The decisive Greek election victory of Alexis Tsipras’s Coalition of the Radical Left masked an advance at the other end of the political spectrum that has implications for Europe as it confronts a refugee influx.
The anti-immigration Golden Dawn party surged in the Sept. 20 vote on Greek islands hit by a wave of asylum seekers from the war-torn Middle East. The support for the far-right group, whose insignia resembles a swastika and is under investigation by prosecutors for links to organized crime, highlights the potential of the migrant crisis to stoke nationalist forces in Europe.
“The eastern Aegean islands have many angry voters who feel the massive refugee inflow is destroying them financially largely because of the impact on tourism,” said George Pagoulatos, professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business. “If the European Union fails to integrate the migrants, that would only raise the popularity and appeal of xenophobic and extreme right-wing parties in Europe.”
Golden Dawn entered parliament for the first time in 2012 as Greece’s deepening economic crisis spawned resentment toward immigrants from places like Bangladesh and Nigeria, particularly in Athens. In Sunday’s election, it gained an extra seat and remains the third-biggest faction, with 18 lawmakers.
An increase in votes on islands close to the Turkish coast helped the party boost its share of the national vote to 7 percent from 6.3 percent in January.
EU governments are fighting over emergency proposals to accept at least 120,000 asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and other war zones. As nations such as Hungary erect fences, the bloc’s leaders are due to gather on Wednesday in Brussels to tackle the continent’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
Greece, the focal point of the euro-area debt crisis for the past six years, is also at the center of the upheaval involving refugees. That’s because they are increasingly making Greece their EU entry point after traveling through Turkey on the way to wealthier western and northern Europe.
More than 211,000 “irregular” migrants have entered Greece this year, with the number of illegal border crossings into the country swelling to 137,000 in July and August alone, the European Commission said earlier this month.
On the front line are Greek islands such as Lesvos and Samos, which are located just miles from Turkey. They’re struggling to play dual roles as a traditional destination for sun-seeking tourists and as a new landing site for refugees smuggled by sea in often rickety, over-crowded boats.
On Lesvos, whose population of 90,000 makes it one of the biggest of the Greek islands in the eastern Aegean Sea, Golden Dawn’s share of the vote rose to 7.8 percent on Sunday from 4.7 percent in January, according to data from Greece’s Interior Ministry. On Samos, the party received 7.7 percent compared with 5.5 percent eight months ago.
In the grouping of Greek islands known as the Dodecanese, which stretch along the Turkish coast further south, Golden Dawn’s overall vote share jumped to 8.1 percent from 5.5 percent. One of the islands is Symi, which has received 5,500 refugees since March, about double its population. Voters there handed Golden Dawn 10.7 percent of the vote on Sunday compared with 6.5 percent in January.
In a statement posted on its website, Golden Dawn said the strong showing on eastern Aegean islands “clearly shows there are prospects of a much higher” share of the vote in future elections, “given the urgency of the phenomenon” of “illegal immigration.”