Athens, Greece - Greece’s parliament voted on Tuesday by a majority of 235 out of 300 to strip the far-right Golden Dawn party of further state funding. "It is absurd for Greek taxpayers to be supporting a party the justice system tells us is engaging in criminal acts," says Dimitris Papadimoulis, spokesman for the radical left Syriza party. Golden Dawn’s MPs left the debating chamber before the vote.
Syriza, which is in the opposition, came to a compromise resolution with the government, which is conservative-led but includes socialists, to sideline the far right. The resolution suspends state funding to parties "when there is sufficient evidence that under the mantle of a political party, serious crimes are being committed by its leadership," or by a tenth of its members of parliament.
The only party that currently fits that description is Golden Dawn. On September 28, its leader, Nikos Mihaloliakos and two other parliamentary deputies were arrested and placed in pre-trial detention on charges of heading a criminal organisation. Three more MPs were charged and released.
The law against terrorism and organised crime that Golden Dawn is being prosecuted under was passed in 2001, specifically to enable authorities to more effectively prosecute Greece’s most notorious "terrorist organisation", known as "17 November".
The law was controversial at the time, as it allowed a secretive three-judge panel, rather than a public prosecutor, to authorise police to eavesdrop and gather evidence. The law helped authorities put members of "17 November", a leftist organisation, behind bars ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics, but it has never been used against political figures before.
The charges against Golden Dawn members stem from the killing ten days earlier of Pavlos Fyssas, a left-wing musician, at the hands of a self-confessed Golden Dawn supporter. The government believes the murder was the latest in a series of crimes ordered by Golden Dawn’s leadership.
Public order minister Nikos Dendias further instructed the Supreme Court to pursue dozens of indictments over a two-year period as part of a larger case against Golden Dawn. Deputy prosecutor Haralambos Vourliotis issued an opinion describing the crimes, which include two murders, an attempted murder and two manslaughters, as "crossing the boundaries of isolated events".
Golden Dawn's political activity will continue normally. Nothing will change
The parliamentary ruling will deprive Golden Dawn of roughly $550,000 this year and four times as much next year, yet the party is bullish: "Golden Dawn's political activity will continue normally. Nothing will change," says Ilias Kasidiaris, an indicted MP and party spokesman. "We will have a problem in our social and solidarity work - we won't be able to do the soup kitchens for the poor and homeless."
Kasidiaris says the party can carry on because it hasn’t spent the $1.6m it has received so far this year, and because its 18 MPs tithe 20 percent of their salary to the party. An MP’s base salary after tax is $6,392 (4,676 euros) a month, and there are usually additions for attending committees. The party expected to continue receiving $276,000 annually from its MPS. There are also undisclosed donations, which the financial crimes squad is currently investigating following a raid on party offices last week. This is the money that used to be spent on the poor, party members said, but now it will be used for rent and utilities.
Golden Dawn says it being unfairly targeted, not just by the government but by all the parties in parliament. The party claims it is unfashionably patriotic at a time when monetary, fiscal and much economic policy is being dictated by Greece’s creditors in Brussels (European Commission), Washington (International Monetary Fund), Frankfurt (European Central Bank) and Berlin (Angela Merkel’s government).
"They’re looking for plausible grounds on which to accuse Golden Dawn," says MP Mihail Arvanitis. "Why? Why are the so-called constitutional parties turning against Golden Dawn? Are they at pains to protect Greece lest it be destroyed by Golden Dawn? No. It’s their own hides they’re worried about. They’re traitors, and true criminals."
Prosecution or persecution?
Is the prosecution of Golden Dawn a persecution, as the party claims? The Supreme Court says it has powerful evidence against Mihaloliakos, yet much of this could be circumstantial. Vourliotis’ indictment cites the party’s "military structure, its absolute hierarchy… the blind obedience to orders from superiors, the conspiratorial action". Golden Dawn doesn’t deny such a hierarchy, but it doesn’t amount to a crime.
More damning, perhaps, are dozens of phone calls made on the night of the killing between Mihaloliakos, the killer, and the local Golden Dawn organiser. Their content is not known but their timing is, and if leaked records are correct, they take place in the form of a continuous cascade around the time of the killing.
Finally, there is the as yet undisclosed deposition of a few Golden Dawn informants, which could include at least two police officers arrested for alleged collaboration with the party. Golden Dawn says that, like the killer himself, these informants are provocateurs planted by the authorities.
|Extreme-right Golden Dawn party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris is escorted by anti-terrorism police officers into court [Reuters]
"I have the feeling that [chain of command] can be proven," says Yiorgos Katrougalos, a public law professor at the University of Thessaloniki, "because in the past we had a constant presence of Golden Dawn in different neighbourhoods where they have acted against immigrants, against homosexuals, against leftists, against trade unionists – so the permanence exists in this kind of continuity in criminal action."
Nonetheless, the government has adopted a high-risk strategy. Golden Dawn is trying to turn the funding resolution into a broader discussion about party and campaign financing, a potentially inflammable topic in Greece’s present liquidity drought.
Greek parties are allowed to accept donations, but the lion's share of their money comes from the state. A 2002 law allows them to claim 0.137 percent of public income. This year that gave them $95m, divided according to parties’ share of the popular vote. Golden Dawn, whose share was just over $2m, believes that money is too much.
"We got quite a shock when we saw how much is spent on parties in parliament," says Ilias Kasidiaris, one of the six indicted Golden Dawn MPs. "A year ago we proposed a bill to scrap state financing, but we were told that is unconstitutional. Well now they're doing it anyway to put a lid on Golden Dawn's political activity."
Political funding row
Golden Dawn is small enough and isolated enough that its legislative proposals in parliament can easily be quashed; but it could conceivably win the battle of public opinion over the idea of radically lowering public funding for the political system. Such a move would do little damage to Golden Dawn now, but it would torpedo the finances of the ruling conservatives and socialists, who have borrowed heavily against future electoral victories. Together they owe banks more than $350m. For that sort of money, private donors could create several new parties.
Now that it has broached the topic, the government is also being reminded of its pre-election promise to instill transparency. "[Interior minister] Mr Mihelakis had committed to lowering party financing and toughening the requirements," said Democratic Left MP Maria Yiannakaki. "Authority to check political funding would be taken from parliament and handed to an independent authority. We would have expected today’s resolution to be couched in a broader context that included all that."
Parties are governed by the mildest of accountability regimes, being obliged to publish only a minimal balance sheet at the beginning of each year. Their accounts are submitted confidentially to parliament’s audit committee, composed mostly of parliamentarians, which does not make its minutes or its findings public.
Golden Dawn is trying to exploit this diffuse anger of the electorate against the party system to transform that into a kind of legitimacy problem of democracy itself
The committee is also weak. It may only check the internal consistency of what it is given. It lacks prosecutorial power to raid party offices or demand documents, as, for instance, the financial crimes squad may do with corporations. Unsurprisingly, the audit committee has never exposed any major misdemeanors. "We hope that the other parties undergo the same [audit] process," says Kasidiaris. "If that happens it's certain that some of their top people will go to jail."
Such blatant opacity has fuelled public indignation and helped weaken the authority of institutions in recent years. "Golden Dawn is trying to exploit this diffuse anger of the electorate against the party system to transform that into a kind of legitimacy problem of democracy itself," says Professor Katrougalos.
He worries that Prime Minister Antonis’ Samaras’ strategy of treating Golden Dawn and the main opposition party, Syriza, as two equally dangerous extremes will also weaken democracy. "He wants to present himself as the guarantor of stability against not only the sort of instability represented by Golden Dawn, but also the basic leftist party of the opposition, Syriza. So Samaras tries to make the equation that everyone that contests his policy is a risk to the stability of the regime." Katrougalos believes this amounts to "a very short-sighted interest to polarise the electorate".
Golden Dawn has always thrived on the notion that it is an unorthodox political force, not subject to the realpolitik that leads to compromises and the loss of ideological compass. If anything, both the legal and the political prosecutions against it reinforce that image to its supporters. Polls taken since the arraignments of its six MPs show that while it no longer enjoys double-digit approval ratings, it has dropped to a solid base of about seven-to-eight percent.
That is more than enough to ensure its continued presence in the Greek parliament, even if it has to contest the next election with one hand tied behind its back. Unless it demonstrates a willingness to rebuild its authority through greater accountability, the ruling coalition could find that its punishment of Golden Dawn will also become its own.