Greece in danger of repeating familiar mistakes with Golden Dawn

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos []
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos []

Barring any last minute upsets, Golden Dawn will officially become Greece’s third-largest party when local and European Parliament elections are held in May. At least that is what opinion polls have been indicating for some time. It would represent another milestone in the shocking rise of the Neo-Nazi party, which has proved a challenge Greece’s political system has been unable to tackle.

In the 2009 national elections, Golden Dawn gained less than 0.3 percent of the vote. In June 2012, 6.9 percent of Greeks who cast ballots, 426,025 in total, did so in favour of the party led by Adolf Hitler-admirer Nikos Michaloliakos. There can be little doubt that Greece’s unprecedented economic crisis, which erupted shortly after the 2009 polls, has created fertile ground for extremists. Six years of recession, four years of asphyxiating austerity and record unemployment that reached 27.8 percent in December have all caused anger and anxiety, prompting many Greeks to seek easy answers to the country’s complicated problems.

But that’s not all. The economic crisis tells only part of the story. The disintegration of Greece’s political system has also played a significant part in the rise of Golden Dawn. For decades the two parties that governed Greece - PASOK and New Democracy - often fed their supporters a diet of cheap populism and ersatz nationalism. The tacit exchange of votes for public sector jobs or contracts and the promise that the state would always step in to protect vested interests created unsustainable expectations about what governments could offer. 

These illusions were shattered when Greece signed its first bailout in May 2010. Suddenly, governments were taking and not giving. This changed the dynamic between the two big parties and their voters. Some realised the jig was up, others believed the myths promulgated by the new generation of populists about “traitor” politicians, greedy “banksters,” “predatory” lenders and “subhuman” immigrants.

Golden Dawn has undoubtedly tapped into a far-right, ultra-nationalist vein that has existed in Greek society and politics since well before the Civil War broke out in 1946. However, its support, which was only temporarily dented when Michaloliakos and several MPs were arrested following the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas last year by a party member, endures not just because there are Greeks who are sympathetic to the Neo-Nazi or neofascist cause. Golden Dawn is not drawing support only from young unemployed skinheads or old nationalists who resent their pensions being slashed. In October, a GPO opinion poll indicated that just 17 percent of Golden Dawn supporters are unemployed and 16 percent pensioners, whereas 24 percent are salaried professionals and 23 percent self-employed. The survey also suggests that the strongest support for the party lies in the 25 to 40 age group, which accounts for 43.8 percent of its backers.

Parliament’s reaction has so far been limited to changing legislation so that public funding for Golden Dawn has been suspended. The Greek Constitution has no provisions for banning a political party, only from stopping it running in elections. It is highly doubtful whether Golden Dawn could be scrubbed off the Greek political map overnight. The reasons for the party’s rise and the make-up of its supporters suggest that if Golden Dawn was to disappear, something else would spring up in its place. At a rally on Saturday, spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris said that if Golden Dawn is outlawed, it would start up again as National Dawn. Furthermore, the debilitating effects of the economic crisis are not going to be overcome soon and it is going to take even longer to rebuild trust in the political system, this time on solid rather than ramshackle foundations.

There can be no room for engaging with Golden Dawn, a party which spreads hate and whose self-confessed aim is to crush democracy. But not trying to connect with some of its voters seems counter-productive and only strengthens the far-right party. Directly or indirectly, those who back Golden Dawn also subscribe to its despicable beliefs: racism, violence and an utter contempt for democracy. Some supporters are unrepentant fascists. But others are voters so angry with the political system they are siding with Golden Dawn to spite it. This doesn’t excuse their choices, especially in the wake of the murder of Fyssas and perhaps others. But it is vital that someone else reaches out to these people and, in the process, wean them off Golden Dawn’s poisonous populism. Can anyone do it?

So far, the answer has been no. Instead, New Democracy, the senior party in the governing coalition, has appealed to base nationalism and prejudice in the hope of luring right-wing voters back to its ranks. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has falsely claimed that there are as many illegal immigrants in Greece as there are unemployed people. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias last week lamented the “tragic quality” of immigrants who come to Greece. This is not engaging with Golden Dawn voters, it is pandering to them.

Together with junior coalition partner PASOK, New Democracy has also sought to polarise Greek politics further by promoting the “theory of the two extremes,” which sees leftist SYRIZA as the ideological counterweight to neofascist Golden Dawn. In this environment, right-wing extremism is enabled rather than marginalised.

SYRIZA, meanwhile, is good at sloganeering but bad at the kind of grassroots organising that would connect with desperate voters. Alexis Tsipras’s party is right to highlight immigration as a key political issue but has failed to connect with Greeks who feel genuine concern that the country and their neighbourhoods cannot support undocumented migrants. 

Fellow anti-memorandum party Independent Greeks has also been ineffective as a bulwark against the rise of the far-right. Rather than drawing disgruntled New Democracy supporters who disagree with the conservative party’s adoption of the bailout terms it has been a purveyor of much of the populist generalisation about Greece being under occupation and government officials being traitors. In this respect, at least, it differs little from Golden Dawn and has contributed to making this kind of language and thinking an accepted part of public debate. This only strengthens Michaloliakos’s party.

Golden Dawn is hovering at around 10 percent in opinion polls and if it manages to snatch a double digit percentage in May’s elections, it may well build up decisive momentum. The longer Greece’s other parties simply fan the flames created by its divisive brand of populism, the more Golden Dawn profits. If there is something to take away from the root causes of the party’s advance in recent years it is that failure to confront a problem in its early stages ensures widespread pain further on down the line.

*An edited version of this article appeared on the European Voice website as part of the online debate: The rise of the far-right: Engage or isolate?

3 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Klaus Kastner

    Simply put: an outstanding analysis!

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  • Posted by: Diogenies

    Its because Golden Dawn likely has its roots in the past much like the communists who are die hard clingers on. Still with so much corruption in the center and the left peoples choices are limited and thus fall to the right like it or not. GD are their own worst enemies and if they would just stop acting like boors many more people would vote for them. Many Many Many are sick of the corruption and 8,000eu/mo salaries of the 300 also the endemic corruption in the demos and police dont help either. This is Socialism? I dont like it.

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  • Posted by: H.Trickler

    All countries of the EU have ultra right wing parties. However it is interesting to note that only in Germany (NDP) and in Greece these parties declare to be close to Hitler and Nazism.

    In other countries media and political adversaries some times try to place right parties in context with Nazi ideology but that is only unfair tactic.

    In Germany the NDP is a minority that is far away from reaching the 5% limit and therefore has no influence in parliament.

    In Greece it's hard to know what to do...

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