Posts Tagged 'kapelonis'

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?

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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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