Greek neo-Nazis hold position, aim for Europe

Less than a year ago, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras had vowed to "eradicate" neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn as an investigation began into the party’s allegedly criminal activities.

As results filtered in from Sunday’s first round of local elections, it was clear his promise has yet to be met.

Even with most of the party’s 18 lawmakers facing charges including incitement to murder, and a third of them locked up in pre-trial detention, Golden Dawn still managed to boost its support in several areas including Athens.

One of its MPs, Ilias Kasidiaris, who will be tried for assault and illegal weapons possession, picked up over 35,000 votes and 16.12 percent in the Athens mayoral race for a fourth-place finish.

Fellow lawmaker Ilias Panagiotaros, also on trial for assault, secured over 179,000 votes and 11.13 percent as candidate for greater Athens governor, also finishing fourth.

"I shudder to see one in six fellow Athenians voting for a neo-Nazi candidate. We should all shudder," said Andreas Papadopoulos, a moderate leftist politician.

Four other Golden Dawn candidates generally stood their ground in other parts of the country, securing between 5.0 and 8.74 percent.

Samaras recently said he was opposed to banning Golden Dawn, and that it was wiser to combat the party’s appeal politically.

But despite a torrent of allegations about Golden Dawn’s violent, military-style organization, the party’s popularity has stayed firm among a core group of supporters.

The only difference is that the movement has scaled back aggressive street marches and torch-lit gatherings by its black-clad, muscle-bound members and now seeks a lower profile.

With leading members including founder Nikos Michaloliakos behind bars, "Golden Dawn doesn’t have the political means any more to organize demonstrations and other mass events very frequently," said political scientist Vassiliki Georgiadou.

But she notes that beyond this, "nothing has changed substantially" and the party is "still strong," particularly among the young and unemployed.

After six years of recession and four years of austerity cuts, unemployment in Greece is around 27 percent, including over 50 percent among youths.

Many of Golden Dawn’s supporters say they are motivated by despair and anger, not racism.

They include Dimitris, a 35-year-old taxi driver, whose wife had to terminate two pregnancies because they could not afford more mouths to feed.

"Meanwhile, the people who have been in power until now have been lining their pockets," he fumed.

Freighter captain Nikolaos, 53, said he is "too old to be a fanatic."

But he has "had enough with the country’s ruin...and with being part of Europe without seeing any advantage."

The party, which dismisses the investigation as politically motivated, is now setting its sights on the upcoming European Parliament ballot on Sunday.

Two of its European candidates are retired senior military officers.

"I want to be first in Athens and first in the European elections," 33-year-old Kasidiaris, a pharmaceutical company representative, told AFP in spite of the initial results.

"We want to work for the Europe of the nations, not the bankers," added the party spokesman.

In June 2012, Kasidiaris achieved notoriety after getting into a heated dispute with two female left-wing lawmakers during a morning talk show.

He threw water in one lawmaker’s face, then struck the other when she rose to challenge him.

Yet he insists the party abhors violence.

"We are against violence. We fight corruption, criminality, poverty. Our bad reputation has been created by the media," he says.

"People like Golden Dawn. Ask anybody," he adds.

Formerly on the fringe of Greek politics, Golden Dawn surged in popularity in the wake of the country’s debt crisis, tapping into widespread anger over immigration and austerity reforms.

They picked up further support after organising food donations exclusively for Greeks.

Evidence being used against Golden Dawn includes claims of assault against political opponents and migrants, as well as the murders of a Pakistani migrant and a left-wing Greek rapper last year.

"Foreigners don’t have to be afraid, anybody who is legal have no problem with us," Kasidiaris said.

A date for the criminal trials has yet to be set. [AFP]