Far right tests Europe’s democ­ra­cies

Ex­perts at FES event in Athens de­bate causes of na­tion­al­ist back­lash across the con­ti­nent

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY HARRY VAN VERSENDAAL

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.

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