It seems like a political nightmare found its end in Sunday’s snap elections in Greece: the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn did not make it to the national parliament again. After seven years of a highly controversial presence – featuring antisemitic diatribes, ultra-racist hate speech, calls for coup d’états and physical attacks against MPs – the party is returning to its origins: the streets. Throughout the years, Golden Dawn has attracted lots of international attention for its violent mobilization against migrants and Roma. In the early years of the debt crisis, this resulted in pogrom-like situations and, in 2013, the murder of the antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas, plotted by party leaders and executed by a local activist. Since 2015, 69 party members are standing trial for leading and participating in a criminal organization. It has been a peculiar facet of the political turmoil in Greece that the party gained its best results (9.4% in the 2014 European elections), precisely when its leadership has been remanded in custody.
Due to the cut of public party funding and an increasing media boycott, Golden Dawn’s demise has been discussed as only a matter of time. Already in the European elections in May 2019, the party performed poorly and there has been no serious attempt to change course. Yet, Golden Dawn remains a unique case of persistent neo-Nazi politics in liberal European democracies. Unlike most far-right parties in Europe, it derives from the subcultural milieu and international neo-Nazism imported to Greece. In its four decades of existence, Golden Dawn maintained an internal, military hierarchy that follows the führer principle and demands eternal loyalty from its core members. In times of political success, it has opened up to the broader far-right milieu and in public renounced its neo-Nazi ideology. This caused increasing conflict between die-hard fascists and far-right careerists who joined the party ranks and paralyzed the functioning of the party.
Three Factors that contributed to Golden Dawn’s demise
Despite political setbacks, Golden Dawn has been, until recently, the third political force in the crisis-ridden country. It builds upon nationalist sentiments opposed to the (internationally imposed) austerity measures, and widespread racism in Greek society. While legal prosecution did not harm Golden Dawn’s poll ratings substantially until 2015, the overwhelming evidence of paramilitary and criminal structures paired with neo-Nazi fetishism questioned the image of a patriotic force. Facing a potential ban, voters and candidates gradually deserted the sinking ship. Yet, there have been three additional factors that accelerated its defeat in the recent elections.
First, the Macedonian question. With the culmination of the naming dispute of today’s Republic of Northern Macedonia, this has been Golden Dawn’s favorite topic on the political agenda. Back in 1993 – during the first phase of nationalist mass protests against the renaming of the neighboring Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia into Republic of Macedonia – Golden Dawn decided to constitute as a political party after it was so well received as the militant flank of the protests. Reminiscent of these early successes, Golden Dawn participated in the very center of the current, repeatedly violent protests, alongside with the future governmental right-wing party New Democracy (ND) and various nationalist grouplets. Yet, Golden Dawn has been unable to absorb the nationalist potential as hardliners of ND occupied the public discourse and positioned themselves as main opponent to the Prespa Agreement that has been ratified in January 2019 by the SYRIZA government.
Second is the vanishing space in the political spectrum. As nationalism has been univocally mainstreamed, Golden Dawn’s position was redundant. Looking back, Golden Dawn has not only been a consequence of the economic crisis, but also of the crisis of the Greek far right. After the former far-right Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) formed a coalition with ND and the left-wing PASOK that implemented the austerity measures of the international troika in 2011, it opened up the space for Golden Dawn to enter the political arena on an anti-austerity ticket that it shared on the far right with the Independent Greeks (ANEL). As both parties overplayed the indignation card, they did not formulate coherent alternatives and could not bind voters beyond their traditional milieux.. In addition, there has been some renewed pressure from another far-right actor: Greek Solution, a pro-Russian party run by far-right media personality, which entered for the first time in the Greek parliament and absorbed traditional nationalist voters. Likewise, it is important not to forget that the now governing party ND will hold key figures of the Greek far right in their ranks who heavily influence the operating of the party.
Third, the internal collapse. Prior to the European elections, there have been open conflicts that concern internal-party corruption and illegal money laundering practices that undermined the functioning of Golden Dawn. All MEPs withdrew from the party after not having been informed that the new frontrunner Ioannis Lagos, who is deeply enmeshed with the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, had been appointed to Brussels. It became clear to voters and candidates that the party is ruled by a hidden hierarchy favoring neo-Nazi die-hards over political expertise. The party’s führer principle reigned once again. Yet, after 40 years as party leader, it seems that Nikolaos Michaloliakos has lost control over the organization’s base. The internal quarrels had ramifications in terms of political performance. In contrast to prior election campaigns, Golden Dawn has been largely invisible. While years ago, Golden Dawn regularly staged public propaganda events such as food drives, blood banks and demonstrations, it has recently shied away from public events. For example, the central pre-election party took place outside Athens with very few supporters participating. The speeches have been short and the whole choreography improvised, while the electoral slogans have been far from confident and lack any innovative potential. It seems that the fervent Golden Dawners became tired of their own ritualized actions..
It took almost three hours for the party reaction to the election results to appear online. The shock was written all over the faces of the its candidates when party leader Michaloliakos proclaimed that “Golden Dawn is not over”. He announced that the organization will go back to where it became strong: the streets and the squares. However, the future of Golden Dawn seems far from bright. With the loss of parliamentary allowances of its MPs and a ban of the party in prospect, the party has neither the resources to uphold its nationwide offices nor the means to pay its operating costs. Already before the elections, party branches had to close due to lack of funding and public pressure on the landlords.
Since 2015, when judicial evidence of the organized violent and neo-Nazi nature of the party has been widely discussed, Golden Dawn has been unanimously ostracized for its neo-Nazi ideology. After years of turning a blind eye and platforming the party, it became politically costly and socially unacceptable to ignore or legitimize Golden Dawn. This is a consequence of the persistent antifascist pressure on the media and politicians.
With no fears of losing at the ballot box, one can expect that Golden Dawn will go back to its roots of militant street activism. It will focus on recruiting the potential of violent groupuscules that recently engaged in violence against migrants and anti-racist activists. In any case, the problem of fascist and neo-Nazi violence is far from over. It will merely move to a new phase and another venue.
Mr Maik Fielitz is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and a Research Associate at Institute for Peace Studies and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. See his profile here.
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