The story behind Golden Dawn's success
03.06.14 @ 09:23
Athens - Political analysts, the media and political parties have been trying to account for the shocking rise of the far-right Golden Dawn party, which last week became Greece's third most important political party after winning almost 10 percent in the EU vote.
The key question is who or what is responsible for the anti-immigrant party's growing support.
After all, members of the party are being prosecuted on the charge of creating and participating in a criminal organisation linked to a range of offences, including two murders and violent attacks against migrants.
And many of the party's MPs, including its leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, are in prison awaiting trial.
But to those closely monitoring the situation in Greece, the results did not come as a surprise.
Intolerant political rhetoric, hostile government policies toward unpopular and marginalised groups such as migrants, and the failure to tackle racist violence allowed Golden Dawn to blossom.
It is true that the presence of destitute migrants living on the streets has brought disconcerting change to Greek cities, particularly Athens, where Golden Dawn enjoys the most popularity.
Years of failure to adopt coherent migration policies, chronic mismanagement of the asylum system, and the deep economic crisis have exacerbated the problem.
As Golden Dawn grew in popularity over the past four years, the response of the government was to adopt heavy-handed immigration measures in an effort to win voters back.
But such measures have only given a veneer of legitimacy to Golden Dawn's rhetoric. This has in turn helped to push the government to adopt further policies targeting immigrants.
In the 2012 national elections, Prime Minister Antonia Samaras campaigned in part on a pledge to reclaim Greek cities from immigrants.
"Greece today has become a centre for illegal immigrants," he said at the time. "We must take back our cities ... There are many diseases and I am not only speaking about Athens, but elsewhere too."
Months after he was elected, the Samaras government began Operation Xenios Zeus, a massive police operation against irregular immigration and crime in Athens.
Tens of thousands of people presumed to be undocumented migrants (based on little more than their physical appearance) have been subjected to abusive stops and searches on the streets, and hours-long detention at police stations.
Between August 2012 and June 2013 – the most recent period for which government statistics are available – police stopped almost 124,000 people of foreign origin and took them to a police station. Only 6,910 (5.6 percent) were found to be in Greece unlawfully.
And while xenophobic violence has become a stark reality over the past few years, the government for too long failed to respond effectively to protect victims and hold their attackers to account.
Greece has taken some positive steps recently with the creation of specialised police units to tackle racist violence across the country and the appointment of a prosecutor on hate crimes in Athens.
Racial motivation was introduced in 2008 as an aggravating circumstance in the committing of a crime, yet the provision was applied for the first time only in November 2013.
In two other landmark convictions, in March and April 2014, for a series of attacks on Pakistani men and the murder in Athens of a 27-year-old worker from Pakistan, the court failed to classify the acts as racially motivated.
By not improving the scope and application of the law, the government and the justice system are failing to send a strong message against hate crimes.
The government needs to institute reforms to encourage reporting of violent hate crimes, protect victims, and ensure appropriate action by the police and judiciary to counter hate violence.
Yet a draft anti-racism law has been pending in Parliament since November 2013, hostage to political infighting and Golden Dawn's popularity. The bill focuses on hate speech and incitement to violence, but could and should be improved by parliament and then passed.
If the Greek government is truly looking for answers to Golden Dawn's success, it should look at the anti-immigrant policies that have led to a climate in which the party has blossomed.
The response to intolerance should never be more intolerance.
The writer monitors Greece for Human Rights Watch.