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 may 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.
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.
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.
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 politically 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?
[Phoebe Fronista contributed to this report]