On a trip to the USA this week, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said his government was in the process of “completely eradicating” Golden Dawn. Events in Athens over the past few days suggest that this will not happen quickly, if it happens at all.
Despite Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos, the party’s number two Christos Pappas and MP Panagiotis Lagos being remanded in custody this week, there is still an extremely long way to go before authorities can prove that the Neo-Nazi party’s leadership formed a criminal organization – a felony under Greek law that carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
The possibility that Golden Dawn will be a thorn in the government’s side for some time to come was underlined by judicial officials deciding to release on bail three other Golden Dawn MPs, including party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris. The image of the three neofascist lawmakers walking away from court, hitting and abusing journalists and claiming that “only bullets” would stop them was highly damaging for Samaras and his administration.
Since the shock arrests of Golden Dawn’s leadership over the weekend, many commentators have expressed concern about whether authorities have a watertight case against the party. The sight of Michaloliakos and his MPs being acquitted or the impression that their court case is driven by political expediency would be highly damaging for the government and extremely beneficial for Golden Dawn. The conditional release of Kasidiaris and his two fellow deputies provided a foretaste of this nightmare scenario for the coalition. With the media spotlight on them, the MPs were able to send a message to party supporters that they are being persecuted by a corrupt government and complicit media.
Reportedly, Samaras was angered by the decision to release the three deputies, leading to questions about whether Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias and Justice Minister Haralambos Athanasiou had done their jobs properly. Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said the prime minister was “surprised” that Kasidiaris and Co were out on the streets again. Rumours of possible ministerial resignations were quickly doused. Despite the obvious concern generated in New Democracy and PASOK, members of both parties remained relatively tight-lipped during this week’s developments. PASOK leader and Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos reportedly asked his party colleagues to refrain from criticising the magistrate or prosecutor involved in the case.
Clearly, any overreaction from the government at this stage would only exacerbate some people’s suspicions about the political motives behind the prosecution of Golden Dawn. This could jeopardise the investigation and would certainly undermine any hopes of making political gains from the clampdown on the far right party.
Noticeably, leftist opposition SYRIZA also had a low key reaction to Kasidiaris being bailed. SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras limited himself to putting his faith in the Greek justice system, although he did keep up criticism of Dendias for not acting earlier and failing to root out the influence Golden Dawn has within the police force. SYRIZA’s decision to tread carefully underlines the Greek political system’s fear that the pursuit of Golden Dawn could blow up in its hands.
So far, the revelations about the party’s alleged activities have dented its popularity but not to the extent that it looks like it will disappear imminently as a political force. A poll by VPRC published on Thursday indicated that support for Golden Dawn had fallen from 14.5 percent in July to 8.5 percent. While it is a substantial decline, it should be noted that 8.5 percent is still almost two percentage points more than the party received during last summer’s elections and well above the 3 percent threshold for entering Parliament.
The poll has SYRIZA just ahead of New Democracy (29.5 percent vs 29) and Golden Dawn is still in third place. It also underlines the tendency for supporters abandoning Golden Dawn to back New Democracy instead. Of the voters who left the far right party, 13 percent drifted to New Democracy. The next most popular option was “undecided” and “other parties,” which both gathered 8.5 percent. Surprisingly, SYRIZA and the Communist Party followed with 4 percent each.
The survey, carried out for Rizopoulos Post between September 25 and October 3, points to one of the reasons that Golden Dawn’s popularity has not dropped more during recent weeks. When asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the claim that the extremist party is a “criminal organisation,” 68 percent of respondents agreed to a greater or lesser extent but 16 percent were not convinced.
As the judicial process progresses and more information becomes public, it is possible that fewer Greeks will be willing to believe that Golden Dawn is clean and is being victimised. If the probe is not handled carefully, though, there is a serious possibility that the opposite could happen.