Staff Blogger at SAIS Europe
On September 28, the Greek government embarked on an unprecedented crackdown against the Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party that has been the bane of Greek parliamentary politics for more than a year. Although it is unconstitutional to ban a political party in Greece and Greek MPs enjoy immunity from prosecution, the Minister of Public Order and Citizen Protection was able to submit a report to the Public Prosecutor of the Supreme Court accusing a number of Golden Dawn MPs and party members of criminal offenses. Both of the Golden Dawn MP’s leaders, Nikos Michaloliakos and Christos Pappas, were arrested, as were a number of their supporters. The defendants face charges of homicide and attempted homicide, the training of paramilitary assault battalions, money laundering and the formation a criminal organization. The crackdown came in the wake of Greek anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Physsas’s alleged murder by a Golden Dawn party member, which provoked an outcry in Greece and abroad.
There is some debate about whether the government’s repression of a political organization that is still Greece’s third largest party and that is represented in parliament by eighteen MPs is going to successfully reduce popular support for the Golden Dawn. What if, on the contrary, the crackdown provokes a backlash, with party members portraying themselves as victims of an unjust persecution led by a liberal elite that cannot stay true to its own democratic principles? This possibility seems to be even more likely in a country where the last political party to be banned was the Greek Communist Party (KKE) during the postwar decades. And this came in a political environment that was only semi-democratic and that manifestly failed to protect the civil and political rights of anyone associated with left-wing political activity. Yet, even though I recognize there are risks in the government’s crackdown, I believe that, for a number of reasons, it was a right and long-overdue course of action that can be considered as one of the best decisions this government has made. Finally, we can celebrate some good news from Greece.
The Greek government seems to have chosen an opportune time to crack down: following Physass’s murder, Golden Dawn’s performance in opinion polls fell, for the first time ever, from 15% to 7%. If this does not seem like a great source of relief, we must consider that the government’s perceived soft stance towards the neo-Nazis before the crackdown was also causing tremendous instability in Greece. For a number of reasons, including the governing center-right New Democracy’s desire to seduce far-right voters, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his party had adopted an increasingly right-wing-leaning rhetoric and had insisted that far-right extremism was similar to far-left political violence in Greece, denying the exceptional challenge posed by the emergence of the Golden Dawn. On top of being unfair, given that left-wing political activity never targeted human life in recent years, this attitude had a very destabilizing effect on Greek political life, with the opposition parties (rightly) accusing the government of failing to protect the citizens from the threat of the Golden Dawn. The situation had come to a head after the Physsas murder: as The Economist reported on September 21, Greek political life was “on the edge”, and the mood in Athens was “at the boiling point”.
But more fundamentally, even if a crackdown on the Golden Dawn does end up provoking a reaction among party supporters, the nature and rhetoric of the party set it apart from other far-right European parties. In the words of Samaras democratic forces have no alternative other than doing “whatever it takes” to meet the challenge that the party poses. Indeed, neo-Nazi party organizations have killed or attacked immigrants and others in innumerable cases during the last few years. The video of Golden Dawn MP Ilias Kassidiaris attacking the Communist MP Liana Kanelli on air was broadcasted by the media all over the world (see photo below). Furthermore, the Golden Dawn has established links with sections within the Greek police, with countless testimonies by victims and eyewitnesses suggesting that the police stood by and did nothing, during racist attacks by neo-Nazi thugs. Among the most chilling examples of Golden Dawn rhetoric, there is footage capturing the candidate for the Greek Parliament, Alekos Plomaritis, characterizing immigrants in Greece as “primitive”, “parasites”, “subhuman”, and a “miasma”, and threatening to “turn them into soap, but not for humans, since [the immigrants] are chemical and we might get a rash. So we will only use the soap to wash cars and pavements.”
British Labour politician EFM Durbin once wrote that “the cause of democracy, the thing that alone makes it possible, is the mutual agreement not to persecute. Only those who accept the rules can play the game… A time will come when, in defense of our political system, it will be essential to suppress the political activities of authoritarian parties” (The Politics of Democratic Socialism, 1940). This time has arrived in Greece. The democratic forces from the left to the right of the political spectrum must unite to defend the democratic principle of toleration and the rights of everyone in Greek society, including those of its most vulnerable members—the immigrants. The Greek government recently took a decisive step towards that direction. We can only hope that they will maintain a stance of zero toleration towards the Golden Dawn, and that they and their allies will communicate the reasons for the crackdown well enough to avoid a backlash against the government.