I recently recalled a popular prediction that was making the rounds in 2015, claiming that a SYRIZA defeat at the polls would throw open the doors to neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, as all the other political forces were regarded as spent. The prediction, which overestimated GD’s influence and saw leftist SYRIZA as the last bulwark of democracy, has been completely forgotten, just like many others of similar quality.
The significance of the recent court verdict on Golden Dawn is legal, symbolic and emotional, and less so political. It is an important full stop signaling the end of a party that has been associated with a difficult period that has now passed – a corroboration, that is, of a political process that came before it. Can you kill a corpse?
Golden Dawn’s trajectory has been defined by two landmark elections: the one in 2012 that catapulted it into Parliament and 2019’s that shot it down. GD was the icing on the cake symbolizing the collapse of the two-party system, an event celebrated by many at the time. It was the biggest monster in an age of monsters.
What followed was a period of unfettered public appearances with regular outbreaks of street violence that culminated in the well-known events of September 2013. That culmination was also the beginning of the party’s political end, which came in the 2019 elections.
Like many of the political formations that flourished in the age of austerity, Golden Dawn was unable to adapt to the post-memorandum era. The rage that earned it half a million votes ebbed and the party was not revived by fresh surges in the migration crisis or by the Prespes name deal with North Macedonia – much to the chagrin of certain people.
At the same time, the delayed but decisive implementation of the law in 2013 was important, not just because it harmed the party’s organizational capabilities, but also because it contributed to its gradual delegitimization by debunking the myth of its omnipotence – similarly to how November 17 was brought down.
The electoral support enjoyed by GD did not arise solely from the allure of its “ideology,” but also from the excitement felt by thousands of Greeks at the sight of its vulgar and brazen attacks on politicians – and by extension on democratic institutions. Let us not forget though that Golden Dawn may have been unsurpassed in sheer vulgarity but was by no means the only political group that vehemently challenged the institutions.
In contrast, the attempt to exploit the October 7 judicial verdict was entirely political. I will skip past the irony of demands from sundry “anti-establishment” groups for the law to be strictly implemented, to note that “anti-fascism,” and especially so in its exaggerated version, has become an all-purpose tool and fresh proof of the left’s inability to produce the new ideas that are needed to understand a complex and fluid reality.
However, when the aim is to score political points by any means, such attempts to reap democratic kudos from people who don’t usually get it are hardly surprising.
So, what are the takeaways from the GD affair? I will stress the importance of the strict implementation of the law by the state toward phenomena of political violence – because the violence exercised by Golden Dawn was driven mainly by political expediency. But the most important thing is that it acts as a reminder of the need to protect our democratic institutions during those tough times when they are being challenged so broadly and widely. And the reason is because it is much easier (not to mention hypocritical) to crow from a position of safety after the enemies of democracy have been defeated than it is to face them openly when they are in a position of power and pose a threat – even if they don’t always go around with shaved heads.
Stathis N. Kalyvas is the Gladstone Professor of Government at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.