ATHENS – In his umpteen trips to the ballot box, Michalis Diamantis has voted for just about every political party in Greece. But on Sunday, the tall and tired man of seventy-eight will swing his farthest ever to the right, helping squads of supremacists – by some accounts, the most extreme in Europe -- inch into this nation’s parliament.
An affront to democracy, no less in the birthplace of democracy?
“Hardly,” the retired retailer reasoned under a citrus tree in central Athens this week. “It’s reality and it should set off alarm bells for those who have let this country drift into lawlessness and crime, becoming Europe’s waste dump for illegal refugees.”
From France to the Netherlands, far-right, anti-immigration sentiment is on a rise. And while mainstream politicians are scrambling, trying to poach or pander to such reactionary views, voters across the Continent are turning a deaf ear.
Greeks, like the distraught Diamantis, are no different. The austerity crusade here has fueled extraordinary support for the far-right Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn) and its high-octane war on immigration has stolen much of the campaign thunder ahead of Sunday’s crucial national elections.
Opinion polls published last month showed the grouping which all but about 25,000 Greeks shunned two years ago for its intolerant positions and Nazi salutes now swelling with a following of about 770,000 voters, or 7 percent of Greece’s 11 million voters.
“It’s scary. It’s despicable,” Antonis Samaras, the conservative leader tipped to win Sunday’s poll, told me in an early morning telephone call. “Can any Greek really bear the sight of a mangled swastika or Nazi salute in parliament?”
The answer will come on Election Day.
Still, the cautionary tale of Chryssi Avgi isn’t just about how extremism has tapped into the anger and pain of an extreme economic recession ripping through this sun-kissed nation. It’s a narrative of years of state malfeasance and how insurgents with sharp nationalistic rhetoric are now striking back, trying to dismantle this country’s cosseted and compromised political establishment.
The writing has literally been on the walls of Aghios Panteleimonas and Attica Square for almost a decade now. From the graffiti reading “All foreigners out” to the numerous Greek flags foisted on balconies and excerpts of Ezra Pound poems scarred on steel benches, these tony, tree-lined neighborhoods of the 20th century have turned into modern-day Greek banlieux.
With crime, poverty and incivility climbing here as fast as living standards and hopes are fading, it’s no surprise that Aghios Panteleimonas and Attica Square have become the strongholds and political base for Chryssi Avgi.
Still, as I ambled the squalid streets of the districts, spoke with residents and watched squads of black-clad roughnecks scramble in and out of their party headquarters, I got a whiff of something more: Chryssi Avgi was now operating in Athens like Hezbollah has been in South Lebanon – like a state within a state.
“Ideology,” explained Peggy, a diehard Communist and 50-year-old local florist, “has nothing to do with it. For all I care, they could be calling themselves the Micky Mouse Club or ascribing to voodoo tactics.”
“What matters,” she said, sipping down an orange Fanta, “is that they are there when the state is absent.”
So when elderly residents can’t make it to the post office or bank to collect their pensions, the Chryssavgites as they are commonly known, will make the trip for them, free of charge, like good Cub Scouts.
When girls want to head out for the night but fear crossing crime-infested quarters, volunteers, at times, offer to escort them.
When tenants turn unruly, Chryssavgites come to restore order. And when Greeks fall prey to foreign criminals or petty thieves, well- then, it’s all out war. Vigilantes mount revenge beatings – even killings – against illegal immigrants.
“I don’t like that side to them at all,” whispers Fotis, a 39-year-old café owner, as he leans into my ear. “I don’t like seeing them beat up little kids because Greece took them in to save them and spare their lives.
“ There’s not much, though, that we can do.”
Brandishing a warped swastika as its emblem, Chryssi Avghi makes no secret of its muse: Adolph Hilter and his policies. It too, for example, promises to set up forced labour camps to push thousands of undocumented migrants out of the capital’s congested center, and it also wants to seal the country’s frontiers with land mines to stop flows of illegal migration.
Still, with elections nearing, its rhetoric has softened and its tactics have been tamed, presenting an almost fuzzy side to its fascist profile.
In recent months and in the height of Greece’s debt crisis, party members fanned out across the country, distributing clothes and care packages to the needy. They continue to do so every Tuesday and Wednesday.
Will it pay off at the polls? A leading pollster told me he thinks not: “Its support is starting to fizzle, like other fringe, nationalist groups out there,” he told me Wednesday, requesting anonymity because of a ban on the publication of opinion surveys in the run up to Sunday’s elections.
“Whether reactionary voters will turn back to safer, political turf remains unclear. Suddenly, though, many of them are realizing that the tool they randomly fetched for in a bid to fix up some loose ends isn’t a hammer, or a screwdriver. It’s the butt of a gun.”
Anthee Carassava is a journalist based in Athens.