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Sep 19, 2013 | 15:29 GMT

Greece: Golden Dawn and the Status of Extremist Parties

Greece: Golden Dawn and the Status of Extremist Parties
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

The killing of a Greek musician and anti-fascist campaigner, allegedly by a member of the far-right Golden Dawn party, has opened a debate about the status of this extremist party in Greece. But as the country is mired in its worst economic crisis in modern history, support for extremist and anti-establishment parties is likely to remain high in the coming years, regardless of the future of Golden Dawn as a political party.

According to police reports, a gang of Golden Dawn supporters attacked hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas after a discussion at a bar in Piraeus (in the outskirts of Athens) on Sept. 17, and one of them stabbed Fyssas to death. Hours after the incident, Greek police raided Golden Dawn's offices in Athens, and a 45-year-old supporter of Golden Dawn was arrested. Several anti-fascist rallies took place Sept. 18, leading to clashes between protesters and riot police. Some of the rallies had been organized before Fyssas' death, to protest a previous attack by Golden Dawn supporters against left-wing activists.

On Sept. 19, members of Greece's mainstream political parties — the center-right New Democracy and center-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (commonly known as PASOK) — condemned Fyssas' death and suggested that Golden Dawn could be outlawed. Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos said that Golden Dawn "should be dealt with as a criminal organization," and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras criticized the use of violence and called on Greek citizens to remain calm. Most parties in the opposition also called for firm government action against the extremist party.

The Appeal of Golden Dawn

But while Golden Dawn's actions have drawn general condemnation, the situation is extremely complex. The party was created in the early 1990s and for most of its history was a very marginal player in Greek politics, which were overwhelmingly dominated by New Democracy and PASOK. The severe economic crisis in Greece changed things dramatically. As unemployment skyrocketed and the country was plunged into a six-year recession, Golden Dawn and other fringe parties saw a sudden rise in popularity. Support for Golden Dawn went from 0.3 percent in the 2009 general elections to 7 percent in the May 2012 general elections. The party currently has 18 seats in Greece's 300-seat parliament.

Unemployment In Greece

Unemployment In Greece

Golden Dawn's rise is explained by Greece's deep economic crisis, which brought about the collapse of the country's traditional political system. While Golden Dawn and, more notably, the Coalition of the Radical Left (commonly known as Syriza) party were on the rise, New Democracy and PASOK were struggling to survive. The two mainstream parties managed to form a fragile government coalition only after a second general election held in June 2012.

Golden Dawn uses strong nationalist rhetoric, as it rejects immigration and the euro, and has irredentist claims over Greek territories in Albania, Cyprus and Turkey. Gangs of Golden Dawn's sympathizers often patrol the streets of Athens and other major cities, attacking immigrants and handing out racist propaganda. They also distribute food in poor neighborhoods, but only to those who can prove Greek citizenship. But more important is Golden Dawn's ability to make a name for itself as an anti-establishment party that attracts voters hurt by the Greek crisis, disenchanted with traditional parties and desperate enough to make political decisions they would not make in other circumstances. Recent polls put support for this party at around 10 or 12 percent (and some polls are even higher), which would make it Greece's third-largest party.

A Political Dilemma

The events of Sept. 17 and Sept. 18 have opened a debate in Greece that is likely to heat up in the coming weeks. The Greek government has suggested it could outlaw Golden Dawn, but the process would not be simple. Athens could make the case that Golden Dawn is a dangerous political force that incites racist and political violence. From this perspective, it could be argued that Golden Dawn's rapid rise is a threat to the stability of the country, and the party should be stopped before it causes further damage.

However, an opposing line of thought suggests that Golden Dawn is a democratically elected political party, and banning it could be considered a violation of freedom of political participation. If banned, Golden Dawn could appeal to the Greek Constitutional Court, opening a lengthy political fight with unforeseeable consequences. According to a similar view, extremist political groups often thrive on persecution because they can portray themselves as victims. In this regard, there are fears that banning Golden Dawn could lead to its further radicalization. From this perspective, allowing the extremists to participate in politics is the best way to keep them under control. However, if Athens chooses inaction, popular anger against the government could rise further.

This is not the first time that a European country has faced this kind of dilemma. German governments have been debating the status of the far-right National Democratic Party for decades, but attempts to ban it have been unsuccessful. In the 1980s and 1990s, Spain faced similar problems in dealing with Basque nationalist parties, some of which where linked to terrorist organizations. Batasuna, for example, was outlawed in 2003 after Spanish authorities said there was proof that the party was financing militant group ETA with public money. However, Spain dealt with Basque extremism in a context of political dialogue and relative economic stability. Greece, however, is being forced to deal with extremism in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis.

On Sept. 19, Greece's statistics office reported that unemployment was 27.1 percent in the second quarter of this year, down from 27.4 percent in the first quarter, but considerably above the rate of the first quarter of 2012 (23.6 percent). Most important, almost six in 10 active people between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed. Even if the European Commission forecast timid economic growth in 2014, the Greek economy will remain weak for the foreseeable future. This means that, independent of the future of Golden Dawn, in the coming years there will still be considerable room for the emergence of extremist parties, which will continue threatening Greece's political stability and its position in the European Union.

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