Posts Tagged 'golden dawn'

As Golden Dawn nurses wounds, far-right newcomer surfaces

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By Harry van Versendaal

European Parliament elections gave observers of the far right in Greece something to smile about as Golden Dawn lost nearly half of its votes compared to the previous EU ballot in 2014. But it was not all good news. As the neo-Nazi party nursed its wounds, the ultranationalist pro-Russia Greek Solution (Elliniki Lysi), a newcomer, staged a surprisingly strong showing, taking 4.18 percent of the vote and one seat in the increasingly Euroskeptic EU assembly.

Support for Golden Dawn dropped from 9.4 percent in the 2014 European Parliament elections to 4.88 percent on May 26. The party’s candidate for Athens mayor Ilias Kasidiaris won 10.53 percent compared to 16.12 percent in the 2014 local elections, while Ilias Panayiotaros, running for Attica regional governor, took 5.59 percent compared to 11.13 percent five years ago.

Inner-party friction appears to be a key reason for the decline of the country’s dominant far-right party. It was most recently illustrated in the decision of leader Nikos Michaloliakos to ditch the party’s three incumbent MEPs and put Yiannis Lagos, a Piraeus MP from Golden Dawn’s old guard, at the top of the party’s EU ticket.

“This sort of party depends on a tight inner circle to survive. Such cohesion can only be ensured by a strong leader,” says Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University who recently penned a genealogy of Greece’s far-right parties.

One of the three EU deputies, Eleftherios Synadinos, left Golden Dawn last year, accusing the leadership of nepotism and corruption. Synadinos, a former army lieutenant general who went on to set up his own nationalist grouping, said he was requested to regularly submit a chunk of his MEP salary to the party coffers.

In September 2013, Greek police arrested Michaloliakos and more than a dozen senior party members following the fatal stabbing of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by a party supporter. A month later, Parliament voted to cut off state funding to Golden Dawn on the grounds that its chief and several lawmakers were charged with involvement in a criminal organization. The move deprived Golden Dawn of a major financial resource – an estimated 873,000 euros that year. The number of Golden Dawn’s local organizations gradually dropped from 75 to around 50. Analysts say the impact of that move underscored the significance of institutional checks against political extremism.

“We saw Golden Dawn lose momentum as soon as the institutions took action,” says Georgiadou.

At the same time, judicial proceedings have evidently limited the violent activism of Golden Dawn, frequently accused of attacking migrants and leftists.

“The party could not possibly appear to confirm the allegations while these were being examined by the judiciary,” Georgiadou says.

The trial is still ongoing. The defendants’ testimonies are to begin later this month. Apart from triggering claims of political persecution by party officials looking to attain martyr status, analysts say one cannot safely predict what the impact of a potential conviction would be on the party.

One case study is Belgium’s far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), the repackaged version of Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block) which dissolved after a court convicted the party of racism in 2004. The regrouping did not prevent the party from staging a successful comeback.

Georgiadou remains cautious about drawing parallels between the two cases. “Charges against Vlaams Blok concerned racist statements. In the case of Golden Dawn, we are dealing with criminal offenses,” she says.

Observers say that even if Golden Dawn were to rebrand itself (the party has reportedly already registered the name Greek Dawn), its outlook would be dim.

“They would need to develop a second body of officials who are not so well known or popular and pass on the power to them. I don’t think that a successor suffering from such organizational shortcomings would be able to sustain Golden Dawn’s current popularity,” Georgiadou says.

New solution, new problem

While Golden Dawn took a bruising in European elections, a new force has burst onto the scene.

After electing a representative to the European Parliament on May 26, Greek Solution has set its sights on winning even more seats in the Greek House after a snap election scheduled for next month. According to exit poll data, 12 percent of Golden Dawn supporters gave Greek Solution their vote (another 12.6 percent of Golden Dawn’s voters migrated to New Democracy).

Unlike Golden Dawn, which depended on grassroots action and an extended network of local chapters across the country, Greek Solution is a top-down party built on the back of TV exposure and, some say, Russian funds (the party denies the allegations). Born in Germany to Greek emigrant farmers, its 53-year-old leader Kyriakos Velopoulos was elected as an MP with Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) in the northern port city of Thessaloniki in 2007 and 2009 before joining the ranks of center-right New Democracy between 2012 and 2015. Velopoulos, a former journalist, is widely viewed as a snake oil peddler for selling items such as “letters written by Jesus” or hair-growth potions on fringe TV programs. His shows are rife with wacky conspiracy theories. In March, he claimed that last summer’s deadly wildfires in eastern Attica were part of a Zionist plot to facilitate the transfer of Chinese exports to Western Europe.

“He should not be underestimated as a mascot,” says Georgiadou, drawing parallels with Giorgos Karatzaferis, who recently stepped down as leader of his TV-based nationalist LAOS party that has failed to recover following its fatal decision to support the Greek bailout in 2012. “Velopoulos is a nucleus. If more pieces are added, you’ll get a mosaic,” Georgiadou says.

Amid the fake news and conspiracy theories, a steadier pattern appears to be emerging, including a Greek-centered analysis of the world, opposition to the European Union, a call for a return to a national currency and an emphasis on national, self-sufficient production. Speaking after European elections, Velopoulos laid out his Orbanesque vision of “a Christian Europe without Islamists.” He added that Greece should lay a minefield and build a wall along the northeastern border with Turkey to stem the flow of “illegal migrants.”

Done deal

Analysts are cautious about the extent to which Greek Solution was boosted by opposition to the name deal signed in June 2018 between Greece and what is now the Republic of North Macedonia, despite the fact that the so-called Prespes accord dominated much of domestic politics over the past year.

“I am not even sure that the Prespes deal remained an issue during the pre-election campaign,” says Georgiadou. “The issue served a strategy and then ran its course,” she says, adding that although played up by the media, reactions were in fact marginal, also in northern Greece.

Figures indicate that hardliners were not rewarded by voters. New Democracy candidate Katerina Markou, a fervent critic of the agreement, performed poorly in the Euro poll, collecting just 29,781 votes – ending up very far behind the party’s top vote-getter Stelios Kymbouropoulos, who garnered 419,759 votes.

If the agreement had had a meaningful impact on the outcome, analysts say, that would also be evident in SYRIZA’s performance. But that did not happen. Exit poll data suggest that the issue failed to galvanize SYRIZA’s left-wing voters. An estimated 5 percent defected to smaller parties left of SYRIZA, including former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25.

“Prespes is a spent issue. I do not think anyone will invest in it anymore,” says Georgiadou, adding that its trajectory was reminiscent of the clash between the state and the church in the early 2000s after a reformist PASOK government decided to remove religious affiliation from identity cards and to force a referendum on the issue.

Fresh competition

Despite its unexpected showing in European polls, Greek Solution has already been hit by three resignations in the runup to the national election, indicating that the political substance that glues it together is not of the enduring type. However, if the party makes it into Parliament next month, access to state funding would enable it to better consolidate itself also by developing a network of local organizations.

“It may well prove to be a flash party, or not. It’s too early to tell,” Georgiadou says. “One thing we do know though is it will be treated differently from now on. It will be seen as a competitor.”

Inside the homes of Golden Dawn’s women

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By Harry van Versendaal

As she waits for her son, a Golden Dawn party MP, to come out of jail, Dafni wipes a collection of rifles sitting on a weapons rack in their family home. Behind her, sunlight streams through a swastika-shaped grille on the window.

The disturbingly comic scene in Norwegian filmmaker Havard Bustnes’s “Golden Dawn Girls,” which made its Greek debut at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival earlier this month, encapsulates a familiar question: Are people like Dafni genuinely evil or just plain naive?

The film follows three women after the legal crackdown on the far-right Golden Dawn in 2013, which led to the arrest of many of its senior members, including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos. With many of the men behind bars pending trial on charges of running a criminal organization, women had to step in and energize the campaign for the next election.

Dafni, a former submarine engineer and hospital director who describes herself as a disaffected ex-member of socialist PASOK, has a strong penchant for conspiracy theories. Jenny is the politically active dynamic wife of MP Giorgos Germenis, a former black-metal bassist and baker. But it is Bustnes’s encounters with Ourania, the enigmatic daughter of the party’s leader, which are the most intriguing. When confronted with an old photo of Michaloliakos giving the Nazi salute in front of a swastika flag, the 26-year-old psychology student with a soft spot for dogs and Disney movies responds in a way that appears to strip her of the benefit of the doubt. “I support everything about my father.”

Domestic audiences will not find much new in the documentary, a collection of interviews and archive footage of the party’s bigoted rhetoric and attacks on migrants, but they are rewarded by some distressingly candid remarks as Bustnes leaves the cameras rolling after his subjects believe shooting is over.

The director discussed the experience of shooting in an email interview with Kathimerini English Edition.
Do you think that these women are animated by pure conviction, in that they truly believe in Nazi ideology, or by personal affiliation?

I think they are convinced of the ideology. They feel like they are in a war, and they believe in all these conspiracy theories. They think that a small group of Jews rule the world and are trying to destroy the so-called Greek DNA to take control of the resources in Greece. For me this is very scary and hard to understand. These are old ideas from the Second World War; how is it possible to believe in them today?

But I also think they would like to live a more normal life outside politics. Ourania wanted to move to England to study psychology, and I don’t think she likes her role as an infamous person. I think they feel obligated to support the men, and even more so when the men were arrested.

Do they have full knowledge of the party’s darkest side, including the orchestrated attacks on migrants and Communist Party-affiliated workers?

I don’t know exactly what they know or don’t know. When I asked them about the attacks on migrants, they denied that Golden Dawn is violent. As you see in the film, Jenny says they only smashed tables and didn’t beat immigrants. This is typical of how they talk about concrete evidence that shows that Golden Dawn is a violent group. In their minds, it is always somebody else’s fault. They say it is the media which lie, and that they are innocent. Dafni even says that the videos of Golden Dawn members with guns circulating on the internet are the product of manipulation.

Did you feel these women are genuinely evil?

That’s a big question. What does it mean to be evil? From their point of view, Greece is at war, and they believe Golden Dawn is fighting for the good. There are so many conspiracy theories that they believe in, which explains how they act. So I don’t think it is about evilness but about knowledge and their corrupt worldview. If you read the wrong books and are exposed to the conspiracy theories that Golden Dawn promotes, you can end up believing in the evil politics of the neo-Nazis. And if you believe you are in a war, this could justify evil acts and violence.

How easy was it for you to gain access?

Our access was based on another film producer Christian Falch made about black metal. One of the characters in that film was Germenis, and it was his wife that helped us to gain access to Golden Dawn. She introduced us first to Dafni and later to Ourania. This was a long process that was of course difficult, but I think the fact that we are from Norway made it easier.

Did you ever feel worried about your safety and that of your crew?

We were warned that Golden Dawn have attacked journalists. At the first Golden Dawn rally we filmed, I borrowed a black-metal T-shirt from the producer to blend in. We experienced one situation at Syntagma [Square, in central Athens] where a tear gas grenade exploded some meters away from the photographer, and we had to drag him away to safety.

At some points in the film you seem to try to come across as naive in a bid to get them to lower their defenses. Did the strategy work?

I think it worked, because they did open up. When I play naive they show more of who they really are. Of course, it was a balance between how much we could confront them and how naive I could pretend to be. I decided to be more and more confrontational, but I waited until the last day before I asked Ourania what she thought about my political standpoints. Then she said that she always knew I was a leftist.

Do you see the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece as part of a bigger European pattern, or as a development that is specific to Greece and its financial crisis?

I do see this as a part of a bigger European pattern. When you have an economic crisis and high unemployment in a country, the far-right rises. Unfortunately we are seeing this in many European countries at the moment. I think all the European countries have to assume a bigger responsibility and solve the economic crisis together. We cannot say that this is a local problem. We have to help each other.

It seems to me that the strongest moments of the film are your encounters with the Golden Dawn chief’s daughter, Ourania. Do you think you ever managed to get to the core of her personality?

It is always difficult to say what is the core of a personality. I think the film makes you understand her better, but I think she is a complex character that is difficult to understand. I think it was hard for her to grow up in this party as the child of Michaloliakos, and I think Greek media have treated her badly, writing about her being fat and ugly. At the same time, of course, she is responsible for supporting a violent party.

Local offerings at the 18th Thessaloniki doc fest

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By Harry van Versendaal

Angelique Kourounis’s latest documentary on Golden Dawn, Greece’s infamous neo-Nazi party, has an inevitable existential quality:

“My partner in life is a Jew, one of my sons is gay, another is an anarchist and I am a left-wing feminist as well as a daughter of immigrants. If Golden Dawn comes to power our only problem will be which wagon they will put us on,” Kourounis says in the press announcement for “Golden Dawn: A Personal Affair.”

Based on a series of interviews conducted over the course of five years, the director, a veteran news correspondent for Greece and the Balkans, sets out to decipher the motives and agendas behind GD supporters. She soon finds out it’s not a straightforward exercise.

“Golden Dawn: A Personal Affair” will be screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) starting March 11, as part of the Greek program, which this year features 72 feature and short films. Twenty-two of these productions have been included in the different sections of the International Program, while 50 are part of the Greek Panorama.

True to form, this year’s crop raises a wide range of critical subjects including politics, human rights, the environment, art, as well as intriguing human interest stories.

“Ludlow, Greek Americans in the Colorado Coal War” by director Leonidas Vardaros draws on interviews and archival material to document the role of about 500 Greeks, mostly Cretans, in the landmark labor uprising against coal mining companies in south Colorado between 1913-14. The confrontation culminated in a bloody clampdown in April 1914, known as the Ludlow Massacre, after the Colorado national guard raided a tent colony inhabited by more than 1,200 miners and their families, leaving an estimated 20 people dead.

In “The Longest Run,” director Marianna Economou follows two underage immigrants detained in a Greek jail pending trial on charges of illegal trafficking. With unparalleled access to the juvenile prison and courtroom, Economou exposes the cases of young people who are forced by criminal rings to smuggle undocumented migrants into Europe.

Other films in the Greek section include Haris Raftogiannis’s “True Blue,” which follows an elderly couple on Icaria, the idiosyncratic eastern Aegean island whose under-10,000 residents live famously long and healthful lives, and “Next Stop: Utopia,” by Apostolos Karakasis, about the efforts of a group of fired workers at a building materials factory in Thessaloniki to turn the closed-down business into a cooperative.

The festival, now in its 18th year, runs March 11-20, at Thessaoniki’s port warehouse complex and the Olympion movie theater.

Far right tests Europe’s democracies

By Harry van Versendaal

Four-and-a-half years since the onset of a brutal economic crisis that radically changed Greece’s political landscape, most experts agree that the financial meltdown does not tell the whole story of Golden Dawn’s meteoric rise, but few would deny it was a catalyst.

“The problem [of far-right extremism] in Greece was intensified by economic and social conditions. People think they can improve their condition by turning to extremist parties,” said Ralf Melzer from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Berlin during a discussion at Impact Hub Athens on Monday.

“At times when people face existential threats, statistics indicate an increase in racially motivated attacks,” said Melzer during the FES-organized event marking the launch of the Greek translation (Polis publishers) of “Right-Wing Extremism in Europe,” a collection of essays on the topic edited by Melzer and Sebastian Serafin. He admitted that there is no absolute connection between social environment and political choice.

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University who wrote the volume’s chapter on far-right extremism in Greece, said that fast-paced developments triggered by the EU/IMF bailout agreements Athens signed in 2010 were fodder for Golden Dawn, which in the span of three years went from a fringe party, polling at just 0.3 percent, to electing 18 MPs.

“When things change at a very rapid pace, some people simply cannot catch up. They are scared. This situation created a window of political opportunity for Golden Dawn,” said Georgiadou, who has carried out extensive academic research into the party.

Greece’s recent history suggests that financial hardship is not a prerequisite for political extremism. In the 1990s, when Greece’s economy was in much better shape, it was the EU-inspired reformist mantra of the Simitis administrations that appeared to spawn the birth of LAOS, an ultranationalist, anti-globalization party with a strong emphasis on communitarian values and a Christian Orthodox identity.

Particularly in Golden Dawn’s case, Georgiadou said, several of the factors that caused its power to grow existed before the turning point in 2010. Waning trust in institutions, as recorded in a number of surveys in previous decades, the quality of the country’s political system, and deep polarization all benefited the rise of smaller, and sometimes extremist, parties.

“Intensifying political competition between smaller parties that were born out of the breakdown of Greece’s mainstream parties and ensuing polarization played into the hands of the far-right narrative of ‘the big, corrupt parties that only look after their own interests,’” she said.

The resurgence of far-right extremism is not unique to Greece, of course. Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, the political narrative in the “European Home” has not been one of unity. The turnaround was made brutally evident during European Union Parliament elections in May that were marked by stunning victories for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro Front National and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which advocates Britain’s immediate withdrawal from the EU. Far-right parties across the continent more than doubled their representation. Undaunted by the prosecution against its leader and most senior members, Golden Dawn went on to win 9.4 percent of the vote and emerge as Greece’s third-biggest party.

To ban or not to ban?

Experts at the FES debate inevitably set to work on the question of whether apparently anti-democratic parties should be tolerated within Europe’s liberal democracies. Haunted by its Nazi past, Germany has laws banning Holocaust denial and the public display of Nazi insignia. The country has encouraged European governments to introduce similar legislation.

Last year saw a renewed bid to outlaw the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) after Germany’s 16 regional governments filed a motion with the Federal Constitutional Court arguing that the NPD espouses Nazi values and wants to overthrow the democratic order through violence. A previous bid in 2003 failed after top judges ruled that the government’s case rested on testimonies by NPD officials who were found to be agents of the German intelligence service. Support for NPD went up after the botched bid.

“Sometimes a ban is necessary, but you also need to make a serious effort to deal with the problem on a social level,” said Melzer, who also referred to contacts between NPD and GD officials.

Studies by German experts quoted in the publication show that about 30 percent of people who support far-right parties and organizations abandon these groups when authorities investigate them in connection with a possible ban on their operations.

“Prohibitions are not a panacea,” Georgiadou said, warning that rather than curb the power of an ultranationalist party, a ban can actually result in the party gaining popularity. The victimization factor seems to have played a role during the early stages of the judicial clampdown on Golden Dawn, which failed to diminish its popularity.

“It was a mistake to believe that the launch of the judicial investigation into Golden Dawn would automatically drain support for the party. Big shocks take time to register with voters,” Georgiadou said, adding that more recent surveys, particularly following a barrage of investigative reporting into GD’s criminal activity and Nazi affiliations, have documented a slow albeit steady decline in support for the party, which is now polling around 6 percent.

Golden Dawn did not face an NPD-style ban threat. Its members were instead prosecuted for alleged violations of the country’s criminal code. Last month, the prosecutor handling the investigation into GD proposed that all the party’s 16 MPs, as well as two deputies who have quit and dozens more GD members stand trial on a string of charges ranging from running a criminal organization to murder and weapons offenses. In a 700-page report, the prosecutor said that none of GD’s MPs can claim convincingly that they were unaware of the criminal acts that were consistently carried out over a long period of time in the name of the party.

Georgiadou said that although a great effort was being made to tackle GD on a judicial level, very little was being done on a political level. “What have our education ministers been up to all this time?” she said.

Prompted by a wave of xenophobic attacks, the Greek Parliament in September passed a bill toughening anti-racism laws and criminalizing Holocaust denial. The new laws will not apply to GD members during their upcoming trial.

Nowhere to pray

What would you do if you and your community had to go underground — literally — to find a place to pray?

An estimated 300,000 Muslims live in Athens. But because of the Greek Orthodox Church’s influence and growing anti-immigrant sentiment, it is the only European capital without an official mosque. As the far-right Golden Dawn party has gained currency since the 2008 financial crisis, Muslim immigrants have been attacked and murdered, and unofficial mosques have been targeted. With so much hatred in the air, will an official mosque ever be built?

The rise and rise of Golden Dawn

By Harry van Versendaal

With its leadership awaiting trial for a series of alleged felonies, why would someone vote for Golden Dawn?

“Golden Dawn is changing. To me, as a voter, there are clear signs of political maturity. The party is moving away from what used to be its core ideology; it’s not about kicking and punching immigrants anymore,” says Thodoris, a mild-mannered 45-year-old civil servant a few days after the far-right party gained seats in the European Parliament for the first time in its history.

“A growing number of people are joining out of patriotism and concern about national issues like illegal immigration. If you attend a party rally, you won’t see skinheads but ordinary people like me.”

Thodoris, who lives in the seaside resort town of Porto Rafti, east of Athens, says he initially voted for the anti-immigrant, ultranationalist and Holocaust-denying group in 2012, mainly to protest the way Greece’s two mainstream parties were handling the debt crisis. But at last month’s European Parliament elections, the former PASOK supporter – who did not wish to give his last name – says he had extra reasons to do so.

“While other parties promoted celebrities and soccer players to run in the European elections, Golden Dawn picked serious men,” says Thodoris, a devout Christian. Former lieutenant generals Eleftherios Synadinos, who once commanded the Greek army’s special forces, and Georgios Epitideios, a former director at the European Union Military Staff, as well as Lambros Fountoulis, the father of murdered Golden Dawn member Giorgos Fountoulis, accepted the invitation to run on the party ticket.

On the rebound

The party, which rejects the neo-Nazi label, came third in the European elections, taking 9.4 percent of the vote and collecting 110,460 more ballots than in the June 2012 national elections. Ilias Kasidiaris, Golden Dawn’s swastika tattoo-bearing spokesman, hailed the result, saying his party was now “the third force in the country’s political life.”

Just eight months ago, such a result seemed almost unthinkable. In September 2013, Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos was taken away screaming and cursing in handcuffs to the high-security Kordyallos Prison, along with dozens of high-ranking party members and several MPs. But despite its leadership still being behind bars awaiting trial on charges of running the party as a criminal gang, Golden Dawn still managed to make a strong showing in Greece’s local and European elections last month, augmenting its nationwide political presence and surpassing expectations.

In the regional elections, the party won 31,903 more votes compared to the national vote of 2012, electing 26 regional councilors in 12 out of the 13 regions it campaigned for. Meanwhile, on a municipal level, Golden Dawn had 14 councilors elected in the nine municipalities where it ran. Four of them were elected in Athens where the party tripled its percentage compared to the 2010 local vote.

“The desire for retribution, which manifested itself in the 2012 elections, once again ushered voters toward GD, while in areas such as the Athens municipality and the Attica region, where the party commands a more solid backing, its performance most probably reflects some form of real support for the party rather than just anger or disillusionment with politics,” says Lamprini Rori, a political analyst who has conducted extensive research into Greece’s foremost far-right party.

“Voters whose anger initially turned them toward Golden Dawn appear to be gradually starting to identify with the party,” says Rori, adding that although the party’s geographical representation remains uneven, it managed to attract votes from more age groups and professional categories.

Black sheep

Greece’s crippling financial crisis – the economy is in the seventh year of a recession that has driven unemployment to around 27 percent – has been a windfall for Golden Dawn, which used to poll well below 1 percent. However, analysts agree that Greeks’ declining living standards are by no means the only factor in GD’s meteoric rise.

“None of the other countries that suffered an economic crisis in recent years, such as Spain, Portugal or Ireland, witnessed a rise in extremism in recent elections,” Rori says.

“In fact, far-right and Euroskeptic parties made gains in countries that were not that seriously affected by the crisis, such as the United Kingdom and France,” she adds.

Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro National Front topped the national vote in France for the first time, while Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which advocates immediate withdrawal from the EU, won a stunning victory across the Channel.

But analysts believe the sociocultural factors which catapulted Golden Dawn into the political mainstream were apparent before the debt crisis hit Greece.

The steady degradation of the center of Athens after the 2004 Olympic Games, soaring crime rates and the rapid influx of immigrants in certain downtown areas created a window of political opportunity for Golden Dawn, enabling it to ensconce itself in the capital’s fourth and sixth municipal districts. It was in working-class neighborhoods such as Kolonos, Sepolia, Akadimia Platonos, Kypseli and Patissia that the party’s foot soldiers gained the trust of native Greek locals who felt abandoned by the state. Golden Dawn developed a grassroots following that organized protest rallies, food drives, offered protection services and launched vigilante-style patrols, including violent attacks on immigrants.

Golden Dawn claimed to be taking on the duties of a corrupt, dysfunctional and unloving state as trust in official institutions and traditional political parties was obliterated by the crisis.

Meanwhile, the participation in November 2011 of Giorgos Karatzaferis’s populist right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) in the interim administration led by former central banker Lucas Papademos gave Golden Dawn a monopoly on the far-right anti-systemic vote.

Moreover, Golden Dawn’s neo-Nazi rhetoric jelled with the 69 percent of an electorate that harbors anti-Semitic beliefs, according to a recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League.

Just three years after receiving a paltry 0.29 percent, Golden Dawn won 6.9 percent of the vote and 18 parliamentary seats in the June 2012 national elections.

Backfire

New Democracy attempted to counter Golden Dawn’s rise by bringing in two popular lawmakers from LAOS and adopting a hardline attitude on issues such as street crime and illegal immigration, hoping this would bring voters back.

During the 2012 election campaign, ND leader Antonis Samaras labeled migrants as “tyrants” and spoke of the need to “reclaim” city centers from their grip. After becoming premier, Samaras scrapped a law granting citizenship to second-generation immigrants before blocking an anti-racism bill a year later.

ND’s candidate for Athens mayor, Aris Spiliotopoulos, adopted an openly xenophobic agenda in his 2014 campaign, attacking plans to construct a mosque in Athens on the grounds that the capital did not need “another magnet for illegal immigration” or “third-world tents under the sacred rock of the Acropolis.” Despite his own coalition government’s much-vaunted plans for going ahead with the construction of a mosque in Athens, Spiliotopoulos proposed a referendum on it, an idea that had been put forward months earlier by Golden Dawn’s own mayoral candidate.

These attempts by ND to break into far-right terrain worked to Golden Dawn’s advantage, bringing its pet issues into the mainstream of what is politically acceptable.

“When a political player haphazardly tries to hijack the issues and the framing of a rival political force, voters do not just remember the issues but also who is more suitable, in their judgement, to deal with these issues. GD obviously benefited from this,” Rori says.

In the capital’s mayoral race, far-right candidate Kasidiaris, also under criminal investigation, drew almost level with New Democracy, gaining 16.1 percent to Spiliotopoulos’s 16.9 percent. Both candidates failed to make the runoff.

Martyr status

Initially, the massive crackdown on the party after the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas, aka Killah P, by a Golden Dawn member in the Athens neighborhood of Keratsini last September was anticipated to reverse the group’s momentum. But these expectations were quickly flattened. The launch of a judicial investigation saw a decline in grassroots actions and violent attacks but fell short of dampening the party’s appeal. Polls show that GD actually increased its share in Keratsini and neighboring Perama.

“The party did everything to portray the ongoing criminal inquiry as politically motivated, a strategy that allowed it to galvanize its party base,” Rori says.

Meanwhile, hard proof, such as a much speculated-upon weapons cache, has not been found, nor has a trial date yet been set, fueling belief among some voters that the investigation into the party is political motivated.

Thodoris, for one, believes the arrests are of dubious legality. “There is no evidence for these trumped-up charges. It’s all reactionary and dirty propaganda by the media. It may fool older people like my parents, but not conscious folk like myself,” he says.

“These people were sent to jail although nothing has been proved,” says Thodoris, who believes that the killing of Fyssas – as well as other widely recorded attacks against immigrants across the country – was an isolated incident that should not be attributed to commands from the top echelons of the party.

Golden Dawn’s martyr status was reinforced by the murder of two party members – 22-year-old Manolis Kapelonis and 26-year-old Giorgos Fountoulis – who were shot in cold blood in the Neo Iraklio suburb of Athens in November. The shooting was claimed by a previously unknown – and silent since – urban guerrilla organization.

“Golden Dawn showed it was able to hold back its members from reacting,” says Thodoris, a sign to him that the party had moved on from its violent past.

Another boon toward Golden Dawn’s increasing legitimacy has come in the form of costly blunders made by mainstream politicians. Cabinet secretary Panayiotis Baltakos, Samaras’s chief of staff, was forced to resign in April after he was secretly filmed in a private meeting with Kasidiaris during which he accused the Greek premier of instigating and influencing the judicial inquiry against GD for political gain.

“The Baltakos incident and the approval by the Supreme Court of Golden Dawn’s participation in the European elections both served as an alibi for the party’s voters who were looking for a way to justify their choice,” Rori says.

Speaking in an interview with To Vima newspaper on Sunday, Baltakos was adamant that there is a kinship between ND and Golden Dawn voters. He said his party should continue to court GD supporters.

“The leaderships of the [right-wing] parties cannot merge. That is evident. But the voters can. That too is evident,” said Baltakos.

Banality of evil

With Golden Dawn polling just under the 10 percent threshold, pundits are still debating how much of their support comes from protest votes and whether there are still misguided voters out there who have little stomach for neo-Nazi ideology.

“With 66 party members facing charges and 29 – including six deputies – sitting in jail pending trial, it would be rather naive to speak of misguided voters,” says Rori. But classifying all of these voters as neo-Nazis is a different matter altogether, she adds.

“Some of them do not think that the criminal charges against Golden Dawn hold any water; others do, but don’t really mind. Some condone violence or may even be attracted to it, because they are charmed by the display of power, the imposition of order or revenge.”

More disturbingly, there are those she classifies as free riders: “people who like violence without personal cost since they do not exercise violence, nor suffer from it.”

Vasilis Lyritsis, managing director at the refugee reception center run by the Hellenic Red Cross in Lavrio, on the eastern coast of Attica, also disputes the concept of the ignorant voter.

“I do not believe any Golden Dawn voters were ‘misled,’ as it were, or that they did not know what they were voting for,” he says.

Lyritsis, who ran as a regional candidate on a center-left ticket backed by the small Democratic Left (DIMAR) party, believes the mainstream parties must stand against Golden Dawn using clear political discourse on everything from human rights to the protection of minorities and other vulnerable groups.

“Politicians should not make any ideological concessions in the hope of stealing voters away from the neo-Nazis. The European elections demonstrated clearly that this does not work,” Lyritsis says.

A stumbling block in that direction is that political polarization regarding Greece’s bailout agreements with foreign lenders has prevented mainstream parties from forging a unified response. At the same time, experts say, the political class must work to rebuild the institutions of the state, because Golden Dawn has shown its adeptness at squeezing through the cracks and infiltrating basic functions of government.

“Golden Dawn exploited the absence of institutions like the police, welfare and justice against the more vulnerable groups of the population in order to weave its web,” says Lyritsis, who deems the party should have been outlawed because it is a threat to democracy.

However, analysts agree that the safest way to curb the influence of extremist ideas in the long run is to educate the voters of tomorrow. Lyritsis maintains the country needs to move beyond a nation-centric education.

“Portraying the ‘other’ as an enemy who is nearly by default blamed for all the nation’s woes has caused a great deal of navel gazing and an overblown national ego created around the idea of a chosen people,” says Lyritsis, who is also a trained historian.

“Greek schools must not operate like ivory towers. They must open up to multiculturalism and difference. They ought to promote the country’s contemporary history instead of finding comfort with the cozy identification of pupils with Greece’s ancient and Byzantine legacy, which may look safe but is dangerous in the long term,” Lyritsis says. “What we now get is a form of intellectual fascism.”

And while extremist ideas continue to gain traction and voters, Greece’s two traditional political parties, wedded in an uneasy coalition government, are shedding voters apace. The question is, who will replace them if they perish?

Enemies of the people

By Harry van Versendaal

A recent opinion piece I wrote for ekathimerini.com [“A tale of two parties,” January 31] that sought to underline the importance of upholding the right of all people – whether documented or undocumented – to live and pray without fear of violent persecution or death produced a torrent of blind hate.

The overwhelming majority of readers’ comments supported the view that Pakistani immigrants “do not mix” with Greek society and should be deported. One reader said he is “tired and sick of them” because they are “polluting our country and our culture.” The “hypocrite” author of this “one-sided leftist pablum” was obviously not spared the vitriol either.

Interestingly, none of the readers who commented appeared annoyed or offended by the statements of Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who was quoted in the piece suggesting, among other things, that immigrants eat the capital’s stray dogs.

Many, on the other hand, were quick to bring up the case of the 23-year-old Pakistani who was this week sentenced to life in prison for raping and assaulting a teenage girl on the island of Paros in 2012. Their thinking seemed to be that this was an example of why Pakistanis are supposedly not fit to live in Greece. But to equate the brutal and condemnable assailant of one girl with an entire nation of 180 million people is the kind of irrational thinking that lies behind attacks on migrants in Greece, such as Shahzad Luqman, the 27-year Pakistani who was stabbed while cycling to work last year, allegedly just because of the color of his skin.

Being hated, let alone killed, because of who you are and not because of what you have done, is the very essence of racism. And racial ideology has been at the core of every Nazi-inspired movement. However, it is hard to see why mixing with a Muslim immigrant is a greater challenge than mixing with an intolerant, militant bigot.

Statements by senior government officials like Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, who on Thursday lamented the “tragic” quality of migrants that come to Greece, indicate that Greek society is nowhere near having a well-informed, non-partisan national debate on immigration and integration.

Given this state of affairs, it is useful for us to keep in mind that Greeks were themselves subjected to despicable racism when they migrated to the USA and Australia last century. And it was only a couple of years ago that British Prime Minister David Cameron said that his country was prepared to close its borders to Greek immigrants in the event that Greece was forced to leave the eurozone.

Condemning the attacks against poor immigrants in the center of Athens does not preclude us from being critical of Islam. Perhaps it is unwise to deny the tension between the religious code of Muslim immigrants and the secular ideals of liberal democracies like Greece. But nothing goes more against our revered western standards than denying individuals who practice a different religion their basic human rights.


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