On October 7 2020, the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was declared a criminal organisation. For years, Golden Dawn had made international headlines for blatant references to historic fascism through its paramilitary violence and open animosity towards liberal democracy. In times of crisis, this (formerly fringe) organisation of the Greek radical right developed into the third most popular political party with as much as 15% support in the polls after its election to the Greek national parliament in 2012. The murder of the anti-fascist Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013, however, changed the state’s response to the neo-Nazi threat accusing prominent activists of leading a criminal organisation. This saw said members facing one of Greece’s most prominent trials in the post-dictatorship period. The trial, with its 453 sessions and 216 witnesses over the course of five and a half years, was the biggest against a radical-right extremist organisation since Nuremberg, and ended with 12 former Golden Dawn MPs in jail. Furthermore, a total of 57 Golden Dawn members and associates were convicted in October 2020.
This 4-part CARR blog series grapples with different facets in the evolution of Golden Dawn, namely the roots of the party in occult neo-Nazism, the role of women in the organisation, the party’s ascendance to parliament as well as the future prospects for the Greek radical right after the ban of Golden Dawn.
Golden Dawn’s electoral trajectory and its long road to parliament
2012 was an inauspicious year in Greek politics. It would become the first time an open neo-Nazi party in parliament. Golden Dawn, a political party, whose members have openly expressed an admiration for Nazi Germany, deny the holocaust, identify as ‘nationalists’ and ‘racists’ and that actively use violence as form of action, managed to overcome Greece’s parliamentary electoral threshold and gain 7% of the popular vote. It might be the case that in 2012 Golden Dawn started its first parliamentary breakthrough, but the road to the party’s rising public interest has been a long one.
The Long Road to Breakthrough: Golden Dawn’s Electoral Journey, 1985-2009
Since its emergence in the 1980s, Golden Dawn’s position was against the notion of elections, as – in the eyes of its leadership and activists – it represented a ‘corrupted’ and ‘destroyed’ system, with politicians being portrayed as traitors and even encouraging its supporters regularly not to cast their votes. It was in Greece’s 1994 European elections though, that the party for the first time decided to participate in the electoral process, claiming that the European elections were “only the beginning for a dynamic presentation of nationalism in Greece”. With the slogan “No more lies, Golden Dawn now”, the party only managed to gather a dismal 0.11% of the votes.
Not discouraged by this initial lack of success, in the next national elections of 1996, the party participated again with the slogan: “Vote for us, so they get afraid of us”. The aim of the party, as stated by its leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, was to uncover the ‘fake nationalists’ hiding within the mainstream parties and stand against the political establishment. The outcome of this elections was also dismal – with the party accruing only 0.07% of the total votes cast.
By the late 1990s, Golden Dawn however became more enterprising and started an initiative to unite the far-right scene in Greece by formulating coalitions with closely ideological-affiliated individuals and organisations. Such attempts at unity did not however spell electoral success or breakthrough, getting only 0.75% of the votes in 1996. In the upcoming 2000 Greek national elections, then, the party decided not to participate and according to its leader, to focus in different form of action e.g., focusing on ‘street’ activities.
In the municipality elections of 2002, the members of Golden Dawn again participated in the ballots for the prefecture of Athens, along the radical-right party, LA.O.S. Such a breakthrough attempt proved unsuccessful again, with the party unable to elect any representatives. Unsuccessful was the party’s coalition with Patriotic Alliance for the European elections of 2004, gaining only 0.17% of the votes. It is in this election that the party of LA.O.S. becomes the first radical-right party after the re-establishment of Greek democracy in 1974, to elect a representative in the European parliament, and only three years later in the national elections of 2007, to enter the Greek parliament, by gaining 3.8% of the votes. In the national elections of 2007, Golden Dawn decided again not to participate, and only made an electoral appearance again in the European elections of 2009, gaining 0.46% of the votes but also in the national elections the same year, gaining 0.29% of the votes.
From Marginal Neo-Fascist Party to Successful Outsider Party: Golden Dawn’s Electoral Journey, 2010 – 2015
In 2010 Golden Dawn’s electoral fortunes changed dramatically. The leader Nikos Michaloliakos was elected in Athens’ municipal elections, gaining 5.29% of the votes, thus opening new opportunities for visibility of Golden Dawn. With Greece in the midst of an economic and political crisis, and with the party of LA.O.S. loosing political ground and support, Golden Dawn in the first national elections of 2012 gained 6.97% of the votes and elected 21 of its candidates to Greece’s national parliament. With an electoral wind in its sails, the party’s electoral success was repeated in the elections of June 2012, where it gained 6.92% of the votes, maintaining its parliamentary representation by 18 seats.
What factors coalesced to bring a neo-Nazi street movement to Greece’s parliament? Following the public opinion polls, the success of 2012 was something that came by surprise to many. However, since then, various explanations have been given, that explain this outcome. And the first one, would be that of Golden Dawn’s radical anti-immigration discourse, framing migration as a threat to the Greek national/race identity. This in combination with the strong active presence of Golden Dawn in locations with high populations of migrants, underlined the message of the party that Greeks needed to ‘reclaim their nation’ and protect themselves from the migrant threat. In addition, the party organised various ‘philanthropic’ initiatives to prove that their concern was for the wellbeing of Greek citizens, standing by their side and supporting them actively, unlike the rest of the political parties. The anti-establishment discourse, was also one of the key focuses of the party, presenting itself as an alternative to the corrupted political system. In addition, the fact that the LA.O.S. had decided to support the second EU ‘bailout’ memorandum and to form a coalition with the governing party, left a space in the radical-right scene for Golden Dawn to fill.
To conclude then, Golden Dawn, a party that was seen as an outcast for more than three decades, that never abandoned its Nazi identity and violent form of activism, managed to take advantage of the economic crisis and the disappointment towards the political establishment. It succeeded in moblising economic and social despair and subsequently rose to occupy a spotlight on the Greek political scene. Despite the further developments that led to the party’s fall, Golden Dawn has proven to be an interesting example of backlash response that posed dangerous potential for a democratic state – letting in a profoundly anti-democratic party at a time of economic crisis. Such a case poses lessons for other democratic actors when dealing with the far right in their midst.
Dr Vasiliki Tsagkroni is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer of Comparative Politics at the Institute of Political Science, Leiden University. See full profile here.
© Vasiliki Tsagkroni. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).