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The banality of Golden Dawn

With Golden Dawn having entrenched themselves as the third-largest party in Greece, can they still be considered a 'criminal gang'? Or is this just the new political normal in Greece?

A Golden Dawn rally in Athens, Jan 2016. PAimages/Yorgos Karahalis. All rights reserved.

Golden Dawn remains Greece’s third most popular party. Since 2012, the party has succeeded in maintaining the solidarity and groupness of its voters intact during a series of electoral contests (local, national, and European).

Nevertheless, Golden Dawn’s leadership is currently standing trial on criminal accusations and this has complicated the operation of the party. The questions addressed here are: how significant is Golden Dawn as a political actor and what does this imply about Greece’s stateness? Does Golden Dawn still manage to attract voters on the basis of its opposition to immigration and how?

The phase of consolidation (2011-2013)

Golden Dawn succeeded in emerging as Greece’s third most popular party during the period between 2011 and 2013.

Throughout these turbulent and transitional years, the party managed to successfully locate the present in a past context in its rhetoric. Accusations levied against Brussels over the harsh terms of the Memorandum were interwoven in the speech of the party-leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, with allusions to older ‘injustices’ inflicted upon Greece by the Great Powers (e.g. the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the Asia Minor catastrophe in the 1920s).

Most importantly, Golden Dawn’s ‘bottom-up’ campaign into Greek politics largely benefited from the party’s street-level engagement, as an extra-institutional actor, with an objective to combat ‘immigrant criminality’ in the underprivileged quarters of inner Athens, Piraeus, and western Thessaloniki. By contrast to, say, the division of labour between Jobbik and its militant segment (the Magyar Gárda) in Hungary, Golden Dawn functioned as a centralized agent.

Back then, the party’s rise to popularity was facilitated by two major catalysts: one of them, the public disillusionment with the PM Antonis Samaras over the reversal from his erstwhile anti-austerity rhetoric and the admission of the EU’s Memorandum of Understanding. The other was the alleged incompetence of state authorities to manage the complexities of immigration and battle ‘immigrant criminality’ efficiently.

The period between 2011 and 2013 saw a string of unidentified physical assaults against immigrants and refugees across Greece. The most noteworthy was the attack on a colony of Egyptian fishermen in Piraeus, in June 2012 (whose legal employment in Greece had been agreed upon in a bilateral treaty between the Greek and Egyptian governments).

Meanwhile, Golden Dawn had already consolidated its status as Greece’s third largest party in the June 2012 parliamentary elections (with a considerable appeal among the police and the security forces, especially in the constituencies of inner Athens).

Although many had hinted at the party’s violent street-level engagement, the authorities remained questionably idle. Nevertheless, the stabbing and murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a hip-hop artist and self-styled antifa activist, by an alleged Golden Dawn affiliate (Georgios Roupakias) in September 2013 turned out to be a watershed.

The then PM Antonis Samaras swiftly cracked down on the party and ordered the arrest of Nikolaos Michaloliakos, Ilias Kasidiaris (Golden Dawn’s second-in-command) and the rest of the leadership. Several commentators argued that Golden Dawn had underestimated the persistence of ethnocentrism in Greek society before targeting a rival who was ethnically Greek himself.

Golden Dawn under the SYRIZA/ANEL government: slow return to political normality?

During its days in opposition, SYRIZA had called for the swift acceleration of legal procedures against Golden Dawn. Party-representatives had regarded the delays in the legal process as highly suspicious. They even spoke of a modus vivendi between the previous government and Golden Dawn whereby the latter had, informally, taken over the policing of underprivileged urban quarters from ‘immigrant crime’.

The leaked conversation between Ilias Kasidiaris and Panayiotis Baltakos (a former New Democracy MP) in April 2014 added further substance to these accusations. Nevertheless, as soon as the new government took over (January 2015), the stagnation in the court case against Golden Dawn was prolonged. Moreover, the party’s leadership and Georgios Roupakias himself were temporarily released on bail until the trial was completed.

What were the obstacles that made the SYRIZA/ANEL government ostensibly renege from their initial pressures and commitments? These hindrances fall under two categories: macro-political and micro-political.

Starting with the macro-political ones, the transformation of Greece’s formerly two-party system (consisting of PASOK and New Democracy) saw the formation of two, equally feeble, government coalitions: the previous one, consisting of the old bitter rivals (New Democracy and PASOK), and the current consisting of SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks (ANEL).

With specific regard to the latter, a series of opinion-polls have hinted at SYRIZA’s continuing decrease in popularity. As became clear during the tenure of the New Democracy and PASOK condominium, a fragile government often corresponds to weak stateness. This refers to the low capacity of the institutions to enforce authority and implement the rule of law in a coordinated and efficient manner throughout the territory of the state.

It was largely this weak stateness which enabled Golden Dawn to commence its grass-roots engagement and emerge as a powerful extra-institutional actor between 2011 and 2013.

With regard to micro-political catalysts, Golden Dawn remains Greece’s third most popular party with a steady performance in five electoral contests since 2012 (three national, one local, and one European). Some of the latest opinion-polls estimate the party’s popularity to range between 8 and 8.5%. There may even be some grounds to assume that a certain percentage of SYRIZA’s more apolitical voters have diverted their support towards Golden Dawn in a gesture of protest at Alexis Tsipras’ seeming capitulation to the creditors.

More importantly, the SYRIZA/ANEL government badly needs the parliamentary majority in order to pass not only the terms of the ‘Third Memorandum’ but also a series of domestic legal measures (e.g. the new law proposed on the licenses of private TV-stations and the new draft law on the national electoral system). In a recent statement that was met with much controversy, the SYRIZA MP and Speaker of the Hellenic Parliament, Nikos Voutsis, reiterated that: ‘…in a democratically-elected parliament, all voices must be heard; including those of parties such as Golden Dawn’.

Golden Dawn’s leadership did not grant its assent to the new draft law on the national elections. However, the government’s attempts to lure them into doing so may serve as an early indication for Golden Dawn’s gradual return to political normality largely as result of Greece’s weak stateness and the short-term objectives of the ruling coalition. The party’s success in maintaining (if not increasing) the solidarity and groupness of its electorate intact, in the light of the criminal accusations, further substantiates this claim.

Immigration politics and prospects for the future

Vehement opposition to immigration and insistence on a ‘hard borders’ approach still form a key component of Golden Dawn’s political platform. Ilias Kasidiaris and other high-ranking members (e.g. Ilias Panayiotaros) have participated in the latest mobilization against the hotspots for refugees in the islands of Kos, Chios, Lesbos, and elsewhere (e.g. northern Greece).

Nevertheless the party’s public engagement over immigration has lost much of its older violent connotations. On the one hand, Golden Dawn’s leading core has come to realize the limits of their previous strategy despite Greece’s weak stateness. More urgently, the major preoccupation among the party’s leadership is how to achieve a more lenient decision in the ongoing court case.

At this given moment, it might appear rather precarious to proceed to sound predictions over the possible trajectories for Golden Dawn in the immediate future. However, in the event that a more lenient court decision is finally achieved, one might foresee the party’s evolution along the following paths.

First, the more youthful and dynamic Ilias Kasidiaris is very likely to overshadow Nikolaos Michaloliakos in the party’s leadership. This, in turn, may lead to Golden Dawn’s progressive ‘Jobbik-ization’. This means the gradual dissolution of the more militant segment(s) from the political core and the cultivation of a public image which might render the party more popular to a wider spectrum of the electorate (e.g. pensioners and other older voters).

Nevertheless, this scenario remains highly subject to the interplay between Greece’s weak stateness and immediate political (also legal) developments.

This piece was completed courtesy of research funding from the Swedish Institute (Stockholm)

About the author

Vassilis Petsinis is a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher at the University of Tartu (Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies). His specialisation is European politics and ethnopolitics with a regional focus on central and southeast Europe (including the Baltic States). He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham. His personal profile on academia.edu can be accessed here.

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