Greece's Golden Dawn seeks allies in EP
Politicians from Greece's extreme-right Golden Dawn party are likely to be voted into the European Parliament amid high approval ratings despite the jailing of a third of its leaders.
In Sunday's (18 May) first round of municipal elections, Golden Dawn candidates fared relatively well in several municipalities. Party spokesperson Ilias Kasidiaris, who is running for Athens mayor, reached fourth place in the first round of elections. The second round will take place next Sunday, the same date as the EU vote.
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But the party's consistent appeal at home (two polls give it between 7.5 and 8.5 percent of the EP election vote) is not reflected abroad.
None of Europe's popular far-right parties has backed or sought to make an alliance with Greece's extremists, who are often labelled "neo-fascists" – something the party denies.
Golden Dawn's salutes, symbols and anthems are similar to those of the Third Reich and its supporters have violently enforced its anti-immigrant policies.
It has exacerbated racial tensions in Greece, which has seen the arrival of thousands of EU-bound immigrants from Asia and North Africa, even as it struggles with massive unemployment and zero growth.
"We have the right to self-determine ourselves, so we are Greek nationalists," mayor-hopeful Kasidiaris told EUobserver, dismissing claims about the party's links to Nazism.
When asked to define Nazism, the former special forces commando said he "didn't know what the term meant" and "didn't understand what they mean when they call us that – it's an abstruse term".
In the past, party leader Nikos Mihaloliakos has openly praised Hitler, while Nazi paraphernalia has been found in the houses of senior officials and lawmakers.
The deadly stabbing of a hip hop artist by a Golden Dawn supporter last year triggered the arrest of several of the party's lawmakers and members. They are now facing a series of charges including murder and extortion.
While many radical right-wing parties across Europe, led by France's National Front, have indicated they will club together in the next European Parliament, they are steering clear of Golden Dawn.
Late last year National Front leader Marine Le Pen said Golden Dawn had a "filthy image". In February she told a Greek journalist that far-right parties "have been very clear about not including" Golden Dawn in their alliance.
But some experts say the gap between them is not that wide.
Vasiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Athens Panteion university, believes the continent's leading far-right parties, including France's Front National, are not teaming up with Golden Dawn merely for strategic reasons rather than outright objection to their policies.
Le Pen has been seeking to get Nigel Farage, leader of Britain's eurosceptic UKIP, to join up with her in the next EP. But Farage has rebuffed her on the grounds that her party is "racist". Georgiadou notes that a National Front alliance with Golden Dawn would only confirm Farage's criticism.
"Even if [Le Pen's Front National and like-minded parties] share ideology on anti-Semitism, immigration and Russia – teaming up with them would be a mistake: This is why it hasn't happened yet and I don't foresee it happening in the future," said Georgiadou.
Kasidiaris admitted that no European party had aligned itself with Golden Dawn yet, but remained hopeful alliances would emerge after the elections.
For his part, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader of the National Front and the father of Marine, in an interview last March said did not rule out alliances with Golden Dawn after the EU elections.
But while Golden Dawn might be ignored by the continent's more influential right-wing politicians, it has maintained plenty of contact and support among radical fringe parties.
A series of meetings have recently taken place between extreme nationalist parties in various European capitals.
Late last year, Greece's Golden Dawn, Spain's La Falange, Romania's Noua Dreapta and other like-minded parties held talks in Madrid, where they also signed a collaboration pact.
Meetings also took place in Rome, where again Golden Dawn officials held talks with their Italian counterparts, Forza Nuova, and others, including Germany's National Democratic Party. Of all these parties, only Germany's NPD is likely to get a seat in the EP.
In January, Nick Griffin, head of the fascist British National Party (BNP), travelled to Athens to announce his solidarity with his Greek counterparts.
A month later, officials from Svenskarnas parti, "the Party of the Swedes", Sweden's nationalist socialists, also travelled to Athens and participated in a demonstration with Golden Dawn protesting the imprisonment of its party leader, Nikos Mihaloliakos. The Swedish party admires Hitler and its party programme says genetics should determine Swedish nationality.
In a further indication of the below-the-radar links between far-right fringe parties, the Party of the Swedes and the Nordic Resistance Movement members sent letters to Greek embassies complaining about Mihaloliakos' arrest.
The Swedish branch of the Nordic Resistance movement also organised a rally in Stockholm in support of Golden Dawn.
The Nordic organisation is based in Sweden but is also active in Finland, Denmark and Norway.
Golden Dawn's image at home also remains strong.
In a poll conducted shortly after the killing of a hip hop rapper last year, only 20 percent of the party's voters believed the party had neo-Nazi leanings.
Kostas Markis, a father of three from Northern Greece who voted for Golden Dawn, also dismissed these accusations. "The party has nothing to do with fascism now … it might have originally but it has done a turnaround in the last years," he said in a telephone interview.
"There's a small number of Golden Dawn members who are Nazis but they have been supporting the party for a very long time – officials would be abandoning them if they openly condemned [Hitler] now," he added.
Makris echoes an opinion shared by many Golden Dawn voters. Like many Greeks, he considers himself a patriot, and feels mainstream political parties have betrayed him.
Greece's surrender of its sovereignty to its international creditors has revived the nationalism of many voters who recall that the nation stood up to the Ottoman empire in the 19th century.
Golden Dawn has played on this patriotism and has seized upon historical symbols to appeal to citizens disenchanted with traditional parties. It is also seeking to rid the party of its thuggish reputation.
As it heads to both the EU vote and the second round of municipal elections, Golden Dawn is fielding several prestigious candidates including astrophysicists, academics, doctors and retired military generals.
But analyst Georgiadou warns that the party has been forced into survival tactics. "Publicly they may try to show a different face but their manifesto has not changed – nor has their rhetoric," she noted.
Their texts include economic, social and defence policies while their ideology is centered on the notion of race and the survival of the Greek "nation race". "Illegal immigrants" are a threat to the continuation of the "racial continuation" of Greece, Golden Dawn's website reads.
Kasidiaris said his party does not intend to change its fundamental beliefs.
"We have a certain political programme [which] draws from our ideas, ideology and we'll take it to the end – we won't change."
Alvise Armellini in Italy, Mikael Brunila in Finland, Ylva Nilsson in Sweden and Helena Spongenberg in Spain contributed to this report