Ahead of Greek election, fringe parties find support

To hear Zoe Saramtou tell it, the solution to Greece’s economic woes lies in the success of a far-right party that says it wants to put mines along its border to keep out illegal immigrants and whose supporters throw the Nazi salute.

The Golden Dawn party is poised to win seats for the first time in Parliament in elections Sunday, according to opinion polls, as a motley crew of far-left and far-right parties benefits from disappointment in Greece’s political system. The results promise a more chaotic response to the financial crisis and a rebellion against the international bailout that has brought on unpopular spending cuts.

Saramtou, 39, an ophthalmologist, said a sense that the two main parties had failed the country was driving her toward a party that has focused on illegal immigration and crime.

“They are very extreme,” she said at a Golden Dawn rally along the Aegean coastline of a well-trimmed Athens suburb this week. “But it’s inspiration. I don’t like all the foreigners in this country. They cause all this trouble,” including, she said, an incident where her elderly mother was robbed at home.

The two mainstream parties, which have traded power since the fall of Greece’s dictatorship nearly 40 years ago, pull in about 40 percent of support combined in recent polls, down from 77 percent in the last election, in 2009. Taking their place are parties on the left and right that oppose the bailout and Greece’s use of the shared euro currency.

The likeliest outcome of the election is an alliance between the two main pro-bailout parties, the Socialists and the business-friendly New Democrats, analysts say. But that is roughly akin to the Democrats and Republicans pulling a shared 40 percent of the vote and then expecting them to govern together in lock step to guide the country out of the Great Depression. Few Greeks have high expectations.

The tables turn

For Golden Dawn, the new support has been a bonanza after 21 / 2 decades in which it was almost completely shunned. In the last election, the party won 0.29 percent of the vote. Now polls put it between 5 and 7 percent, and mainstream politicians are competing to appear tough on immigration even as they condemn Golden Dawn as a neo-Nazi party and warn that bands of its supporters have been tied to attacks on immigrants.

The civil protection minister, Michalis Chrysohoidis, a Socialist, opened a detention camp for illegal immigrants in Athens this week that will eventually hold 1,000 people, and dozens more camps are planned. Antonis Samaras, the head of New Democracy, who probably will be the next prime minister, has promised to crack down on crime and said Thursday at a campaign rally that illegal immigrants were “tyrants of Greek society,” the Associated Press reported.

Voters in other European countries have also turned to the fringes in search of alternatives to the painful austerity-driven policies that have been the dominant response to Europe’s economic troubles. In France, Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front party, won 18 percent of the first-round presidential vote last month, and President Nicolas Sarkozy has tacked rightward in a bid to win her supporters ahead of the final round this weekend. In Amsterdam, right-wing leader Geert Wilders just precipitated the fall of the Dutch government.

“People start realizing things when their pockets are empty,” Ioannis Vouldis, one of Golden Dawn’s black-clad leaders and a parliamentary candidate, said in an interview in the party’s bustling headquarters in a rough-and-tumble area of central Athens. “All these people who are sickened by politicians have started coming to us.”

Golden Dawn and its supporters spend little time talking economics, although they say that they’re against the terms of the bailout, that the euro has hurt the country and that one group, in particular, holds sway over global economics.

“Most of the money is in the hands of Jews,” Vouldis said. Golden Dawn’s logo, an ancient Greek symbol, strongly resembles a swastika. The Nazi salute, members say, is simply an ancient Greek one later expropriated by others.

Yearning for an alternative

Many speak with fondness of the military dictatorship that ran the country from 1967 to 1974, saying it was more honest than current mainstream politicians.

The success of the alternative parties is a sign of a country starved of more mainstream choices, analysts say, as Greeks blame the New Democrats for getting them into the mess by concealing a massive deficit while they were in power and the Socialists for bungling the recovery. Both parties support the basic terms of the bailout, leaving voters who are opposed to vote for others.

Golden Dawn, in particular, has appealed to voters who feel vulnerable, by organizing neighborhood patrols in high-crime areas where residents say the police have not done their job.

“We don’t have a mainstream opposition anymore, so the way people express their disappointment is by going to the left and right extremes,” said Notis Mitarakis, one of New Democracy’s top finance officials and a member of Parliament. Mitarakis said his party could have remained a clearer alternative to the Socialists by pushing harder against the terms of the second, $171 billion bailout that was approved in February.

That bailout was structured so that those who were lending the money — the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank — could pull the plug if Greece failed to live up to the austerity commitments it made, which include sharply reducing the size of the public sector and stepping up tax collection.

But the two sides appear further apart than ever. Greek economic officials say the economy will keep crashing if they don’t get more public-sector investment to prop it up in the short term. European officials responsible for monitoring Greece say that few promised policy changes have actually been carried out, and suggestions about more money for the troubled country provoke only exasperation and anger.

The elections will only make things worse, analysts say, and fears could hit the market as soon as next week. If the bailout is pulled, Greece’s banks would go bankrupt, the government would run out of money to pay for basic services and European countries that loaned Greece emergency funds would also take a big hit.

“I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” said Theodore Pelagidis, an economist at the University of Piraeus. “We are at the phase of destruction, and not creative destruction.”

Special correspondent Elinda Labropoulou contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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