The recent crackdown on the Golden Dawn, the extreme right political party in Greece, met with a mixture of feelings on the part of the general Greek public: relief, exaltation, impatience, frustration, uncertainty, even fear. It was also surrounded with a number of questions. For some, just why? For most, why now? Why has it taken so long? What’s next? Will this backfire?
The fact remains, of course, that belatedly or not, the government proceeded with nearly unprecedented determination to remove the gangrene of the Greek political system. There’s little doubt that this is a development of far reaching consequences and implications for the government, Greek political life, the international image of the country, perhaps as well as a precedent and a signal for similar cases beyond Greece.
How is it possible though, that in a country that suffered the atrocities of the Nazi regime such a party flourishes? How is it possible that it elects MPs in villages that were totally burned down by the Nazi forces and all their inhabitants, children included, were executed? How is it possible that the Bishop of one of these locations makes fiery public statements in support of the Golden Dawn? How could it be that the party attracted supporters formerly belonging to the anathema, the communist party? How could a party preaching the inequality and lower status of women draw considerable support from them? In order to understand these, as well as the premises and timing of the government’s crackdown action and its aftermath and repercussions, one has to look into the origins and function of this party within the Greek political system and the society, as well as the broader realities of contemporary Greece.
Golden Dawn really surfaced and became a political movement and later party within the context of the harsh economic crisis that hit Greece in 2008 and is still deepening, five years later. The more people became disillusioned with a political life characterized by corruption and clientalism, the more fertile ground the neo-Nazi leaning movement found to root. With a political rhetoric capitalizing on the financial crisis’ consequences, it engaged in cashing in the frustration or desperation of the people. Foreign states were demonized as responsible for imposing the crisis. Foreign nationals, guest workers, were targeted as job-stealers. Domestic political shortcomings and corruption were chastised. Quickly, Golden Dawn managed to enter Parliament, with 20 MPs in the 300-strong body. After the elections, as the economic crisis continued to deepen and the coalition government seemed weak and unable or unwilling to deliver, Golden Dawn nearly doubled its percentage. It also doubled its bullying and its disregard of parliamentary life. The recipe was classic and tested: economic crisis, corruption, uncertainty and fear leading to nationalism and xenophobia. The new party started to substitute the state, filling gaps, offering consolation, even physical support to people. Desperate citizens, including all those unlikely supporters, felt there was hope. The Golden dawn felt it above the law and could get away with anything. In a pre-election speech, the head of Golden Dawn saluted the crowd in the Nazi fashion, saying that it didn’t matter that their hands saluted that way; it mattered that they were hands that never stole from the people, as other politicians had; they were clean hands. But what if they were murderous hands?
The killing in Athens of Pavlos Fyssas, the young anti-fascist musician, by a Golden Dawn operative was the drop that filled the glass. The act exposed Golden Dawn for what it really is. It led to an unprecedented public outcry by the majority of people that were both fed up with the Golden Dawn and fed up with the government and the state that seemed unable or unwilling to deal with them. The government either could not afford not to act anymore, or it was given an opportunity to do so. Developments were cataclysmic: the party was declared a criminal gang, its leader and many MPs were arrested and jailed, even before the Parliament stripping them of parliamentary immunity. The weak government was finally acting resolutely, restoring its image. The state was finally re-claiming its space and role. Golden Dawn was finally losing half of its percentage points. Its supporters were finally understanding what the Golden Dawn really was.
And then fear: is this going to backfire? Are the crackdown and the arrests going to strengthen the Golden Dawn? No. The party has no solid base. The great majority of Golden Dawn sympathizers have no ideological affinity to the party. They aligned with it because they were extremely frustrated with established political parties and practices and were thus feeling they were giving a message to the former political establishment. Indeed, they were very unlikely supporters, desperate, many of them ruined by the crisis, skillfully manipulated by the Golden Dawn’s social face and rhetoric. If the political elites can clearly show that they’ve got the message, Pavlos Fyssas will not have died in vain.
This post by Harry Tzimitras was originally published in Norwegian at ytring.no 3 October 2013