by Athanasios Tsiouras
On September 18, Greeks were shocked to learn that a leftist rapper was murdered and that a member of Golden Dawn — a formerly fringe neo-Nazi party that by then was placing third in opinion polls — had confessed to the murder. A few days later, amid the general outcry that followed, the minister of public order brought 32 criminal cases connected to Golden Dawn to Greece’s top prosecutor, who was to determine if the party was a criminal organization. The following weekend, on September 28 and 29, Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, four other Golden Dawn parliamentary deputies, and more than 20 other members were arrested and charged with participating in an organization with the intent to commit serious felonies. Golden Dawn’s percentage in the opinion polls fell almost instantly by a third.
This was a development few would have predicted three years ago, when Golden Dawn was making its first appearance on mainstream television. That was back in September 2010, in what now seems a different era, during the first televised debate for that year’s Athens mayoral election. The debate host announced he would allow the leader of Golden Dawn to make a brief statement outside the debate format. Golden Dawn had been excluded from previous televised debates because of its Nazi ideology, and its leader was allowed to appear only after threatening to sue.
That was the first time most of the audience had ever seen or heard of Golden Dawn. But in the poorest quarters of Athens, where many undocumented immigrants resided alongside impoverished Greeks, Golden Dawn was working undetected. By offering protection to Greek residents from real or perceived criminals, keeping playgrounds available for Greek children only, keeping immigrants “at bay,” they had become an informal force to be reckoned with.
Still, many people were surprised when the Golden Dawn ticket drew 5.3 percent of the vote for mayor of Athens in November 2010 and elected a city councilman. With a newfound visibility, Golden Dawn was spreading its message all over Greece: the financial crisis was brought on by corrupt politicians of all parties in tandem with the international loan sharks who helped produce Greece’s odious debt, and jobs that used to be available to Greeks had been taken by illegal immigrants. This message found resonance in a society looking for scapegoats – which would be undocumented immigrants and the “treacherous” political caste. In the spring and summer of 2011, daily protests were held outside the Parliament building by self-described “indignant citizens” who at times threatened to invade Parliament. This proved fertile ground for more Golden Dawn recruits, and the party began polling between 3 and 4 percent in the opinion polls. Its result in the elections of May and June 2012 was almost 7 percent.
Even after its electoral successes, Golden Dawn’s party platform consisted of only a couple of slogans: immigrants, corrupt politicians, and international loan sharks are to blame for the economic crisis; illegal immigrants should be thrown out of Greece forcefully; and Greece’s national debt should be repudiated. Golden Dawn voted against all proposals for reform and opposed “firing Greeks from the public sector,” as well as any reduction in the size of the state. In fact, it called for “nationalization” of everything in sight (bringing businesses under the control of the “nation,” as opposed to the state). Other than that, Golden Dawn’s policies lacked specifics. One couldn’t even tell where it stood on Europe or the euro.
Golden Dawn regional headquarters and offices started appearing all over Greece, and its membership swelled. Party members distributed free food to Greeks only. In the meantime, stories about Golden Dawn’s members harassing immigrants emerged. Its deputies would lead groups of party members who ordered immigrants to show them their papers. Its spokesman notoriously slapped a Communist Party deputy on live television, and its members started appearing in party uniforms and military formations. They would disrupt public functions and violently take over ceremonies, particularly on national holidays or at remembrances of events going back to the Greek Civil War of 1946-1949. Training camps were organized, and self-defense classes were offered to party members, who would act in defiance of the law more openly, sometimes with the alleged collusion of the police.
Then came the September 18 murder and the subsequent arrests. According to the prosecution, at least 10 serious felonies are connected to individuals arrested and their criminal organization, which even recruited minors to advance its cause. If a criminal organization was indeed functioning as a political party, then the arrest of its members is indeed a welcome development. But since the prosecution was initiated by a sitting minister against members of an opposing political party, strict application of the rule of law and constitutional guarantees to the accused are crucial: This will signal the difference between an arbitrary government crackdown and the delivery of justice.
This article has been translated into Vietnamese.