Supporters of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party hold torches and wave national and party flags during a rally to commemorate anniversary of the Imia dispute on February 3, 2018 in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why didn’t Greece slide towards the far right?

Greece survived the world’s worst post-2008 economic crisis and the heaviest refugee burden without yielding to far-right populism. Why?

This week, the leading parliamentarians of Greece’s national socialist party, Golden Dawn, were jailed for 13 years. An Athens court found that a series of killings, beatings and intimidations carried out in 2012-13 were not random but co-ordinated, and subsequently convicted the MPs of being a criminal organisation masquerading as a political party. In Greece, as in the rest of Europe, the conviction of an entire party is unprecedented.

Golden Dawn entered parliament at a time when far-right populism was beginning to thrive in the developed world. Two things fuelled this trend: the 2008 global financial crisis highlighted a rise in inequality and, beginning in 2015, flows of refugees and economic migrants from Africa and Asia towards Europe and from South America to the US reached levels not seen since the Second World War.

Almost everywhere, authoritarian, anti-immigrant, anti-globalist, Eurosceptic, populist parties that had been marginal began to flourish. In Italy, the Lega Nord took 17.4 per cent of the vote in March 2018 to become the third-largest force on the national stage. It ruled in a coalition government until August last year, and still lurks as a force capable of returning to power. In France, it was Marine le Pen’s Front National that challenged frontrunner Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 presidential election, where it secured 34 per cent of the vote to become the main opposition. In Germany, Alternatif fur Deutschland won seats in a series of state legislatures beginning in 2014 and took 12.6 per cent of the vote to enter the federal parliament in 2017. It has since outpolled the centre-right Christian Democrats in the former East Germany.

Drivers of far-right populism did not succeed in Greece as they did elsewhere

In Finland the True Finns took 17.7 per cent of the vote in 2015 and ruled as coalition partners for two years. The Freedom Party of Austria took 26 per cent of the vote in 2017 and also ruled as junior coalition partners for two years. The Netherlands’ Party for Freedom became the country’s third largest in the 2010 elections and supported the coalition government of Mark Rutte for two years. In 2017 it became the second-largest party. Fidesz has ruled in Hungary since 2010 and the Law and Justice Party in Poland since 2015, partly thanks to a shared playbook of suppression of free speech and judicial subversion. They have successfully supported each other in resisting countermeasures from Brussels. In Britain, UKIP exerted an extraordinary magnetism on sections of the Conservative Party, resulting in the 2016 referendum to leave the EU. And, in America, the Republican Party has over a quarter-century morphed into a socially conservative ideological machine intent on state capture.

But no one has suffered as much as Greece, which over the past decade has experienced the worst economic depression in the post-war developed world. It lost a quarter of its economy and a million jobs. Since 2015 it has been subject to the biggest refugee flows in Europe – in absolute numbers for those in transit, and in per capita terms (along with Cyprus) for asylum applicants. Although it has 2 per cent of the EU population, Greece is processing almost 14 per cent of EU asylum applications.

Yet these drivers of far-right populism did not succeed in Greece as they did elsewhere. Golden Dawn was never part of a coalition government and its call to leave the eurozone went unheeded in the depths of the crisis. Last year it failed to clear the three per cent threshold necessary to enter parliament. Unlike other populist right-wing parties in Europe and the US, it seems to have run its arc as an estimable political force. Why?

Simply not cricket

Roderick Beaton, professor emeritus of Modern Greek and Byzantine history, language and literature, believes the candidates themselves were simply too unsophisticated and thuggish to appeal to the general public. “They were such plainly horrible people and nobody could favour that,” he says. He believes Golden Dawn trod upon a cardinal rule of Greek politics, that “it’s a performative substitute to violence.”

“The Greek street brawl, the kavgas, archetypally is when two people stand up and face each other, each with a crowd behind them, and they say, ‘Hold me back! Hold me back!’” says Beaton. “There’s a kind of public performance of extreme heroism and determination, but actually you’re looking to the crowd standing behind you and you’re relying on them to make sure a fight doesn’t really take place. Politics is that little street brawl writ large.”

Thanos Veremis, emeritus professor of history at Athens University, agrees: “What Greek parent wants their child to become a Golden Dawn supporter? Greek fathers want their sons to be doctors, lawyers, engineers,” he says. “The secret [to Golden Dawn’s downfall] is the family and the values it produces – chiefly to rise in society, possibly to make money, but certainly not to go down. Every Greek father says, ‘you must become better than me’.”

Elections, and lots of them

Beaton also believes democratic institutions simply withstood the mauling of populism. Ever since 1974, when democracy was restored following a seven-year dictatorship, two parties, the centre-right New Democracy and the centre-left Pasok, have rotated in power, typically claiming almost 80 per cent of the popular vote between them.

The Greek constitution doesn’t allow the banning of political parties or ideologies

These majorities began to decay in 2010, when the ruling socialists implemented austerity policies dictated by the Eurogroup, the euro area’s coven of finance ministers, which wields enormous unofficial power. MPs who felt they couldn’t use their vote to legitimise a dictat from Europe began to found new parties on the left and right. This diaspora took a quantum leap on 12 February 2012, when parliament passed 3.3 billion euros’ worth of budget cuts; sparking the most violent protests Greece would see throughout the recession. Forty-three socialist and conservative MPs who refused to toe the party line were expelled. Most never returned.

It was in this climate that Golden Dawn was elected to parliament with seven per cent of the popular vote in May 2012. Greece was then halfway through an eight-year recession and unemployment stood at 24 per cent.

Under normal conditions, parliamentary elections take place every four years in Greece. During this upheaval, governments averaged 17 months in office. The mainstream forces that supported fiscal austerity, Pasok and New Democracy, fell to a mere 32 per cent of the vote. Beaton believes this venting was healthy, in retrospect. “There were so many elections that the fact that every electable solution was tried gave democratic institutions strength,” he says.

Timely action

Nikos Alivizatos, one of Greece’s foremost constitutional experts, was perhaps the legal architect of Golden Dawn’s downfall. It was he who suggested prosecuting the party for its organised crimes, its racism (a crime under the European Charter for Human Rights) and its penchant for usurping law enforcement, rather than for its Nazi political beliefs.

This strategy was partly dictated by the fact that the Greek constitution doesn’t allow the banning of political parties or ideologies, but Greece did have the tools for a criminal prosecution of thugs. It had passed a law against organised crime in 2001 designed to prosecute 17 November, the left-wing terrorist group that claimed some two dozen lives over a quarter-century and was rounded up the following year after a botched bombing. The law’s penalties were beefed up ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics, to discourage other aspiring terrorists at home and abroad.

Alivizatos’ approach was the one New Democracy chose. On the night of 17 September 2013, a Golden Dawn party member, acting on orders from the party, murdered left-wing rapper Pavlos Fyssas. The following day, the government took 32 felony indictments against Golden Dawn, including Fyssas’ murder, to the prosecutor.

“[The indictments didn’t happen overnight,” says Alivizatos. “[Public Order minister Nikos] Dendias spent the winter working on them.”

That, he says, was why it took more than a year after the May 2012 election to prosecute Golden Dawn. “The other reason was that the police had to be purged of the many, many Golden Dawn supporters it had.”

After the murder of left-wing rapper Pavlos Fyssas, Greeks’ perception of the party began to change

Ten days after Fyssas’ murder, the party’s 18 MPs were handcuffed, jailed and charged. Their many crimes included the murder of a Pakistani migrant, the attempted murder of a group of Egyptian fishermen, the violent beating of left-wing unionists, the intimidation of immigrant street sellers and the illegal use of weapons. Golden Dawn’s suited parliamentary representatives plausibly denied their rank and file’s banditry. After the Fyssas murder, Greeks’ perception of the party began to change. Here was credible evidence that this was not simply a party of patriots who accompanied little old ladies to the bank to pick up their pension.

Alivizatos believes that Greek democracy would have ceased to function without the government’s timely action. “There is a [far right] force in Greek politics. It has historic roots and I think there will always be a nucleus,” he says. “But there was never something like Golden Dawn before. The attack battalions, the summer youth camps, the rallies with lit torches at Thermopylae, the terrorism in neighbourhoods – these were things no one has done before. Democracy can tolerate an extreme party, but not one whose existence is inextricably bound with violence.”

Aversion to extremes

In the past eight decades, Greeks have seen more political extremism and authoritarianism than the average western European. In October 1944, the country lay in ruins. The retreating Nazis had destroyed roads, bridges and railways. Three quarters of its vaunted merchant fleet had been lost to U-Boats in the Atlantic. Agricultural production had halved. GDP had fallen to a third of its pre-war level. Bank deposits had fallen by 99 per cent. Half a million people were dead – most from starvation and punitive executions.

Yet there was to be no respite. The communist party abstained from a general election in March 1946 and launched a civil war to win power. It took British and American resources to defeat them, and three more years of war. Greece went through its own period of McCarthyism in the 1950s and 60s; torturing communists and sending them into exile on inhospitable islands.

When the colonels’ regime collapsed in 1974, Greece had had enough of authoritarianism and extremism

Such was the fear of a communist comeback that a group of colonels suspended parliamentary democracy in 1967, a month before a general election that would have favoured the moderate, centre-left Centre Union. Their rule deepened the persecution of the left, introduced borrow-and-spend populist economics and triggered the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. When the colonels’ regime collapsed in 1974, Greece had had enough of authoritarianism and extremism. It reinstated the outlawed communist party and rewrote its constitution to guarantee individual freedoms and the sanctity of ideology. The triumph of its parliamentary democracy ever since is that it harnessed the communist party as a legitimate political force, allowed socialism and conservatism to alternate in power, and survived Greece’s biggest peacetime economic crisis.

Greece did not lurch to the left either. When Syriza came to power in 2015 promising to battle the forces of capitalism in Europe, public opinion forced it to perform a U-turn and accept austerity in order to keep Greece in the Eurozone.

Alivizatos believes that Greek aversion to extremes goes back to the liberal baptism of the Greek War of Independence. Greece had universal male suffrage from its inception in 1832, almost a century before Britain. Only a decade later, Greeks marched on their Bavarian king Otto and demanded a parliamentary constitution.

“Greece started out as an experiment in modernism,” says Alivizatos. “It’s the only country in southern and eastern Europe that has had universal [male] suffrage and parliamentary democracy since the 19th century.”

Mainstream parties quickly duopolised the political playing field, he says, polarising attention and leaving little for third parties. “There’s a life and death battle between them even when they agree on most things, as though they were worlds apart, and so very few people go to extremes.”

When Greece was prosperous in the 1980s and 90s, this love of artificial faction seemed preposterous; but it evidently showed its value when true divisions arose.

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