presence across the country, Golden Dawn always tries to first establish itself in specific areas where it finds fertile ground. “They seek to establish strongholds first; they then try to diffuse their power across the country. Now we’re in the diffusion phase,” Georgiadou explains. The party, which will now be entitled to some 3.5 million euros in state subsidies, scored its biggest shares of the vote in the center of Athens, Piraeus’s second constituency and in other smaller urban centers across the country including Laconia, Messinia and Corinthos, where it grabbed a stunning 11.1 percent.

Golden Dawn has been a magnet for young voters, placing second in the 18-24 age group. Experts attribute its strong appeal to the declining influence of ideology among younger generations and to a weak historical consciousness. “Younger generations are not aware of the negative repercussions that authoritarian regimes have had on the country. I am not sure if the ’junta’ means anything to a 18-year-old today,” Georgiadou says. Commentators have been surprised to see the party, which officially denies any Nazi leanings, attracting votes in places of WWII atrocities like Distomo, Kalavryta, Kaisariani and the village of Kommeno in Arta.

In a world where traditional institutions of authority have lost their sway and credibility, Golden Dawn understandably offers a vigorous, vitalist alternative that strikes a chord with young people. “Its emphasis on collective action, uniform-like garb, and a local presence supplies elements of structure to many youths who feel dejected, aren’t inspired by what they see as a cynical culture around them, and are no longer able to accede to the consumerist culture that had come to dominate Greek society,” Kalyvas says.

Six weeks elapsed between the two ballots as Greece struggled to find its political footing. Local media and journalists who had previously snubbed the extremist party altered their stance in a bid to expose it in the eyes of a purportedly misguided electorate. But pollsters were surprised to discover that a number of controversial incidents, most infamously the attack by Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris against two female leftist deputies during a live televised debate, actually worked in the party’s favor. As one commentator put it, when it comes to fascists, violence is porn.

“What took place between those two elections was pretty much inconsequential,” according to writer and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos. “Golden Dawn voters applaud violence and hate speech. Those vulgar displays only reinforced a choice they had already made,” he says.

After the election on May 6, which saw the party enter Parliament for the first time, attacks on immigrants by suspected right-wing extremists have become a regular occurrence. A Pakistani man was stabbed at Attiki metro station, near central Athens, after the vote on Sunday. Police detained 25 people believed to have been involved in the assault but they were all set free after the victim failed to identify any of them. Victims have in the past been warned against identifying their attackers or face been beaten up. A quick browse through the social media reveals that the TV studio attack failed to invite universal condemnation. Even fewer Greeks would identify with the stabbed victim, a foreigner. “After all, such incidents are very rarely shown on TV and, as a result, many people may not even believe that they’ve even taken place,” Georgiadou says.

Free rein

Banning Golden Dawn is obviously not a solution. “Even if there were a way to disband this party immediately, its voters would still be there among us,” according to Georgakopoulos, who also falls behind the truism that hatred, racism and bigotry must be rooted out of schools as well as homes. Most liberal analysts would agree that it’s better to let extremists expose themselves to ridicule and historical scrutiny than pose as martyrs. At the same time, there is an equally important need to separate despicable ideas from criminal acts like organized attacks against immigrants. For Kalyvas, “Golden Dawn benefits from both the tolerant ethos of the Greek polity and the collapse of public order and the justice system.” After Kasidiaris struck Liana Kanelli of the Greek Communist Party, a prosecutor ordered his arrest on the grounds of attempted grievous bodily harm. The 31-year-old former commando lay low until the arrest warrant expired while police launched a rather unconvincing manhunt to trace him. Allegations of police bias are not uncommon. Questions have been raised after footage from demonstrations emerged showing members of the party and policemen on friendly terms. Figures indicate that an unusually high percentage of Athens police officers — some reports put it at up to 50 percent — voted for Golden Dawn in the past two elections.

Plitharas expects that Golden Dawn’s presence in Parliament, where it won 18 seats, will help undermine its influence. “It will be like exposing a vampire to light,” he says. But it won’t be enough. After all, he says, the biggest problem with Golden Dawn is not its presence in the House during the day but rather the legitimation of its free rein in the streets of the city during the night. “If you can freeze the organization’s nighttime activity, it will then be easier to curb its dynamism; it will be like its blood transfusions have stopped,” he says, emphasizing that the first step of the authorities must be severing the party’s ties with members of the security forces. At the same time, he says, the government must take pragmatic steps to cope with the security void around city neighborhoods and, of course, push its European peers for a change to Dublin II treaty to ensure fairer burden-sharing over unregistered migrants.

That’s a tall order, no doubt, for Greece’s political class. Their response will decide nothing less than the future shape of the nation, and their own place in it.

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