Economic chaos sees Greek voters swing to fringe parties
Mihalis’ head was bloody and swollen. Around him loomed a threatening crowd. Garbage blazed in an overturned bin.
After the police detained and chased protesters during an anti-fascist demonstration, a handful of left-wing youths retaliated by attacking Mihalis. They suspected him of being a far-right Golden Dawn party supporter seeking to infiltrate their rally.
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The incriminating evidence was Mihalis’ shaved head and his camouflage travel bag. The victim said he was an army cadet out on leave, passing by the capital before visiting his parents in the north of the country.
This indiscriminate attack, although isolated, is evidence of the society’s growing fury against the spectre of fascism in a country that expelled dictatorship just 40 years ago.
“But he drew a knife,” an anti-fascist demonstrator shouted. “No, that was my knife,” another admitted as the group tried to rationalise the blind violence that unfolded – the very behaviour they had come to denounce.
Confrontations between the far-left and far-right have escalated since the far-right’s election into parliament during the last round of national elections in 2012.
That year the nationalist and fiercely anti-immigrant party, Golden Dawn, sprung out of near anonymity to scoop seven percent of the vote. Founded in the early 1980s by its leader Nikos Mihaloliakos the party sports a swastika-like logo as its emblem.
The far-right’s popularity has soared since the economic crisis gripped the debt-strapped country, and it is expected to fare well this spring when Greece holds both European and local elections.
The latest polls place Golden Dawn as the country’s third strongest party, with between 6.9 and 11 percent support, and a chance of making it into the European Parliament for the first time in May.
The anti-fascist protest in which Mihalis was injured was meant to counter a rally organised by Golden Dawn to commemorate the deaths of Greek soldiers in 1996 due to a dispute between Greece and Turkey over an islet in the Aegean Sea.
Before the economic crisis engulfed Greece, no more than a dozen men wearing balaclavas would gather for this commemoration. But now three thousand flag-waving supporters heeded their call.
As the financial woes weigh on Greece, the far-right’s clout has increased. The party is riding a wave of discontent over the country’s economic troubles. For many the party represents a chance for a protest vote.
At their rally, Golden Dawn’s spokesman announced the founding of a smaller sister party, the National Dawn.
“We will run in the elections no matter what happens,” Ilias Kasidiaris told the audience.
The authorities in Greece have cracked down on Golden Dawn after the killing of a hip-hop artist by one of its supporters. Its members are also accused of having attacked immigrants.
Mihaloliakos and five other MPs are now behind bars for forming and running a criminal organization. State funding for Golden Dawn has been suspended.
The party argues it is the victim of political persecution. Fearing a legislative ban, it set up “National Dawn” as a reserve. In an effort to outmanoeuvre authorities, the sister party’s founding text has a toned down anti-immigrant rhetoric. Its logo is uncontroversial.
Mainstream parties blamed for state of economy
Greece has received two bailouts worth €240bn to save it from messy bankruptcy. But its creditors – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – have asked for a raft of austerity measures in return.
The stringent demands wiped out a quarter of the economy and the country is in its sixth year of recession. A third of the population is threatened by or lives in poverty while scores of businesses have closed.
Greeks blame mainstream parties for their predicament. These parties are seen as caving into demands for tax hikes and wage cuts, rather than trying to negotiate a better deal.
Voters also point to decades of political corruption and misrule by Pasok and New Democracy – the centre-left and centre-right parties that dominated Greece’s political landscape for the past 30 years.
“Bring back what’s stolen” and “thieves” rank among the favourite slogans at the country’s many protests while Golden Dawn’s demands for proper punishment of politicians resonate among many Greeks.
Pasok, is feeling the heat; not only did it dominate Greece’s politician scene through most of its recent history, it also steered the country at the beginning of the economic crisis and is a current coalition partner.
Its continued backing of austerity coupled with the corruption scandals embroiling its politicians have proved fatal. Pasok’s name is unlikely to figure on any ballot this spring and the party recently announced it would head to elections under a joint ticket. But its fate remains undecided.
The socialists’ squabbling over how to create united political forces emphasizes the fragmented nature of the moderate left. This is part of the political vacuum in Greece’s mainstream politics that is likely to be highlighted in the May elections.
Pasok’s rival, the conservative New democracy, is now at the helm of the coalition administration.
Its leader, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, has managed to navigate various government crises, maintain painful budget cuts and tax hikes, while remaining high in the polls.
The party came to power vowing to keep the country in the euro and ease the terms of the bailout agreement. It has so far failed to achieve the latter.
Since his election, surveys showed the 62-year old party chief remained the top choice for the job while his party was neck-and-neck against the left-wing opposition.
But the latest polls show New Democracy is steadily trailing albeit by a thin margin.
Negotiations on reducing Greece’s debt, which, if successful, would reflect favourably on Samaras, are still up in the air.
Similarly to the lead up to the 2012 elections, the party is likely to try and convince voters that the country’s economy is recovering. But ordinary voters have yet to feel it.
Meanwhile, despite the EU’s harsh demands from Greece, a recent poll suggest 7 out 10 citizens believe an exit from the Euro would be “catastrophic” for the tiny country.
The conservatives will therefore warn against voting for their main opposition, left wing Syriza that has in the past threatened to tear up the bail out agreement and thus derail the country’s membership of the economic bloc.
The party made massive gains during the crisis, jumping from 4.6 percent of the vote in the 2009 national elections to 30 percent, according to a recent poll.
Syriza, a Greek acronym for Coalition of the Radical Left, has lately toned down its radical rhetoric. Its young leader, Alexis Tsipras, is the European Left’s nominated candidate for the presidency of the European Commission.
Although the party barely managed to gain an elected lawmaker in the previous European elections, it looks certain its recent upsurge will continue in May.
Syriza is calling the European ballot a ‘referendum’ on the government’s policies and if the party fares well in May, Tsipras could force snap national elections.
However sceptics question the homogeneity of Syrzia if it were to assume power, given that it brings together a slew of left-wing groups ranging from Maoists to Greens.
Research shows Greeks think Syrzia is inexperienced to lead the country. And it is also currently facing a barrage of criticism from within and outside party ranks over the choice of some local election candidates.
Nevertheless experts say disgruntled voters could well punish New Democracy and Pasok by casting a vote in Syrzia’s favour.
For now parties have yet to announce the definitive list of names for the European elections.
Greek voters will elect 21 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 25 May.