ATHENS—Back in early 2012 the graffiti all over the streets of central Athens took a disturbing turn for the worse. Pervasive anti-government impulses that exist deep within Greek society have long stained the city with spray-painted symbols and motifs. The hammer and sickle adorns countless walls, often sitting next to an “A” sprayed within a circle: the Anarchist sign favoured by angry Athenian youth. Anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism; mistrust of the European Union and of the West in general are long-favored idioms of Greece’s street artists.
But as I walked the central grid of streets that runs from Syntagma Square, home of the Greek Parliament, up through the expensive shops of Kolonaki and into the leftist strongholds of Exharia back in 2012 I noticed a new symbol: a swastika-like shape, sometimes surrounded by a laurel wreath: the emblem of the political party Golden Dawn, several of whose members will go on trial Monday charged with murder.
The party began, as parties so often do, humbly. In 1980, its leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, published a rightist bulletin called Golden Dawn sympathetic to the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. From these origins Golden Dawn morphed into a grass roots movement that at first seemed content to attack immigrants and leftist students and organisations around Athens. But Michaloliakos had bigger plans. In 1993 he registered Golden Dawn as a political party and began to run in elections, albeit with little success. The party remained marginal throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century.
Then in 2008 the financial crisis hit. Greece, which had been living beyond its means for years, and was rife with clientelism and tax evasion, suffered greatly. In exchange for massive cash bailouts from the IMF and European Union the country was forced to implement a host of devastating austerity measures that caused mass discontent and violent unrest.
All across Europe—and indeed the Western world—faith in mainstream politicians began to collapse. Riots flared across European capitals while the Occupy Movement took to the streets of New York. En masse people began to search for alternatives to parties that had monopolized their national politics for decades. Those on both the left and the right benefitted. But Golden Dawn, with its anti-immigration and nationalistic views, captured the imagination of a sizeable number of Greeks in desperate financial difficulties.
“Greek nationalism is historical,” says Daphne Halikiopoulou, a lecturer in politics at the University of Reading in England. “It’s embedded in every institution and in the education system—even mainstream parties are quite nationalistic.” Greece was a highly homogenous society until a huge wave of immigration following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nationalistic sentiment is rife, even among those who do not support Golden Dawn.
“People will say they don’t vote Golden Dawn because it’s violent, ‘but immigrants are a problem,’” continues Halikiopoulou. “And the problem is that mainstream politicians are moving to the right to try to capture their votes. After the Charlie Hebdo [terror attack] in France, former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras came out and said the tragedy had occurred because of immigration and decried the leftists saying we need to open up [to more immigration].”
Such beliefs powered Golden Dawn to huge success in the two general elections held in 2012, the year I first noticed those quasi-swastikas, when it gained 21 seats (6.97 percent of the vote) in elections held in May and a month later got 18 seats (6.92 percent) in the country’s 300-seat Parliament. Golden Dawn had arrived as a political force.
Despite significant electoral success, however, it couldn’t escape its thuggish roots. Attacks on, and even murders of, immigrants continued, with many blaming Golden Dawn for the atrocities. But, by the same token, no one seemed to care. The victims were only immigrants, after all.
That all changed when Golden Dawn member Giorgos Roupakias murdered Greek left-wing activist and anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas on September 17, 2013.
The murder was condemned by all parties and in Athens an anti-fascist rally of 50,000 people marched to the Golden Dawn offices. Anger mounted until Party Leader Michaloliakos and more than 70 party members were indicted on charges of murder and of belonging to a criminal group. Michaloliakos and several other leading members of the group were placed on pretrial detention in late 2013 and, as elected members of parliament, had to be transported from prison to parliament each time there was a major vote.
Now the trial is set to begin in Korydallos Prison, Athens, where Michaloliakos and five of his colleagues remain in custody. Their incarceration meant the party was unable to campaign properly for the January 2015 elections, which made its excellent showing—winning 6.3 percent of the vote and securing 17 seats—all the more worrying. Golden Dawn is now the third-most popular party in Greece.
This is a huge problem, explains Halikiopoulou, who notes that the governing left-wing Syriza party rode to power on a wave of protest votes against the more centrist mainstream and the basis of a lot of tough-talking promises to get the heavy demands of Greece’s creditors off the backs of average citizens. “Should Syriza fail, it’s worrying that the next anti-systemic alternative is Golden Dawn.”
Right now Syriza is in an awkward coalition with the hard-right Independent Greeks party, while many supporters of the centre-right New Democracy Party also share some pretty extreme notions. “If you add all those together there is very strong support for far-right ideas in Greek politics,” says Halikiopoulou.
She believes the trial will take a long time and much will depend on the impartiality of the justice system. Clientelism and corruption, Greece’s perennial diseases, will count for a lot, especially given Golden Dawn’s reputed links to the police and judiciary.
But ultimately, Halikiopoulou believes politics will be the biggest factor. If Syriza is able to bring a degree of economic stability, then Golden Dawn leaders could be convicted without too much fuss.
“The European dimension is important,” she says. “The case has lots of media exposure and Greece’s European partners are keen to make an example of parties like Golden Dawn.”
If, however, the government fails to deal with the endemic and urgent problems facing the country, then the conviction of Syriza’s political rivals could cause serious unrest.