Theodore Couloumbis experienced the Nazi occupation of Greece as a boy and 70 years later he’s worried he’ll witness the return of stiff-armed salutes and fascist flags.
The Golden Dawn party may enter the parliament in Athens for the first time after May 6 elections, current polls show, as rising anti-immigrant sentiment among austerity-hit Greeks spurs support for groups formerly on the political fringes. Ninety percent of people surveyed for a To Vima newspaper poll published on April 9 said immigrants are responsible for an increase in violence and crime.
“The last thing I would want to see in the Greek parliament is a bunch of people who give the Hitler salute,” said Couloumbis, 76, a professor of international relations at the University of Athens. “I’m old enough to remember the absolute ugliness of that particular occupation.”
The group is known for its violent clashes in immigrant neighborhoods and for a red and black party logo resembling a disentangled swastika. Members of the group have said it’s not Nazi or fascist and they reject any connection of its logo to a swastika, saying it’s an ancient Greek symbol. A video of Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos shows him giving the fascist salute.
Golden Dawn’s charter says its “main ideal and belief is the nation-tribe” and that “only men and women of Greek descent and consciousness should have full political rights.” Michaloliakos declined to comment for this story when called on his mobile phone.
The party wants land mines placed on the Greek-Turkish border to stop illegal immigrants entering the country and cancellation of Greek loan accords with the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
It also calls for wiping out debt accumulated since 1974 that’s deemed “illegal and burdensome.” Greek banks that get state funds should be nationalized, as should all natural resources, the party’s program says.
Golden Dawn is bolstering support by organizing security patrols in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods and by running food banks for Greeks suffering from five years of recession and unemployment of almost 22 percent.
“I’m voting for Golden Dawn because I want all the immigrants to leave,” Maria Papageorgiou, 52, said in an interview in the Athens neighborhood where she has lived all her life. “There’s a high crime rate, it’s a miserable situation. They should leave and go back to their countries. Or maybe the Germans can take them.”
At stake in the election is whether the next Greek government can implement the austerity measures on which bailout funds and euro membership depend.
The Athens Stock Exchange has lost 61 percent of its value over the last two years. An index of Greek banks dropped 73 percent in the last 12 months. Greek government bonds maturing in February 2023 are yielding 20.55 percent compared with 18.28 percent on March 14, the day after the country’s credit rating was lifted out of the default category by Fitch Ratings following the agreement of a debt swap.
Polls show Golden Dawn winning as much as 5 percent of the vote, enough to enter parliament for the first time. The party, which was founded two decades ago, won its first seat on the Athens city council in 2010.
Golden Dawn’s rise comes as far-right or nationalist parties are surging in a number of European countries including Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands and France, where anti-immigrant National Front leader Marine Le Pen won 17.9 percent in the first round of presidential elections on April 22.
“Populist parties on the left and the right rely on fear,” Jan Techau, director of the Brussels-based European Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a phone interview. “They always gain when the economy is bad. But to just hope an improving economy will make them go away is lazy thinking.”
In Greece, Pasok and New Democracy, the two parties supporting the interim government of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos in implementing austerity measures in exchange for a second 130 billion euro ($172 billion) loan package, are trying to show their credentials in combating illegal immigration to stem the loss of votes to anti-foreigner parties.
New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras, whose party leads in opinion polls yet is short of a majority, also has to contend with a loss of votes to parties opposed to austerity measures.
Greece, with a population of 11 million, has an estimated 1 million immigrants, many of whom are illegal, the Greek government says. Police last year arrested 99,368 foreigners for being in or entering the country illegally, more than half of whom were from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Most want to travel to other EU countries where economic prospects are better yet many of them end up in central Athens living in squalid apartments and are exploited by criminal gangs, according to a statement on the Ministry of Citizen Protection’s website.
Anti-immigrant groups “are taking advantage of the disaffection of the average Greek voter against uncontrolled immigration,” said Couloumbis, who is vice-president of the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy and writes a regular column in the Athens-based Kathimerini newspaper.
In addition to Golden Dawn, the Independent Greeks party has polled near 10 percent. It was set up on Feb. 24 by Panos Kammenos after he was expelled from New Democracy for casting a vote against the interim Papademos government.
Laos, a nationalist party that wants immigrants to be shipped to uninhabited Greek islands before being deported, is also vying for anti-foreigner voters. Polls show as many as 10 political parties could enter Greece’s parliament.
Golden Dawn caused controversy on the campaign trail when a group of its supporters threw bottles and other objects at a Pasok socialist candidate during a campaign event in the Athens suburb of Maroussi on April 21, Athens News Agency reported.
“Parliament cannot become a reception space for the followers of Nazism and fascism,” Pasok leader Evangelos Venizelos said in response to the incident.
During late March and early April, hundreds of police with dogs began rounding up illegal immigrants in downtown Athens ahead of the creation of detention centers being set up throughout Greece, mostly at disused army bases.
Couloumbis, who experienced Adolf Hitler’s troops as a boy, said Golden Dawn’s winning seats “would be quite damaging.”
“I’m old enough to have lived during the occupation of Greece by the Germans,” he said in an interview. “The last thing we need on top of everything else is to have a bunch of fascists in the Greek parliament.”