Posts Tagged 'golden dawn'

Local offerings at the 18th Thessaloniki doc fest

troops

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.

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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.

A tale of two parties

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon in Athens’s working-class suburb of Peristeri. In a makeshift mosque in a basement on Leventi Street, the Greek capital’s Pakistani community is celebrating the birth of the Prophet.

In the kitchen off the main hall, the cooks are hard at work. In two large steel cauldrons, rice and chicken broth bubbles away. The pungent aroma of curry wafts all the way to the street.

Well-dressed men arrive alone or in groups from various parts of the city. They go down the stairs, slip off their shoes onto an ever-growing pile, and enter the spacious prayer hall. Malik welcomes them with a warm smile and a glass of milk scented with cardamom and almonds.

They cover their heads with green or white caps, close their eyes and pray. They listen to sermons, interrupting them to wave their hands in the air and loudly praise Allah. They chat, laugh and take photographs of one another against a backdrop of hundreds of colorful fairy lights and twinkling stars. The hi-fi’s speakers kick into high gear. The fuse gives out – once, twice, three times. The celebrations continue. For the final act, they lay down a large piece of plastic on the floor and sit down to eat.

But it’s not always party-time. The mosque has been firebombed three times in the past few years, luckily without casualties. And if there is one thing this year that reminds the community of its precarious situation, it is the absence of Shahzad Luqman. The 27-year-old Pakistani man was stabbed to death last year in the neighborhood of Petralona while cycling to work. His father is among the praying men at the Peristeri mosque, in Athens for the trial of his son’s suspected killers.

At the same time at a central Athens hotel, Golden Dawn announces the candidacy of Ilias Kasidiaris for Athens mayor and of Ilias Panagiotaros for Attica regional governor.

Speaking to the press, the ultranationalist party’s spokesman, currently under criminal investigation, promises to create a network of grocery stores and medical centers that will provide free goods and services “to Athenian citizens but not to illegal immigrants who have come to Greece to commit crimes.”

He also announces that he plans to set up a service for the protection of stray dogs and cats, saying that in the city’s rundown 6th Quarter there are no strays “not because [Athens Mayor Giorgos] Kaminis has done anything about it but because they have been eaten by migrants.”

A celebration of hate at a fancy hotel and a basement full of prayers. Athens 2014. Is this the new normal?

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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