Yiannis Baboulias, Guardian, September 21, 2015
In the port town of Mytilene, the weight of the refugee crisis faced by Lesbos and other Greek islands becomes painfully obvious. Despite the fact that only about 5,000 people remain (out of the 20,000 who were stuck here in previous weeks), there’s hardly an inch of public space in which tired bodies escaping war and poverty aren’t present under the scorching sun. Taking advantage of the visibility and scale of the problem, Lesbos became one of the main targets for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, as it sought to strengthen its influence in the run up to yesterday’s elections. Unfortunately, it seems that it has worked.
As Syriza and Alexis Tsipras are celebrating a strong result that puts them seven percentage points ahead of conservative New Democracy and ensures they’ll be returning to the helm of the country, the polls also tell another story that will have repercussions beyond Greece’s borders. It is one of a neo-Nazi threat that not only refuses to go away, but also has managed to solidify a block of voters that still supports it, despite the numerous charges and convictions of party members and leaders, including several counts of assault and murder.
Golden Dawn has secured the third place with 7% of the vote, up from 6.3% in January. While its percentage is artificially inflated because of very high abstention rates, it seems that some 400,000 Greeks will always turn up to support it in the ballot. And if it is losing much of its influence in the working-class neighbourhoods of big cities (as preliminary data suggests), it is making it up with an influx of votes from areas afflicted by the refugee crisis.
On Lesbos, the third biggest island in Greece, Golden Dawn’s share of the vote shot up to 7.8%, from 4.7% in January. On Samos, the party received 7.7%, from 5.5% in January. Across the Dodecanese, its percentage went up to 8.1% from 5.5%, with the tiny island of Symi–that has little more than 2,000 permanent residents and which has received 5,500 refugees since March–giving it 10.7%, up four points from the 6.5% where it stood before.
A few days before the elections, Yiorgos Palis, a candidate then with Syriza in Lesbos and now MP for the island, told me that “the far-right showed its face here, but the people kept their cool”. While a massive turn to the far-right failed to materialise, it made significant gains.
The reasons for this are plain to see. The lack of a coherent strategy and astonishing deficit of leadership we are witnessing from EU politicians on how to deal with the refugee crisis across the continent is playing right in the hands of the far-right.
Similarly to Golden Dawn, parties such as the Front National in France, Ukip in the UK and Viktor Orbán’s party in Hungary, are using the crisis to stoke up fears of “invasion” and advertise threats to the very existence of a “Christian Europe” which they must defend, reaping temporary but significant electoral benefits. The poison they are promoting has viral qualities: even in the Czech Republic, a country hardly faced with an immigration problem, xenophobia and far-right rhetoric is now the mainstream.
Unfortunately, it’s not hard to see how this is achieved. Greek voters were faced with a terrifying image last week: Golden Dawn was using small children in its TV ads, to promote vile and xenophobic propaganda, with slogans like: “I don’t want to be a minority in my own country.” What’s even worse is that some in New Democracy still view Golden Dawn supporters as a legitimate pool of voters and they regularly pander to them, adopting much of the xenophobic bile. It should serve as a warning to those who endlessly stall and dither on coming up with a solution to a crisis with no end in sight.
So far, every form of crisis has been dealt in ways that make the European Union itself appear to be the problem. The Greek financial crisis prompted capital controls (effectively stopping the free movement of capital in the EU); the refugee crisis brought closed borders and the suspension of the Schengen treaty. This attitude is now giving rise to the enemy within, forces that aim to stoke fear and violence, and put an end to any form of transcontinental solidarity and cooperation.
All these actions are unfortunately seen as reassertions of sovereignty, in the face of indifferent elites, by their respective electorates. And as long as we keep trading democratic process for bureaucratic dithering, the threat will keep growing. For now, it has created a solid base for itself in Greece.
“We are not just a protest movement any more,” said the Golden Dawn’s deputy Ilias Kasidiaris after the results were in. This carries an element of truth. Given enough time and materials, it will most certainly be looking to build on it. And the feeling is in no way limited to the Greek shores.