Golden Dawn and the Greek Elections: A Troubling Echo of Previous Electoral Results
By Timothy Meyers
On September 20, 2015, Greeks went to the polls for a general election following the resignation of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of the Syriza-led government. Tsipras had ordered early elections believing the outcome would enhance the mandate for his Syriza party against the chaotic economic backdrop. But the outcome of the election, which was the main media story, overshadowed one of the other troubling narratives of the Greek political situation: that an extremist force, Golden Dawn, is gaining strength because of societal unrest.
Syriza gained the largest plurality with 35.5 percent of the vote and 145 seats in parliament. Golden Dawn, the virulently antisemitic and unapologetically xenophobic far-right party, earned 7 percent of the vote and 18 seats in parliament. Compared with the elections of January 2015, when Tsipras first came to power, Golden Dawn gained one parliamentary seat with roughly the same percentage of votes. Golden Dawn’s overall vote share has remained around 7 percent in several national elections despite the entire party leadership and dozens of members being indicted for a string of murders and vicious, racist attacks on migrants.
This would at first appear to give a sigh of relief to those who have nervously watched Golden Dawn become the third largest party in the Greek parliament. Without any marked rise in their percentage of votes, can one assume that Golden Dawn has reached its apex? And that the population was turned off by its connections to violent crimes?
In a word: no. Europe’s refugee crisis—combined with Greece’s conflicted approach to the crisis—has given Golden Dawn an opening. The party improved its performance on at least two islands hard hit by the crisis.
The island of Kos was particularly notable for supporting the far-right party. Along with its sister islands, Kalynnos and Leros, Kos has received up to 52,000 refugees between January and August, straining the island’s resources. Compared with the previous election on Kos, Golden Dawn nearly doubled its percentage of votes, from 5.87 percent in January to 10.15 percent.
Golden Dawn party members visited Kos before Election Day and apparently succeeded in convincing many that they spoke for their interests. Arguing that they did not want to see Kos "collapse under the thousands of illegal immigrants” arriving on the island, Golden Dawn appealed to Greeks who fear that immigration will weaken a Greek culture and identity already perceived to have been co-opted by Germany and the European Union. Golden Dawn’s entreaty to Kos was more a fear-mongering campaign than election stumping, the party’s website even declaring "Either to vote Syriza and Kos becomes—as well as the rest of Greece–Pakistan, or to support Golden Dawn and Kos becomes Greece again."
On Lesbos, the situation was similar. Golden Dawn’s percentage of votes rose from 4.7 percent in January to 7.8 percent. Reports indicate a significantly low voter turnout may have helped Golden Dawn’s results. Only 43 percent of voters participated in casting ballots, 4,197 of whom chose to vote Golden Dawn. Likewise, on the nearby island of Samos, the party’s percentage rose from 5.5 to 7.7 percent.
The refugee crisis has helped spur greater support for the far right. Add to this the low economic prospects for many Greeks—16.6 percent of unemployed Greeks voted for Golden Dawn—and the challenge to mainstream parties becomes clear. It’s in the political interest of Syriza to manage the refugee crisis in a humane and efficient way. If the elections in Kos and Lesbos predict how other regions would react if faced with an influx of refugees, then Tsipras will have to do more for both those fleeing conflict and for economically-burdened Greek citizens. And Golden Dawn should be exposed for the intolerant menace to society that it represents.