Make no mistake about it: Greece’s Golden Dawn is a nasty party. It has an emblem that resembles a swastika, leaders that have praised Hitler, and members that parade around in black shirts intimidating immigrants and minorities.
It also got seven percent of the national vote in the last Greek election in 2012. With more than 400,000 supporters, the party came in fifth place and earned 18 MPs in the 300-seat Greek parliament.
So on September 28, when the state arrested the party’s leaders and charged them with belonging to a criminal organisation, it took a historic gamble.
The decision to crack down on the party was based on a series of developments. The party was implicated in an early September attack that reportedly left nine people hospitalised. A self-proclaimed Golden Dawn supporter was arrested for stabbing to death anti-racist rapper Killah P on September 18. And when police raided party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos’ house, they reportedly found weapons, ammunition, and thousands of euros in cash.
These facts seem to more than justify the arrest of party leaders, including sitting MPs who had their parliamentary immunity lifted for the occasion. But states should tread lightly when clamping down on democratically elected political parties. Post-World War II Greek history has been punctuated by deviations from democratic norms, including a 25-year ban on the Communist party.
Outside of the Greek context, efforts by Germany and Belgium to repress established far-right parties help shed light on the current situation in Greece. In 1952, Germany banned the Nazi-revivalist Socialist Reich Party of Germany. The party had won a small number of seats in the new post-war West German Bundestag, and was scoring Golden Dawn-level successes in regional elections. The German government and courts agreed that it was a danger to democracy and dissolved it.
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The ban created division and disarray among the extreme right in Germany. For more than a decade after 1952, the far right was fragmented and ineffectual. It re-emerged in the mid-1960s, and has enjoyed some success in regional elections since then. But the early and decisive action by the state cut the legs out from the extreme right’s ability to establish itself as a key component of the German parliamentary system.
In Belgium, the state did not move as quickly to stanch the rise of racist parties. The far-right Flemish Bloc (VB) notched its first national parliamentary seat in 1981. The party’s breakthrough came a decade later, with increasing numbers of voters in the Flanders region tilting toward the VB, peaking at 23 percent in the 2004 European Parliamentary elections. Its popularity came in part from its virulently anti-immigrant stances, which involved portraying foreigners as criminals, welfare leeches, fanatics, and as usurpers of jobs from native Belgians.
It wasn’t until late 2004 that a Belgian court definitively declared that the Flemish Bloc incited hatred and xenophobia, effectively criminalising it and any organisation that supported it. Within a week of the decision, the party re-baptised itself the Flemish Interest (which had the same acronym, VB), with one leader taunting, “the Flemish Bloc is dead: long live the Flemish Bloc”.
Students of Belgian politics disagree about the ultimate effect of the state’s action against the party, with some finding the VB toned down its rhetoric, and others seeing more continuity than change. Ultimately, while it has lost some of its electoral momentum over the past decade, the VB is far from defeated. By not moving quickly, the state allowed the Flemish far right to take root, and has had difficulty containing it since.
Of course, the Greek context is different from the German and Belgian ones. Greece has buckled under the economic crisis, with residents suffering extreme economic hardship and social dislocations. The major political parties are viewed as corrupt and ineffectual. These problems typically drive voters towards radical political alternatives, and are core reasons Golden Dawn has flourished in recent elections.
Such challenges are unlikely to evaporate anytime soon. Moreover, surveys conducted before the current crisis show that Greeks tended to oppose diversity and favoured repatriating legal migrants in higher numbers than other European respondents. Given these circumstances, there is a real risk that Golden Dawn will implant itself in the Greek electoral landscape for the long term, with potentially devastating consequences.
If Golden Dawn were merely giving voice to conservative anti-immigrant sentiment, that would be tolerable. But even in comparison to other European far-right parties, Golden Dawn is especially prone to fomenting discrimination and violence. It is a real risk to stability, to human rights, and to democracy itself.
History suggests that to truly hobble Golden Dawn, Greek leaders must act quickly and firmly. While they are at it, they need to explain their actions to Greek citizens as thoroughly as possible, and then offer voters more compelling alternatives at the polls.
Erik Bleich is a professor of political science and the director of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College, and is the author of The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism, published by Oxford University Press.
Follow him on Twitter: @ErikBleich1