When last I came to the shadow of the Acropolis in October 2012, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party was in full ascent. The menacing Greek nationalists known for their black uniforms and modified swastikas were opening a network of political offices and distribution centers across Greece. Unchecked by the police — or, as some say, aided by them — the party’s followers were openly marauding through immigrant neighborhoods in nightly reigns of terror.
I came back to find the streets of Athens still very much under threat from these highly stylized Hellenic storm troopers, who are part of a wave of far-right nationalists gaining strength across Europe. In September, a suspected Golden Dawn activist stabbed the anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas to death in his Athens neighborhood. Last month, several dozen Golden Dawn loyalists marched through that same neighborhood, tearing down a banner honoring the rapper and attacking a well-known haunt of Greek anarchists. And this weekend, the group announced a new party called National Dawn, which is designed to get around a potential ban on the party.
As a low-grade street war brews between the far left and the far right here, there is an ever-present risk that crisis-plagued Greece could descend deeper into political violence.
And yet, in recent months, authorities appear to have awakened to the threat posed by the Golden Dawn. Six of the party’s elected members of parliament — including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos — have been jailed pending trial on charges of forming and running a criminal organization. A trove of data collected from the cellphones and laptops of arrested members contained photos of Golden Dawn recruits at training camps posing with assault weapons and giving Nazilike salutes. A recent law passed by parliament effectively stripped Golden Dawn of the state funding doled out to political parties.
At the same time, support for the neo-Nazi party among Greeks has vacillated. After Fyssas’s murder, approval ratings for the party plummeted. But after apparent retribution killings of two of Golden Dawn members a few weeks later, public sympathy for the party appeared to rebound. Some recent polls show support in the low double-digit range, slightly off their highs but not by much.
The big test now, political watchers here say, will be two important elections in May — one for local offices and the other for the European parliament.
The elections will be “a litmus test for how the Golden Dawn is doing in Greece,” said Nick Malkoutzis, a political commentator and deputy editor of the Kathimerini newspaper’s English edition. “There is a fear within the Greek political mainstream that because people tend to vote more freely in local and European parliament elections, a sizable amount of Greeks may vote for them just to give the establishment a slap in the face.”