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Behind the Golden Dawn

The emergence of the extreme-right wing Golden Dawn political organisation in Greece is receiving continuing media coverage in Europe, store often set against the background of the ongoing economic crisis that has set Greece up as the most likely candidate to exit the Eurozone. They have fostered support from a public that is understandably concerned for their nation’s future and bolstered this support by capitalising on the uneasy relationship between Greeks and immigrants, the latter of whom are frequently blamed as being responsible for the rapidly deteriorating employment situation.

It gained a foothold on the political system in 2010, winning a single council seat in Athens. This year has seen its emergence as a serious political player as it took 21 and then 18 out of 300 seats in two respective general elections, the second being required following successive failures in the first to form a unity government.

While they characterize themselves as nationalists, their rhetoric is staunchly anti-immigrant rather than pro-Greece. In a television ad in the run up to the first election they used the slogan “let’s rid this country of the stench”, while Eleni Zaroulia, the wife of their leader has described immigrants as “subhuman” and the carriers of “all kinds of diseases”. Zaroulia sits on the Council of Europe’s Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination.

They are now an almost daily fixture in a Greek media that has not been shy in their criticism of the group. This has had little if no impact on tapering the increasing public support which they are receiving as the media and political establishment struggles to maintain its credibility in a nation wrought with a hardship for which it is viewed as having been partly at fault.

For their less feverish supporters, Golden Dawn is a challenge to the system they see as having inflicted upon the nation the deteriorating conditions much of the populace experiences on a daily basis. It is difficult to view the party as anything but extreme, with their hardline attitude towards immigration manifesting itself in outright violence with attacks on migrants and foreigners, whether legal residents, tourists or undocumented workers, becoming widespread.

With politicians in Greece also in receipt of criminal immunity during their time in office, elected representatives of the party have been seen participating in these attacks, demonstrating the party’s inclination towards violent and aggressive behaviour. This is a serious cause for concern for many Greeks and opposition to Golden Dawn is significant.

The juxtaposition of ancient Athens’ role in the creation of western democracy and its now apparent shift towards the authoritarian right has been well made but is a generally meaningless comparison with a more relevant historical precedent being that of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974.

Political parties were dissolved, dissent was suppressed and press freedoms were curbed, while the legal process was used for the benefit of the regime. However, during this period Greece underwent significant economic growth that deflected attention away from the fascist nature of the ruling body. Some among that generation now view Golden Dawn as potential heirs to a system that they see as having created a prosperous Greece while others identify with the party’s promotion of Greek nationalism. It is, however, an aggressive form of nationalism that considers multiculturalism to be a threat to the Greek identity, one which for them is essentially white-only.

“There, they shall see what the Golden Dawn is really about, they will see what battle means, they will see what struggle means, they will see what bayonets sharpened every night mean.”

Numerous examples have been provided by the news media of neo-Nazi rhetoric and practice. Yiannis Baboulias, writing in the Guardian, provided translated quotes from a speech by the Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos. Among them was “blood, honour, Golden Dawn”, a direct translation from a motto of the Storm Detachment, a paramilitary wing of the Nazi party. Another call lifted from the same group asks members to “raise the flags high”. “If they want us to, we can abandon it at any given moment and take to the streets. There, they shall see what the Golden Dawn is really about, they will see what battle means, they will see what struggle means, they will see what bayonets sharpened every night mean.”

During a live television debate a member of Golden Dawn threw water at a presenter and then swung fists at Liana Kanellia, a member of the Communist Party. In October, a vote in the Greek parliament revoked Ilias Kasidiaris criminal immunity as well as that of two of his colleagues who were accused of impersonating authorities and attacks on street vendors and the three now face prosecution.

The potent mix of war-like rhetoric, combined with the vicious assaults on not only those who appear non-Greek, but also their peers in parliament, is a significant threat to democracy in Greece. An October poll, conducted by Public Issue, showed their popularity to be rising. It estimated they would receive 14% of the vote, equaling 35 seats, were elections to take place immediately, with 22% of the population having a favourable opinion of them. While all polls should be viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism, it is reasonable to believe that their support does not appear to be diminishing.

With the Greek state in crisis the group has taken to providing free food to those who need it – and there are many who do – upon production of an identity card to prove their Greek nationality. Those who seek these provisions have their details taken by Golden Dawn and in this way it also serves as a recruitment tactic.

They have also targeted the children of immigrants. Ilias Panagiotaros, a Golden Dawn member of parliament, said that if his party gets into government “it will carry out raids on hospitals and kindergartens and it will throw immigrants and their children out on the street so that Greeks can take their place.”

Their influence was also suspected in an incident that took place commemorating October 28th, a national holiday in Greece that celebrates the country’s refusal to take the side of the Nazis in World War II. A teacher who asked her class to draw the Greek flag to be hung on a wall also allowed eight Albanian children to draw their flag to be included with the others. A parent reported this to Golden Dawn and the teacher was later transferred to another school.

Michaloliakos, their leader, who has openly described Golden Dawn as racist, has threatened opponents with a warning: “Those who betray this country – it’s time for them to be afraid. We are coming.” With the economic situation in Greece worsening rather than improving, and stability and recovery likely to be some years off, it would be naive to think that Golden Dawn will soon fade away, their electoral success simply a reactionary symptom that will be rectified at the next election.

They are suspected as having widespread influence and support within the police while the ruling right-wing New Democracy party is shying away from the level of criticism that it should be expected to provide. The fragile establishment in Greece is either providing the group with implicit support or is wary of disturbing a potentially volatile beast. With an economic system verging on collapse, further success for Golden Dawn may also signal the disintegration of democracy for the Mediterranean nation.

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