New party shakes up Greek political scene
19.03.14 @ 09:16
Athens - The rap concert on a recent Saturday evening in Nea Smyrni, a southern suburb of Athens, was sparsely attended. No more than 70 teenagers were gathered around the stage in the main square. But the poor turnout did not deter the young singers from blasting out their message - that fascism is not the answer to Greece's problems.
An imposing yellow billboard reading "Keep Fascists Out of Schools" greeted the crowds in nearby cafes while a young campaigner roamed around distributing leaflets advertising an upcoming rally and another concert condemning fascism.
These small, grassroots movements signal a wider concern about the extent to which the far-right Golden Dawn party could prey on disenchanted young people as the economic crisis continues to pummel the country.
A recent poll shows that only 4 percent of Golden Dawn voters are between the ages of 18 to 24. Human rights activists want to keep it like this. The party already has large appeal among older Greeks: 43 percent of its support comes from voters aged 25-47.
Indeed, the ultra nationalist and anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn has had a strong presence in Greece’s political scene since 2012. This is despite the fact that the leadership and a third of its lawmakers remain in pre-trial custody, accused of belonging to a criminal organisation.
The party rejects accusations that it is neo-nazi in colour although it openly admires Hitler's policies, and its members have been shown to have Hitler paraphernalia and to use the Nazi salute.
At the concert, the anti-racism campaigner argues that an efficient way to curb the party's strong influence is through festivals, rallies and the dissemination of information.
EU and local elections are a test
A member of Greece's leading anti-fascist and anti-racist movement KEERFA, Nikos Voutsios says that the parliamentary and municipal May elections will test the movement's success against the country's far-right.
"We're not trying to do a trick to appeal to kids. But art can be a powerful vehicle to convey a message: while an anti-fascist song won't put an end to nazism, it raises awareness and that's enough."
This is not the first time in Greece's recent history that youths have fought fascism.
In the past century, the small Mediterranean country endured various military interventions, including three dictatorships. The last one, the Junta of the Colonels, was toppled in 1974, several months after the military bloodily suppressed a student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic – one of Greece's most prestigious universities.
The meteoric rise of the far-right shocks many Greeks who lived through its previous incarnations.
Yannis Zouganelis – now a famous actor, then an architecture student – was among those present when the military stormed in.
"When tanks came into the polytechnic, various fascist individuals whom we hadn't noticed were also among us. I was in a group that left from the main entrance. There was no light. And as we got out and lights fell on us, there was fighting, shooting, it was madness."
Similarly, Zouganelis vividly recalls the 1967 military coup d’etat and the widespread fear it provoked as Greeks watched the tanks roll down the capital's main avenues.
"I intensely remember the tanks around and people being really afraid, not understanding what was happening because news wasn't so readily available. The trains immediately stopped . . . and traffic was prohibited."
During the Junta years, demonstrations and labour unions were banned. The press and literature were censored.
Zouganelis' first confrontation with the dictatorship came when he was around twelve years old walking out of a bookshop reading his newly-purchased book – a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.
"A policeman came, took the book off my hands, ripped it to pieces and slapped me in the most brutal of ways," the artist recalls.
He was not intimidated, rounding up some friends to threw stones at the policeman. It was a small revolt in a country that longed for democracy – it was finally restored in 1974.
Golden Dawn's presence on the Greek political scene rekindles memories Zouganelis prefers to forget.
"I don't believe Golden Dawn will be third party . . . I can't believe that. I don't want to believe it. It would be a crazy setback."
Voters 'have nothing to lose'
However, pollsters say that the motivation for voting for Golden Dawn is not necessarily to do with it being a far-right party.
Kostas Panagopoulos, of opinion poll company ALCO, refers to Golden Dawn supporters as voters who "have nothing to lose, have no hope for the future" and who "want to punish parties" responsible for their predicament.
"If you are hopeless then the only thing that you feel you need is to punish those who made you feel that way. And unfortunately Golden Dawn seems like the solution to that," the pollster says.
For his part, Zouganelis attributes the far-right's rising influence to Greeks' short-term memory.
"Greeks forget very easily," he says regretfully, but he finds hope in the young people – such as the rappers promoting an anti-facist message – who stand up for their beliefs.
"These are the savviest of kids: those who express themselves and aren't scared of phoney bullies."
Nikos Orfanos, also an actor, was born shortly after the 1967 colonels' coup.
Like the pollster Kostas Panagopoulos, he also attributes Golden Dawn's popularity to a sense of hopelessness pervading Greek society: "Desperation doesn't make you think logically."
He warns that it will take time and effort to weaken the far-right's appeal because Golden Dawn officials are "ultimate populists" and don't even dare acknowledge their nazi roots.
"We must establish foundations to thwart [the far-right's] expansion: [the current] prosecutions and justice are the right path . . . but in the long run we must invest in better education to avoid similar problems for future generations."
Orfanos has joined the recently-founded political party, The River, which is positioning itself as a fresh alternative to current political parties in Greece.
It is the brainchild of well-known journalist Stavros Theodorakis, who has called on people from the arts, media and academic worlds to get involved. For Orfanos, The River represents a "new way to find solutions".
For the moment, Greeks seem to agree. The fledgling party is already climbing the polls. Some suggest it could knock Golden Dawn from third place.
It has also come in for criticism for the vagueness of its policies and its lifespan remains uncertain. But for some, its potential to stop the rise of the far-right is reason enough for applause.