Down but not out: Golden Dawn rears its head again

By Harry van Versendaal

Draped across Golden Dawn party offices in a northern Athens suburb, a large white banner proudly proclaimed: “It takes a Metaxas to say No.”

“Ochi” (No) Day, when Greece refused to be annexed by a Mussolini-led Italy in 1940, is celebrated in the country as a national holiday, but most prefer to brush aside the fact that Ioannis Metaxas was a dictator.

“Golden Dawn voters are drawn to power. A lot of them voted for the party because they wanted someone big and strong to stand up to the political status quo,” says Paschos Mandravelis, a liberal commentator.

In September, a Golden Dawn member stabbed to death an anti-fascist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas, in a Piraeus neighborhood. The public outcry over his death prompted the government to arrest dozens of party members, including parliamentary deputies and Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos. The charges include homicide, blackmail and running a criminal organization.

Mandravelis believed that the crackdown would drive away a big chunk of the neo-Nazi party’s voters. “I expected that the sight of Golden Dawn members in handcuffs would remind people that there is a force larger than them, that these guys were not that untouchable after all, and as a result their popularity would be reined in,” he says.

That has not happened. Nearly two months after the launch of a judicial investigation into the neo-Nazi party – which is reportedly linked to 10 murders, as well as attempted murder, blackmail, money laundering and other crimes – public surveys suggest that despite the aura of criminality around Golden Dawn, its popularity has not been hit.

An ALCO poll conducted between November 12 and 15 for Sunday’s Proto Thema newspaper put Golden Dawn, which controls 18 seats in the 300-strong House, in third place with 8.8 percent, up from 6.6 in a previous poll carried out a month earlier. A Pulse survey for To Pontiki weekly between November 8 and 12 put the party even higher at 10.5 percent and clearly ahead of the once-dominant PASOK socialists, withering at 6.5 percent. A Metron Analysis poll for Ethnos on Sunday put support for Golden Dawn at 10 percent, more than 2 percentage points higher than a month earlier.

Lack of trust

Part of the reason behind Golden Dawn’s enduring appeal, experts say, lies with Greeks’ notorious lack of confidence in institutions. For more than a decade, public surveys have found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. This mistrust extends to the local media, which is usually owned by big business conglomerates considered to be compromised by their ties to political parties and whose stories are often seen as an extension of the status quo.

“When the integrity of all social and political institutions is being questioned, faith in the media is also lost,” Mandravelis says. Some Greeks are so suspicious of the status quo, he says, that the crackdown simply confirmed already-held convictions and conspiracy theories.

“The media are viewed with mistrust. All those people who think that everything is the result of a global conspiracy also believe that revelations about Golden Dawn are a part of this conspiracy,” he says.

MPs of Golden Dawn, which was recently stripped of state funding after a vote by fellow MPs, have – rather predictably – styled themselves as martyrs waging a battle against a corrupt establishment. Party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris on Monday called on supporters to join a rally in central Athens on Saturday to demand the release of Michaloliakos and two other detained lawmakers whom he described as “political prisoners.” Their detention, he said, was a “constitutional deviation” and a “political frame-up.”

“Although the involvement of Golden Dawn in Fyssas’s assassination is likely to have weakened the party’s appeal among non-core supporters, Golden Dawn’s purported victimization has clearly boosted support among its core – i.e. young, male, anti-systemic voters,” says Elias Dinas, a UK-based expert on voter behavior.

Whereas it was once considered taboo to endorse Golden Dawn publicly, over recent months a number of high-profile figures have been happy to admit their admiration for the extremist party. Vocalist Petros Gaitanos, famous for his performances of the Byzantine liturgy, pop singer Yiannis Ploutarchos or the idiosyncratic Notis Sfakianakis, have bashed the “corrupt” establishment and openly voiced their support for Golden Dawn.

In a much-publicized outburst last week, singer Sfakianakis praised Greece’s 1967-74 military dictatorship, urged support for Golden Dawn and called Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos a “pig.” Sfakianakis’s comments prompted pop diva Despina Vandi to announce that she would be breaking off her on-stage collaboration with him in Athens.

These, and other similar comments, feed into the feeling of mistrust of the state and mainstream media, which is not unique to the right of the political spectrum.

Critics from the left have accused the government of not actually being interested in bringing alleged criminals to justice, but rather intent on marginalizing an upstart that is siphoning voters away from the two coalition parties. In the June 2012 election, four out of 10 Greeks who cast their vote for Golden Dawn were former New Democracy supporters.

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens and an expert on right-wing radicalism, notes that a large portion of the anti-fascist movement in Greece thinks that the whole Golden Dawn clampdown is a bit “fishy.”

“When the main enemies of Golden Dawn are skeptical about the authorities’ intentions, there is little you can hope for from those who are ideologically closer to the party,” she says.

Data suggest that in the 10 days following the clampdown, Golden Dawn saw its power drop by about 2 percent. Interestingly, the decline stopped as party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and two senior lawmakers were put behind bars pending trial on charges of participation in a criminal group. Their police protection was also pulled.

On November 1, four days after Ochi Day, two Golden Dawn members, Manolis Kapelonis, 23, and Giorgos Fountoulis, 26, were gunned down at point-blank range underneath the Metaxas banner as they patrolled outside the party’s offices in the Athens suburb of Neo Iraklio, rekindling the party’s ratings.

A previously unknown group, the Militant People’s Revolutionary Forces, claimed responsibility for the killings. In an 18-page proclamation, the organization said the attack had been carried out in retaliation for the stabbing of Fyssas. Police have not confirmed the authenticity of the claim.

“The killings brought Golden Dawn into an ideal position. It was able to sell the argument that it is the victim of a conspiracy, as it has long insisted,” Georgiadou says.

The martyr effect has been observed before, most memorably in the Netherlands. After Dutch right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn was shot dead in 2002, his party went on to win an unprecedented 17 percent of the vote in elections.

Evolution pattern

Analysts agree that containing Golden Dawn’s momentum is a daunting task. Part of the challenge lies with the party’s structure and evolution pattern. Unlike mainstream political parties, Europe’s extremist groupings have mostly sought to expand their leverage using regional strongholds as springboards – a model seen at work in Antwerp, the base of Belgium’s far-right Vlaams Belang, and in Carinthia, the bastion of Austria’s Freedom Party. Extremists use these strongholds to carry out on-the-ground, grassroots work that allows them to directly engage with local community groups, often posing as guardians. Golden Dawn picked Aghios Panteleimonas, a high-crime, low-income neighborhood in central Athens with a large immigrant population, as well as the poor shipbuilding district of Perama, outside Piraeus.

For the past few years, Georgiadou and Lamprini Rori, a researcher on Golden Dawn and PhD candidate at the University of Paris (I), have studied how the party has used the neighborhoods as bastions to build a strong social network and at the same time bolster its visibility. It was in Perama, she says, that Golden Dawn succeeded in gradually becoming the main receptacle for unemployment-hit working-class voters who had formerly been taken under the wing of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) – a process reminiscent of “left LePenism” in France during the 1990s.

“If you really want to curb the influence of Golden Dawn, you have to cripple its strongholds,” Georgiadou says.

Can the influence of Golden Dawn be contained? If there is one thing analysts agree on, it is that any progress will take time.

“It will not be a fast decline,” Georgiadou says. “And it will only occur provided that all hell does not break loose, sending Greece back to 2009. It is also crucial that the judicial investigation does not stall. Should the case move ahead, it will help undermine the influence of the organization.”

Greek lawmakers last month voted to strip a number of Golden Dawn deputies of their immunity to make way for a deeper investigation into allegations against them.

Three of them faced magistrates on Monday to defend themselves on charges of belonging to a criminal organization – the same charges that have been brought against Michaloliakos and another five deputies.

The three were given until December 7 to prepare their defense after asking for more time to look through the bulky case file.

Any political message, Mandravelis says, will take longer to hit home with this section of society than others.

“The deliberations in this lower level of support for Golden Dawn take time – this is not a group of people that contemplates politics or takes a long, hard look at things,” he says.

Out of touch

Driving the message home will also depend on the ability of the political class to reconnect with a disaffected section of society used to selling their vote in exchange for party favors.

“Mainstream politicians have lost touch with the working classes. In the good old days they were able to control them through patronage. They gave them jobs and had their vote in return,” Mandravelis says.

“But now that the client state is in ruins, politicians have to figure out new ways to get those people back.”

Dinas is rather pessimistic about the chances of eliminating Golden Dawn’s influence. He says that the absence of rigid political ties to established parties, as a result of voters’ frustration with the brutal debt crisis and reduced opportunity for patronage, has worked to the benefit of the self-styled anti-establishment party.

“It seems that we will have to learn to coexist with an anti-democratic wing in the Parliament which will probably continue to attract approximately one out of 12 voters,” Dinas says.

Mandravelis remains optimistic that the power of the party will wane, sooner or later. “Whatever inflates quickly, usually deflates just as fast. But it will take a symbolic event for this to happen,” the commentator says.

Although the party itself may eventually be eclipsed, the ideas that propelled it into being look like they are here to stay.

“The values and ideas that Golden Dawn stands for – nationalism, racism and xenophobia – are not alien to Greece. They were not brought here by Golden Dawn; the truth is they already existed,” says Mandravelis.

Dinas shares the concern. “Even if you eliminate the supply,” he says, “it does not mean that you can fully wipe out demand.”

[A slightly modified version of this article frist appeared on MacroPolis.gr]

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