Greece’s Fascists Are Gaining

Nikos Michaloliakos greeting supporters at an pre-election rally in Athens last month. Credit Angelos Tzortzinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Nikos Michaloliakos greeting supporters at an pre-election rally in Athens last month. Credit Angelos Tzortzinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Just hours after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s new cabinet was sworn into office on Sept. 23, Twitter users began protesting the appointment of one of his junior ministers, Dimitri Kamenos, from the right-wing anti-austerity party Independent Greeks. Mr. Kamenos had published homophobic, anti-Semitic and racist comments on Twitter.

Within hours, Mr. Kamenos was fired, making his tenure one of the shortest in Greek political history. What’s most worrying about the incident is not his racist tweets, but the fact that reactionary views have gained popularity in crisis-ridden Greece, especially in areas where migrants are arriving in large numbers. And there is real risk that the popularity of these views will increase.

In Kos and Lesbos, the epicenters of the refugee crisis, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party doubled its share of the vote, exceeding 10 percent in some places. The absence of functioning government institutions in Greece — and the total lack of a collective European Union policy to address the crisis — have created the conditions that hateful ideologies need in order to grow. While the local authorities were waiting for the central government to react, and as the Greek government waited for the European Union to make up its mind about the growing waves of immigration that flooded the islands, the neo-Nazis took advantage of the situation to spread their hate.

In Kos, which is overwhelmed by an influx of refugees, I witnessed the rise of neo-Nazi influence. Shop owners openly expressed their indignation and xenophobic views. A 50-year old woman at the port complained that immigrants are filthy and that extremist Islamists are hiding among them. “Soon enough, the Greeks will become a minority in our own land,” she told me. A few days later Golden Dawn released a video in which three children called upon voters to support Golden Dawn, keep Greece for the Greeks, and urged them not to become a minority in their own country. Never mind that almost all asylum seekers leave Kos as soon as the police allow them to move on.

The Greek elections last Sunday gave Syriza a renewed mandate but also reinforced an atmosphere of political cynicism: The abstention rate reached 44 percent for the first time in modern Greek history. (In 2004, 76 percent of Greeks voted and only 24 percent abstained).

These are the conditions in which organizations like Golden Dawn tend to thrive and grow. It, too, was among the winners on Sunday, receiving 7 percent of the national vote.

The fact that 69 people, including all of the party’s executives, have been on trial since April 2013 for hundreds of violent attacks — including the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a Greek antifascist rapper, in 2013 — did not stop voters from making it the country’s third largest party.

Only three days before the ballot, Golden Dawn’s “fuhrer,” Nikos Michaloliakos, shocked the Greek public once again when he openly admitted that his party was accepting political responsibility for the murder of Mr. Fyssas. This was not a mistake but rather a planned strategy to present himself and his party as anti-establishment. As the election approached, Mr. Michaloliakos’s provocative appearances escalated. An old video — in which he proudly admits that Golden Dawn members are the actual descendants of Nazi sympathizers — appeared online, and on the very day of the elections he predicted that his party would gain power due to the war that “the system and the media” had waged against him. (He was excluded from the official pre-election debates.)

Mr. Michaloliakos knows that provocation pays when seeking votes from a disoriented and cynical population. Manipulating their feelings is Golden Dawn’s strategy, and it seems to be working.

In the area of Piraeus around Athens’ massive port, where Mr. Fyssas was assassinated, Golden Dawn increased its share from 7 to 8 percent. Among its overall voters, 16 percent are young and unemployed. Regions like the southern Peloponnese — a traditional stronghold of ex-monarchists, and before that Nazi collaborators during World War II — also rewarded the party by giving it far more votes than the national average.

Last but not least, the Greek police force once again turned to the far right: Poll stations located near police headquarters showed 15 percent of the vote going to Golden Dawn, and election analysts estimate that the neo-Nazis, who present themselves as a “party of order,” received more than 40 percent of police officers’ votes, based on their share of the population in those areas.

And now, many Golden Dawn politicians who’ve finished serving their 18-month pretrial prison sentences, are being released and preparing to return to public life — bolstered by last week’s electoral outcome.

Although Syriza won the election, it has failed to maintain its connection to the popular anti-austerity movement that flooded the streets and gave the party a boost back in 2012; it has not increased its membership and voters are abstaining in large numbers. This has left a growing gap between political leaders and a disillusioned society.

For now, there is a large movement seeking to stop fascist and racist ideas from spreading. But Golden Dawn’s share of the national vote is growing and its sympathizers could eventually fill that gap. If they do, their poisonous ideas will be increasingly difficult to weed out.

Matthaios Tsimitakis is a Greek journalist.

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