(Reuters) – Arm raised in a Nazi-style salute, the leader of Greece’s fastest-rising political party surveyed hundreds of young men in black T-shirts as they exploded into cheers. Their battle cry reverberated through the night: Blood! Honour! Golden Dawn!
“We may sometimes raise our hand this way, but these hands are clean, not dirty. They haven’t stolen,” shouted Nikolaos Mihaloliakos as he stood, floodlit, in front of about 2,000 diehard party followers filling an open-air amphitheatre at Goudi park, a former military camp near Athens.
“We were dozens, then a few hundred. Now we’re thousands and it’s only the beginning,” cried the leader of Golden Dawn, a far-right party that is seeing its support soar amid Greece’s economic collapse. Last month’s rally revealed the party, which describes itself as nationalist and pledges to expel all illegal foreigners, has a new-found sense of triumph, even a swagger, that some find menacing.
Riding a wave of public anger at corrupt politicians, austerity and illegal immigration, Golden Dawn has seen its popularity double in a few months. A survey by VPRC, an independent polling company, put the party’s support at 14 percent in October, compared with the seven percent it won in June’s election.
Political analysts see no immediate halt to its meteoric ascent. They warn that Golden Dawn, which denies being neo-Nazi despite openly adopting similar ideology and symbols, may lure as many as one in three Greek voters.
“As long as the political system doesn’t change and doesn’t put an end to corruption, this phenomenon will not be stemmed,” said Costas Panagopoulos, chief of ALCO, another independent polling company. “Golden Dawn can potentially tap up to 30 percent of voters.”
The party now lies third in the polls, behind conservative New Democracy and the main opposition, the radical leftist Syriza. Violent behavior by Golden Dawn members, who often stroll through run-down Athens neighborhoods harassing immigrants, seems to boost rather than hurt the party’s standing.
Short, squat and combative, Mihaloliakos once praised Hitler and denied the Nazi gas chambers existed. A former special forces commando in the Greek army, he met the leaders of the Greek military junta while in prison for carrying illegal weapons and explosives as a member of a far-right group in 1979.
When pressed on such issues, Golden Dawn says they are all in the past and it is looking to the future.
The gathering was a chance for the party to relish achievements and flex muscle. Well-built youths in black T-shirts emblazoned with the Swastika-like party logo stood in military formation at the entrance. Two men stood to attention on both sides of the podium, flagged with a big sign reading “Getting the stink off the country”, while speakers delivered patriotic oratories.
A short film showed highlights of the year, which included attacks on immigrant street vendors, clashes with police outside parliament and food distribution to the poor. When the film showed Golden Dawn lawmaker Ilias Kasidiaris slapping a female communist lawmaker, Liana Kanelli, across the face on live TV, youths bellowed profanities against the victim.
“Golden Dawn’s target is simple. We want the absolute majority in parliament so we can replace the constitution with our own,” Kasidiaris told the crowd. “It will then be easy to immediately arrest and deport all illegal immigrants.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other groups recorded 87 racist attacks in the first nine months of the year (comparable statistics for previous years are not available). Perpetrators often used clubs or crowbars and sometimes large dogs, say rights groups. In May an Albanian was attacked with a sword by a masked motorcycle rider; in August a young Iraqi was stabbed to death.
“This is not even the tip of the iceberg – there are even more attacks that are not recorded anywhere,” said Daphne Kapetanaki of the UNHCR.
Victims or witnesses sometimes identify Golden Dawn members as the attackers. Javied Aslam, head of the Pakistani Community in Greece organization, estimates that about 400 Pakistanis have been attacked in the past eight months by Golden Dawn supporters. “There is a huge climate of fear,” he said. “People don’t leave their houses and workers who leave for their jobs in the morning fear they may not come back home.”
Greek police deny accusations they are soft on, or even sometimes work with, Golden Dawn. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias has vehemently denied reports that police were beating up illegal immigrants and has threatened to sue British newspaper The Guardian over the issue. He is at such odds with Golden Dawn that the party ridiculed him during the youth festival at Goudi park.
But a member of the police officers’ union, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, admitted there was some sympathy for the party among the ranks. “There are some among the police who ideologically support Golden Dawn and a handful that have been violent against illegal immigrants,” the unionist said. “But these cases are being probed by justice.”
Ahead of a visit to Berlin in October, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy, told German media that Greece’s woes were similar to conditions that led to the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany and ushered in the Nazis. Extreme leftist populism and “an extreme right, you could almost say fascist, neo-Nazi party,” were clashing in the same way that battles between communists and fascists marked the 1919 to 1933 Weimar years, he said.
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