On a recent morning in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Papagou here, members of the Greek ultranationalist group Golden Dawn stood at an outdoor vegetable market campaigning for the coming national elections.
“This is our party’s program, for a clean Greece, only for Greeks, a safe Greece,” Ilias Panagiotaros, the group’s spokesman and a candidate for office, said as he handed out leaflets.
He approached an older woman, who recounted how a relative had been robbed of about $800. “They threw her on the ground, they took the 600 euros she had withdrawn from the bank to pay for her husband’s nursing home,” the woman said. “She was even a Communist, and she told me, ‘I’m going to Golden Dawn to report this.’ ”
The exchange was a telling sign of how the hard-core group—better known for its violent tangles with immigrants in downtown Athens and for the Nazi salutes that some members perform at rallies—has been trying to broaden its appeal, capitalizing on fears that illegal immigration has grown out of control at a time when the economy is bleeding jobs.
Many polls indicate that in the national elections scheduled for May 6, Golden Dawn may surpass the 3 percent threshold needed to enter Parliament. The group has been campaigning on the streets, something that mainstream politicians have avoided for fear of angry reactions by voters who blame them for Greece’s economic collapse.
But even if Golden Dawn fails to enter Parliament, it has already had an impact on the broader political debate. In response to the fears over immigration and rising crime, Greece’s two leading parties—the Socialist Party and the center-right New Democracy Party—have also tapped into nationalist sentiment and are tacking hard right in a campaign in which immigration has become as central as the economy.
“Greek society at this point is a laboratory of extreme-right-wing evolution,” said Nicos Demertzis, a political scientist at the University of Athens. “We are going through an unprecedented financial crisis; we are a fragmented society without strong civil associations” and with “generalized corruption in all the administration levels.”
The Socialists, who were in power when Greece asked for a foreign bailout, have seen their popularity plummet, and they are desperate for a way to reconnect with voters. This month, Greece’s public order minister, Michalis Chrisochoidis, a Socialist in the interim government of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, said Greece would set up detention centers for illegal immigrants. And the Socialist health minister caused a stir when he said that Greece would require illegal immigrants to undergo checks for infectious diseases.
Golden Dawn is unabashedly nostalgic for both [Nazism and fascism]. Founded in the early 1980s by sympathizers of the military dictatorship that governed Greece from 1967 to 1974, Golden Dawn has always espoused a neo-Nazi ideology. Its symbol clearly resembles the swastika, and copies of “Mein Kampf” and books on the racial superiority of the Greeks are on prominent display in its Athens headquarters.
In a high-profile episode last May, a Greek man was stabbed to death in Athens as he walked to his car to take his pregnant wife to the hospital. In response, Golden Dawn and other extreme-right-wing groups went on an anti-immigrant rampage that lasted for several days.