Election advertisements for Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party called for “taking the dirt out of the country,” “cleaning up Athens” and planting landmines along the borders to stop illegal immigrants from crossing in.
On Sunday, Golden Dawn won enough votes to earn seats in the Parliament, and now Greeks – and the estimated 1 million foreign immigrants here – are bracing to see how the party, with its swastika-like logo and the black-shirted toughs who come to its rallies, will try to commandeer the debate.
Greece’s major parties were still in shock Monday from the drubbing voters dealt them in Sunday’s national elections, and it seemed increasingly unlikely they could form a new government. Antonis Samaras, whose right-of-center New Democracy party finished a weak first place, abandoned an attempt to form a new coalition government after just six hours Monday.
Expectations were low that the surprise second-place winner, the Radical Left coalition headed by Aleksis Tsipras, would be able to assemble a left-of-center government, and chances were put at rock bottom for the socialist PASOK, headed by Evangelos Venizelos, which had led the outgoing government but fell to third place in Sunday’s balloting.
If all three parties fail, and President Karolos Papoulias is unable to summon a national unity government, then Papoulias is required by law to call new elections in one month.
A majority of Greek voters either stayed home or cast their ballots for fringe parties Sunday, with one vote in five going to a party that fell below the 3 percent threshold for entering the Parliament.
Golden Dawn was among the few parties celebrating Sunday’s results. It won 21 seats in the 300-seat Parliament after garnering nearly 7 percent of the vote, an immense gain over the 0.3 percent it obtained in the 2009 parliamentary elections.
The issue that put the party into Parliament was illegal immigration, a topic that major parties had largely refused to touch until the eve of Sunday’s elections, when Samaras denounced illegal immigrants as “tyrants.” But Golden Dawn, whose advertisements also featured the burning of American and Israeli flags, has many even more controversial positions, such its call for unifying Greece with Cyprus, a move tried by the Greek military regime in 1974 that led to the Turkish invasion of the island. Cyprus has remained divided ever since.
In his victory speech Sunday, Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos also called for the “liberation” of Northern Epirus, an area of neighboring Albania that has many Greek-speaking inhabitants.
Michaloliakos first became known internationally when he was elected to the Athens city council in 2010 and gave a stiff-armed, Nazi-style salute.
One of the main reasons Golden Dawn has been able to expand its base is that Greece now has as many as 1 million immigrants, many of them from North Africa, Afghanistan or Bangladesh, possibly as many as half of them illegal.
The financial crisis that has cost many Greeks their jobs and forced the government to cut wages and social services has hit immigrants even harder. One result in parts of central Athens has been a rising wave of crime that some blame on immigrants. Stories are common of the elderly being robbed as they’ve gone to banks to pick up their pension checks. Immigrants have been implicated in the murder of a Greek man.
Golden Dawn toughs now maintain a security watch in parts of central Athens and, upon request, routinely provide escorts to people going to shop or retrieve their pension checks. If immigrants are squatting in an apartment owned by a Greek, Golden Dawn volunteers will clear them out and fix up the dwelling.
After a Greek man was killed in May 2011, reputedly by Afghan immigrants, Golden Dawn militants stopped traffic every afternoon for weeks, hauled immigrants off of public transport and beat them up, according to Marina Vichou, formerly a journalist with the BBC Greek service, who lives close by the scene and witnessed some of the incidents. “The police did nothing but protected Golden Dawn,” she told McClatchy.
In retaliation, a Golden Dawn supporter was reported to have killed a Bangladeshi immigrant.
International observers who closely follow refugee affairs say the police watch passively when Golden Dawn thugs rough up immigrants. The Racist Violence Recording Network, set up at the initiative of the Greek National Commission for Human Rights and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, reported 63 racist attacks in Athens and neighboring Patras between October and December 2011, but the UNHCR said the results "represent only minimally the real situation."
Central Athens today is an area very much on edge, with immigrants largely in hiding. At the cafe where a McClatchy reporter sat with Vichou, a group of elderly Greek men at the next table loudly discussed the role Golden Dawn was playing in the area. Several agreed they would put up a banner at the park in the square declaring it was off limits to immigrants.
At least one park where immigrant children once played is now fenced off and locked shut, and on the pavement in front of the Agios Panteleimon Greek Orthodox church, graffiti warns: "Foreigners out of Greece. Greece belongs to Greeks." At another park, “Hellas,” the Greek word for Greece, is written on the pavement in four corners of the square, and Greek flags hang from lampposts. After a McClatchy reporter photographed the scene Monday, a somewhat inebriated man in his 30s approached and warned against any further picture taking.
“This is a fascist party . . . a philo-Nazi party,” said Stavros Papastavrou, the international secretary for the New Democratic party, adding it was especially crazy that Golden Dawn had won votes in villages where the Nazi Wehrmacht had executed Greeks during World War II.
He said the party had risen in popularity by providing social services or by expelling immigrants from apartments belonging to Greeks. He compared it to Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Hezbollah, which dominates South Lebanon.
But he acknowledged that Golden Dawn’s role in providing security indicated a breakdown in the functioning of the Greek state.
For Michaloliakos, Sunday’s advance into Parliament is only the first step in taking control of the country.
“We will fight for our country. We don’t mind the sacrifice. Whoever is not with us is against us. We will not go back,” he told a rally outside his party’s offices that night.
“Nobody can stop 100,000 members of Golden Dawn,” he said, “and if they bring tanks, they should know they (the Greek military) will be with us.” As for the election results, he said the party actually won 10 percent, not 7. Then he predicted: “The 7 percent will become 17 percent, which will become 27 percent, and then the country will pass into our hands.”
McClatchy special correspondent Katerina Kitidi contributed from Athens.