Far right tests Europe’s democracies
Experts at FES event in Athens debate causes of nationalist backlash across the continent
Four-and-a-half years since the onset of a brutal economic crisis that radically changed Greece’s political landscape, most experts agree that the financial meltdown does not tell the whole story of Golden Dawn’s meteoric rise, but few would deny it was a catalyst.
“The problem [of far-right extremism] in Greece was intensified by economic and social conditions. People think they can improve their condition by turning to extremist parties,” said Ralf Melzer from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Berlin during a discussion at Impact Hub Athens on Monday.
“At times when people face existential threats, statistics indicate an increase in racially motivated attacks,” said Melzer during the FES-organized event marking the launch of the Greek translation (Polis publishers) of “Right-Wing Extremism in Europe,” a collection of essays on the topic edited by Melzer and Sebastian Serafin. He admitted that there is no absolute connection between social environment and political choice.
Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University who wrote the volume’s chapter on far-right extremism in Greece, said that fast-paced developments triggered by the EU/IMF bailout agreements Athens signed in 2010 were fodder for Golden Dawn, which in the span of three years went from a fringe party, polling at just 0.3 percent, to electing 18 MPs.
“When things change at a very rapid pace, some people simply cannot catch up. They are scared. This situation created a window of political opportunity for Golden Dawn,” said Georgiadou, who has carried out extensive academic research into the party.
Greece’s recent history suggests that financial hardship is not a prerequisite for political extremism. In the 1990s, when Greece’s economy was in much better shape, it was the EU-inspired reformist mantra of the Simitis administrations that appeared to spawn the birth of LAOS, an ultranationalist, anti-globalization party with a strong emphasis on communitarian values and a Christian Orthodox identity.
Particularly in Golden Dawn’s case, Georgiadou said, several of the factors that caused its power to grow existed before the turning point in 2010. Waning trust in institutions, as recorded in a number of surveys in previous decades, the quality of the country’s political system, and deep polarization all benefited the rise of smaller, and sometimes extremist, parties.
“Intensifying political competition between smaller parties that were born out of the breakdown of Greece’s mainstream parties and ensuing polarization played into the hands of the far-right narrative of ‘the big, corrupt parties that only look after their own interests,’” she said.
The resurgence of far-right extremism is not unique to Greece, of course. Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, the political narrative in the “European Home” has not been one of unity. The turnaround was made brutally evident during European Union Parliament elections in May that were marked by stunning victories for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro Front National and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which advocates Britain’s immediate withdrawal from the EU. Far-right parties across the continent more than doubled their representation. Undaunted by the prosecution against its leader and most senior members, Golden Dawn went on to win 9.4 percent of the vote and emerge as Greece’s third-biggest party.
Experts at the FES debate inevitably set to work on the question of whether apparently anti-democratic parties should be tolerated within Europe’s liberal democracies. Germany has laws banning Holocaust denial and the public display of Nazi insignia. The country has encouraged European governments to introduce similar legislation.
Last year saw a renewed bid to outlaw the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) after Germany’s 16 regional governments filed a motion with the Federal Constitutional Court arguing that the NPD espouses Nazi values and wants to overthrow the democratic order through violence. A previous bid in 2003 failed after top judges ruled that the government’s case rested on testimonies by NPD officials who were found to be agents of the German intelligence service. Support for NPD went up after the botched bid.
“Sometimes a ban is necessary, but you also need to make a serious effort to deal with the problem on a social level,” said Melzer, who also referred to contacts between NPD and GD officials.
Studies by German experts quoted in the publication show that about 30 percent of people who support far-right parties and organizations abandon these groups when authorities investigate them in connection with a possible ban on their operations.
“Prohibitions are not a panacea,” Georgiadou said, warning that rather than curb the power of an ultranationalist party, a ban can actually result in the party gaining popularity. The victimization factor seems to have played a role during the early stages of the judicial clampdown on Golden Dawn, which failed to diminish its popularity.
“It was a mistake to believe that the launch of the judicial investigation into Golden Dawn would automatically drain support for the party. Big shocks take time to register with voters,” Georgiadou said, adding that more recent surveys, particularly following a barrage of investigative reporting into GD’s criminal activity and Nazi affiliations, have documented a slow albeit steady decline in support for the party, which is now polling around 6 percent.
Golden Dawn did not face an NPDstyle ban threat. Its members were instead prosecuted for alleged violations of the country’s criminal code. Last month, the prosecutor handling the investigation into GD proposed that all the party’s 16 MPs, as well as two deputies who have quit and dozens more GD members stand trial on a string of charges ranging from running a criminal organization to murder and weapons offenses.
Georgiadou said that although a great effort was being made to tackle GD on a judicial level, very little was being done on a political level. “What have our education ministers been up to all this time?” she said.
Prompted by a wave of xenophobic attacks, the Parliament in September passed a bill toughening anti-racism laws and criminalizing Holocaust denial. The new laws will not apply to GD members during their upcoming trial.