The purpose of this brief note is to try placing the Golden Dawn in the universe of far right politics in Europe.
The Golden Dawn shocked many observers of Greek politics by receiving 7% in the last elections and it is now polling between 11-12%. The party has been around for at least two decades, with dismal results whenever it participated in Greek elections – in 2009, it received 0.29%.
Given that this is a new phenomenon in Greece, I need to stress that there is still a lot of work to be done to understand the meteoric rise of the Golden Dawn and, perhaps more importantly, its implications for Greek democracy.
In a number of ways the party is similar to other far right parties in Europe.
Like many of these parties it claims to be nationalist; it supports anti-immigrant policies; it has a strong leader with enormous formal and informal authority; and it largely draws support from largely young males, often unemployed or in the private sector.
Yes, despite these similarities, the Golden Dawn is also a very different political formation than most European far right parties.
First, it has explicit national socialist elements in its ideological platform. The party puts forth a biological conception of nationalism: “for nationalism, the People is not just an arithmetic total of individuals but the qualitative composition of humans with the same biological and cultural heritage” (Golden Dawn 2012). Party documents talk about “the law of diversity and difference in Nature. Respecting the intellectual, national, and racial inequality of humans we can build a just society based on equality before the law” (Golden Dawn 2012; emphasis added). In the Greek parliament, party a GD MP has referred to immigrants as “subhuman.” In an interview, another MP stated that a Greek basketball player, who is black, does not meet the standards of the Greek race.
Second, the GD is a violent party. Its leader served time in the 1970s for illegal possession of explosives. Its number two official was sentenced 21 years in prison in 2006 for nearly beating leftist students to death. In June 2012 one of its MPs assaulted two female politicians on TV and in September some MPs destroyed the stalls of foreign merchants claiming that they did not have permits to sell their goods. According to international organizations, like Human Rights Watch, GD members are involved in criminal activities against foreigners, often with the complicity of the Greek police. So, this is a violent, not just a radical party.
What is most striking with the GD is that such an openly violent party would have such a big electoral appeal. European voters to some extent have supported radical or extremist views, but wide support for violent political formations has been rare – in fact the GD might be unique in this regard.
The question then raised by the meteoric rise of the GD is why Greek voters choose such a violent political formation.
The context here is important: the six years of austerity and recession in Greece have led to the total collapse of the party system. This party system has long been in crisis but, for decades, it managed to stay intact through the preservation of clientelist politics and through the distribution of patronage.
The protracted recession has disrupted these clientelist networks parties had set up to distribute political patronage. The austerity policies have deprived parties of the resources they had available to distribute to gain political support.
In the absence of alternative forms of political participation – e.g. a strong civil society – there are view other venues for conventional political participation in the Greek political system.
This has given rise to anti-systemic forms of political participation and has helped legitimate the use or threat of use of political violence as a form of expressing this anti-systemness. Violence is a way to “beat up” the system that failed.