In pivotal parliamentary elections in Greece yesterday, voters appeared to give a clear verdict on political developments since the nation's financial meltdown: "no" to austerity measures and the financial loan agreement.
The election results, which left Greece's main two pro-bailout parties without a clear majority, has seemingly fragmented the Greek political landscape by questioning Greece's membership in the European Union and giving seven parties delegates in parliament, two more than were previously represented.
Among the new comers was Golden Dawn, a far-right party that had previously failed to breach the three per cent of votes needed to gain parliamentary seats; in 2009 it garnered 0.29 per cent.
The party, frequently described as "neo-Nazi", whose members perform Hilter-esque salutes at rallies and whose flag resembles a swastika, received 6.9 per cent of the vote, winning 21 delegates.
With the slogan "Greece belongs to Greeks", the nationalist party ran on a virulent anti-immigation platform.
"The day of national revolution by the Greeks has begun against those who are selling us out and looting the sweat of the Greek people," party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos told Associated Press in an interview. "No one should fear me if they are a good Greek citizen. If they are traitors - I don't know."
With Greece's political future seemingly thurst into uncertainly, Al Jazeera's Sophie Sportiche spoke to Dr Stella Ladi, a political science lecturer at Panteion University in Athens, who has served as a Public Policy Expert for Greece's Ministry of Interior, about the rise of the party, why it gained so many votes, and how its rise will affect Greek political life.
Sophie Sportiche: Other than their stances on immigration, what does the party stand for?
Stella Ladi: They really just known for being ultra-nationalist: They want to create a country that is going to take care of the people, and cast themselves as a political group of "people for the people". They don't have any defined political programmes. It's more of an ideological discussion and stance about building a "Greece for the Greeks" - which was their campaign slogan.
SS: How long has the party been around? How well-known were they before the most recent elections?
SL: It's a fairly new "party". It used to be an organisation. It is only in the most recent municipal elections in Athens that they have gained any sort of public presence, when one of their members gained a position. They have only been represented once, and this is the first time that they have got into the parliament.
They were certainly a fringe organisation who then became a fringe party. I wouldn't say that they were well-known or that most people knew of the existence of their organisation [before the election]. For those who did, it was always seen as a very strange organisation - not something to be taken seriously. If they were discussed, they were made fun of or joked about.
SS: That perception seems to have changed. In 2009, they won less than half a per cent of the vote, but in these elections they won about seven per cent. What explains this difference, and how does it represent what is going on in Greece?
SL: The mood overall has definitely gotten worse since 2009, and life has gotten increasingly difficult for Greeks, as the economic crisis has gotten worse.
|"Many people did not even realise what exactly [GD] stood for. Voters knew it was a right-wing party, but they did not know how extreme it was."
I think this is what happens in countries that are in crisis. The people reject the political parties that are in place, which is what happened to the main political parties - in this case the parties that have traditionally held the majority and put the bailout in place. The vote comes from those feeling against the political establishment and that they pushed [the austerity measures and the terms of the bailout package] too far. Fringe and smaller parties win votes because they represent an alternative to the political system, in what is a rejection of main political parties; they win votes out of poverty, crime and difficulty.
And blaming immigrants plays into that. It comes from the impulse to say: "Somebody else has imposed these hardships on us, they are taking our jobs and driving up rents." It is the same kind of xenophobia that you see in other European countries right now.
It is also because of the increased problems experienced in cities. At a time of economic crisis, it is the cities that have the largest increase in unemployment. A lot of small enterprises cannot survive, fewer people can afford to live in the city centre, and on top of it, there is a significant increase in crime. Places like Athens are very difficult places to live right now, and they have the most exposure to immigrants. They are the easiest to blame.
SS: In the run up to the election, was there media focus on Golden Dawn? Did they seem to have a large presence?
SL: Surprisingly, no. They haven't been present almost at all in the media, either because they were not invited to events or, in some cases, they were not interested in appearing. And for the rallies they had in Athens, they were not well attended. They really had little presence in the pre-election campaign.
There were many voters who hadn't decided up until the election how to vote. They end up choosing right at the end to vote for one of the smaller parties, because they did not want to vote for the bigger parties. Many people did not even realise what exactly [GD] stood for. Voters knew it was a right-wing party, but they did not know how extreme it was.
That's why it doesn't seem like they will have a lasting impact. Once they start getting more media attention, people will realise what they are and stop voting for them.
SS: Was immigration and illegal immigration a key point of discussion in the pre-election debates?
SL: The main concerns were unemployment, austerity and the economy. Immigration was not a huge debate - it was brought up towards the end because the government opened detention centres for illegal immigrants.
It doesn't seem like [immigration] was the key reason people voted for the party. Rather, it was because their stance was nationalistic. Their focus was on Greece; they were thinking about "Greece for the Greeks" and Greece not just as a part of Europe. Voting for [GD] was not just a reaction to immigration or illegal immigration but a reaction to the political status quo.
SS: Many are saying that the vote demonstrated the unhappiness Greeks feel with the European Union. Is the prevalent mood against the EU and its policies?
SL: No, the sentiment is not anti-EU and people calling for Greece to leave the euro zone. We may be able to say that for those who voted for [GD], but not for the majority, which voted for the other parties. The parties that won the largest amount of votes, like the New Democracy, are pro-European and were the ones that negotiated the terms of the bailout. And the second party, the leftist party SYRZIA, are not against Europe but rather want to renegotiate the terms of the bailout package.
These are the people that most people voted for - people who support Europe. The sentiment is definitely not anti-European.
SS: Could Golden Dawn, after gaining 21 seats, play an important role in a coalition government? Could their policies influence the balance in Greece political life?
SL: No, I think it's certain they would not be able to join a coalition. Just [today], Antonis Samaras, the head of the conservative [New Democracy] party, convened a meeting with the other political leaders and he didn't invite the leader of the [GD]. He has said that he does not even want to negotiate with them, and the leaders of other political parties have said they do not want to form a government with them. It is very unlikely that they would be able to sit in a coalition.
When politicians comment on the elections, they say that the worst thing that has happened is the rise of [GD]. They are not even invited to the debates; the whole political establishment is shocked by this development and they are not going to make space for them.
And in reality, it is not sure, maybe even unlikely, that this parliament is going to last because it seems unsure that they will be able to form a coalition that gives it enough seats to have the majority. It is quite likely that we will see a second round of elections, and I don't think we will see the same results.
Follow Sophie Sportiche on Twitter: @slsport