Democracy on the defensive

The arrest of several members of the extreme right Golden Dawn over the past week and the fact that a number of them were remanded in custody pending trial has sparked a frenzy of discussions regarding the party’s character and its activities.

Naturally, there has been no shortage of hyperbole. There has also been a lot of concern, which is perfectly justified given the seriousness of what is at stake.

The fact is that it is now up to the judicial authorities investigating the party to prove that Golden Dawn is indeed a criminal organization and to expose the true nature of its leaders and muscled officials in the eyes of the public and especially in the eyes of the people who voted Golden Dawn into Parliament with 18 seats.

In this sense, the job of the justice system will contribute to the public’s political education and will shape society’s knowledge and conscience. That would be welcome. There is another benefit to be gained from justice being allowed to complete its task unhindered: reinstating the people’s faith in the country’s institutions. In this sense, the judiciary is being called upon to strengthen democracy.

At the same time, a process is under way to deal with Golden Dawn within a legislative context as well.

Several proposals have been put forward, such as suspending state funding to the party because it is under criminal investigation and changing the parliamentary regulations to make provocative behavior punishable. This much scrutiny of measures that could be adopted to curb Golden Dawn’s influence could, however, prove damaging. Not just because the neo-Nazi thugs may be viewed as heroes if they are presented as being persecuted for their ideas, but because any legislation introduced in haste or in violation of the the Constitution could harm fundamental democratic rights.

Democracy has a duty to respond dynamically to its naysayers, but not using the tactics and ideas of its deniers, not by impinging upon civil liberties and sidestepping the Constitution and not with shortsighted tactics and shots in the dark. We cannot allow the process to become totalitarian because it is then that the targets of the process will be completely vindicated.

When defending itself, democracy must respond decisively to blackmail and threats, and must do so comprehensively through the justice system and political dialogue. More importantly, it must respond as a democracy, without rejecting its values and betraying itself.