What causes a party to go from just 0.29 percent of the vote in the October 2009 elections to being able to comfortably enter Parliament in May 2012, with almost 7 percent?
What resilience does that party have to hold on to its votes and consolidate its position in the repeat elections one month later even though its spokesman slaps a female MP and showers another with a glass of water on live morning TV?
How does the same party manage to double its poll ratings within the first twelve months of arriving on Greece’s political centre stage despite engaging in openly abusive and violent behaviour?
Golden Dawn is a mysterious phenomenon. It did not even show up in opinion polls until December 2011. By February 2012 it appeared to be reaching the 3 percent threshold for entering Parliament, according to a Public Issue poll. The next survey found Golden Dawn on 5 percent even though Independent Greeks, a nationalist party fishing for votes in the right wing pool, arrived on the scene at this time and garnered 8.5 percent support.
It is impossible to divorce Golden Dawn’s rise over the last three years from Greece’s deepening economic crisis. Parallels with the trajectory of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party, from the failed beer hall putsch in 1923 to 2.6 percent of the vote in 1928 and becoming Germany’s second largest party in 1930 are obvious. Hitler also exploited his country’s economic crisis.
According to a Public issue analysis of the June 2012 vote almost one in three (29 percent) Golden Dawn supporters said they backed the party to show their protest and indignation or to punish the political system. Analysts also found that 25 percent of supporters did not have university degrees and 26 percent said they were unemployed. Golden Dawn appealed to those in working class neighbourhoods and others suffering most from the crisis.
The extremist party built its success on fertile ground. Greeks’ disposable income, for instance, collapsed during the crisis. In the first quarter of 2013, it was 23 percent below the same period in 2010. According to the latest data released by the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) for the second quarter of 2013, the wage index is 19 percent below its 2010 levels. At the same time the minimum wage, which is now set by the government, was reduced by 23 percent to 586 Euros in February 2012.
Meanwhile, unemployment in the age groups that Golden Dawn enjoys its strongest support is at staggering levels: close to 60 percent for under 25s, over 44 percent for Greeks from 25 to 29 and 25.5 percent for those between 30 and 44. The overall unemployment in Attica is above 28 percent but even higher in some areas where Golden Dawn had been scoring well.
The deterioration of the labour market, where seven out of ten have been unemployed for more than one year, is reflected in the fact that more than 400,000 households do not have a single bread winner. According to the latest living conditions released by ELSTAT, 277,000 Greeks below the age of 17 live in a jobless household. The figure for the 18-60 age group is a devastating 1.2 million.
The most recent figures available from ELSTAT to measure people living in material deprivation showed the proportion of Greeks in this state went up from 22 percent in 2008 to 28 percent in 2011.
According to the most recent Eurostat figures available, 31 percent of Greeks were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2011. This was the fifth highest figure in the European Union and roughly double the rate in euro zone partner The Netherlands. It was also substantially up on the 2010 figure of 27.7 percent.
While there are other reasons, especially in the political sphere, for Golden Dawn’s remarkable rise, the deterioration of Greece’s socioeconomic foundations cannot be ignored. The plummeting quality of life for thousands of Greeks provided ample fodder for the neo-fascist party to spread its populist and hate-filled message.