Published on Tuesday, 16 October 2012 15:45 Written by Gordon Fairclough
A family watching from a second-floor balcony scrambled for cover as demonstrators hurled bottles and stones at them. "We're going to spill your blood, you Albanian pigs," a man in the flag-waving throng screamed.
Hundreds of protesters marched through the narrow streets—some spraying nationalist graffiti on building facades, others shouting obscene taunts at immigrants. Mr. Panagiotaros, a heavyset man with a shaved head, led them in a resounding chant: "Foreigners out. Greece for the Greeks."
Golden Dawn, once on the fringes of Greek politics, has become a central player on the national stage, feeding on deep feelings of insecurity and widespread anger at the political establishment amid the country's worst economic crisis since the aftermath of World War II.
Europe's downturn has helped bolster far-right groups in countries such as Hungary, where the radical nationalist party Jobbik is a significant force. But Golden Dawn is among the most extreme—and one of the most successful at the ballot box.
In a recent interview with German newspaper Handelsblatt, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras compared the dire economic situation in Greece to that in Weimar Germany before Hitler's rise and pointed to Golden Dawn, which he described as "a right-wing extremist, one might say fascist, neo-Nazi party" as a threat to society.
The vociferously anti-immigrant party, which says it is nationalist, not neo-Nazi, won a place in the Greek Parliament for the first time in June elections, capturing about 7% of the vote and 18 seats, making it the fifth-largest party in the legislature. Since then, it has gained in popularity. Recent public-opinion polls indicate Golden Dawn would finish third in a national vote, and a survey this month by pollster Public Issue found 21% of Greeks say they have a favorable opinion of the party.
"They've been emboldened by their electoral success," said Thanos Maroukis, a researcher at the nonpartisan Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens. "Their level of activity has increased. They can mobilize resources on a whole different level now."
In September, three Golden Dawn lawmakers led supporters on sweeps through markets in two towns, demanding to see the papers of people who weren't ethnic Greeks. They smashed the stalls of those they deemed to be operating illegally.
Videos of the raids posted online showed men in black Golden Dawn T-shirts with Greek flags. When one Greek woman criticized the men, saying they were behaving like thugs during the days of the country's military dictators, she was dismissed by one as "a Marxist Jew."
The government strongly condemned the episodes. The MPs are under investigation for allegedly usurping authority and disturbing the peace. Nikos Dendias, minister of public order, said the government would uphold rule of law. "We are not just a democracy, but a just state," he said.
But for many Greeks, the authority of their near-bankrupt state appears perilously close to collapse. Judges are on strike. Crime is up sharply. Heroin addicts shoot up during the day on the streets in central Athens. Illegal immigrants from Africa and South Asia crowd the city center. General lawlessness is "driving residents to despair at the complete absence of the state," the mainstream daily Kathimerini, one of the country's largest newspapers, wrote in an editorial this month.
Golden Dawn is capitalizing on this perceived breakdown in social order and is increasingly stepping in where it sees the government falling short. The party is distributing free food to needy Greeks and providing medical services.
In some parts of Athens, it is seen as a more dependable source of protection than the police. Ever since his small, family-run butcher shop was robbed in late August, Panagiotis Papamichalopoulos said he has kept a list of Golden Dawn phone numbers in his cash register in case of emergency.
"The police don't do anything," said the 70-year-old Mr. Papamichalopoulos. His wife, Demetra, weighing a chicken for a customer, said: "We're very afraid at night. After 7, we can't leave our homes. They hurt people. They rob people."
Still, Mrs. Papamichalopoulos said she isn't happy to be relying on the party. "How low we have sunk that we need to depend on Golden Dawn," she said. "We never liked them before."
For years, Golden Dawn operated on the margins of the Greek political scene. Its leaders' views shifted from a focus on ancient Greek pagan gods and admiration of German Nazis to promoting Orthodox Christianity and Greek nationalism. The party's first electoral success came in 2010, when party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos won a seat on the Athens City Council. This year, amid a wave of voter discontent with the politicians who led the country into its severe debt crisis, Golden Dawn established its foothold in Parliament.
Party MPs have kept a high profile, staging confrontations in the legislature with mainstream politicians. In one incident, on live television, Ilias Kasidiaris, an MP who is also the party's spokesman, threw a glass of water at one female MP and hit another in the face.
They are also trying to position themselves as defenders of the Orthodox faith. Last week, Golden Dawn members, including some lawmakers, led a protest against the staging of "Corpus Christi," a play by American playwright Terrence McNally that portrays Jesus as gay.
"You f— are finished," Mr. Panagiotaros, the MP who also participated in Friday's march against illegal immigration, shouted at the actors. "Your time is coming."
But iIt is popular anger at immigration that has been the main driver of the party's gains. Greece, which has a long land border with Turkey, has been overwhelmed by a flood of migrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, African countries and elsewhere.
"Illegal immigration is a huge, major problem," said Mr. Panagiotaros. "They are stealing, robbing, raping, killing, taking jobs. They have demolished everything in our society."
Golden Dawn wants mass deportations and legal action against Greeks who employ or provide aid or housing to illegal immigrants. Mr. Panagiotaros said nongovernmental groups helping migrants should be banned and immigrants should be removed from Greekhospitals and schools.
Migrant groups say they suspect the party is behind a rise in attacks on minorities in Athens and elsewhere. The party denies participating in any violence, but its rhetoric is clearly hostile.
"It's a big problem. People aren't even safe traveling in groups," said Yonous Muhammadi, 39, a leader of the Community of Afghan Migrants and Refugees. "There is a gap because of the absence of government. The government doesn't implement Greek regulations and laws."
In recent weeks, there have been street clashes between Golden Dawn supporters and groups of anarchists and radical leftists who say they are trying to defend immigrant communities.
Left-leaning politicians often complain that the police tend to side with Golden Dawn. The police declined to comment.
Fotis Liaros, 39, who owns a cafe in a neighborhood where many African immigrants live, said he agrees with the party "up to a point," but said the group has "gone over the top. With illegals, we should arrest them and deport them, not beat them up. Anarchy isn't a good thing."
Credit: Wall Street Journal