Who voted for Greece's extremist parties?

Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos speaks during a news conference in front of a banner with the twisting Maeander, an ancient Greek decorative motif that the party has adopted as its symbol, in Athens, Greece, May 6, 2012.
AP Photo

(The New Republic) ATHENS, Greece - The big winners of Greece's election this week were parties far removed from the political center. From the leftist SYRIZA, which came in second place with 17 percent of the vote, to the far-right Independent Greeks, who ended up with 11 percent, and the racist extremists of Golden Dawn, who gained 7 percent, the non-mainstream parties received an alarmingly large share of the total vote. What's less clear, however, is what the vote tallies mean. Were they simply a reflection of anger against the ruling parties that have presided over the country's current economic freefall? Or were they an endorsement of the extremist parties' specific platforms?

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Taking the election results at face value is a frightening prospect. After all, nearly all the far-left and far-right parties have argued for policies that would almost certainly force Greece to abandon the euro, a move that would, in turn, have drastic effects on Greece's economic life, as well as its relations with the rest of Europe. (In the case of Golden Dawn's rabidly xenophobic platform, the consequences would be considerably more harrowing than that.) But there's also reason to doubt that this is really what the Greek public wants: In poll after poll, the majority of Greeks have expressed their desire to remain members of the euro zone.

Over the course of the campaign, I talked with Greek supporters of these extremist parties to see if these political claims could be reconciled. What I found under the surface of the slogans was a more complicated -- but not much more reassuring -- reality.

Last Wednesday, I attended a Golden Dawn pre-election rally at the seaside promenade of Palaio Faliro in the southern suburbs of Athens. The area was dotted with joggers, cyclists, and more languid souls, sauntering about enjoying the view of the Saronic islands in the purplish blue of early dusk. Golden Dawn's pro-Nazi sympathizers were doing all they could do disrupt the peaceful atmosphere. Military-style songs blared in the background, skinheaded "ushers" directed supporters where to stand and the party's spokesman taunted a small gathering of local leftist protesters as "dirtbags."

"I will vote for Golden Dawn to resist those who want to destroy our country, through economic pressure and biological extinction," one man told me, referring to the continued austerity regime and the mass influx of illegal immigrants into Greece in the past few years. He was an electrician, in his forties, and looked nothing like a wild-eyed nationalist. Asked whether he worried that Golden Dawn, which proposes to eject all immigrants from the country and to place landmines on the Greek border with Turkey to prevent new ones from coming in, is too extreme, he was adamant: "The stance of the movement" -- this is how he referred to the party -- "is normal."

Another man, a retired police officer, who identified himself as a former supporter of New Democracy (the mainstream conservatives), said he would vote for Golden Dawn "because they speak of Greece, of cleansing the political system and of kicking out all the dirty foreigners." He stopped supporting New Democracy, he said, because "I got tired of 30 years of lies and stealing at the expense of the people." Did he not fear the prospect of Greece exiting the euro and the European Union if anti-European parties made a strong showing in the election? "No. It is New Democracy and PASOK [the socialists, who governed for most of the past 30 years] that purposefully present the danger of an exit from the EU to prevent people from voting for Golden Dawn. It is they that stand to lose if we get out of Europe."

Two days later, on the Friday before the election, I found myself at the foot of the Acropolis, where Panos Kammenos and his newly formed Independent Greeks held their last pre-election public meeting. Kammenos, a longtime member of parliament for New Democracy and a former Deputy Minister for Shipping, quit the party in protest at its support for Greece's second bailout loan agreement with the EU and IMF. Since the formation of the Independent Greeks party last February, he has railed against what he refers to as the second occupation of Greece by the Germans, against bankers -- who he refers to as "international loansharks" -- and their "local flunkeys," and against the leaders of New Democracy and the center-left PASOK. He has called for a unilateral erasure of a major part of Greece's debt and for economic recovery through exploration for oil and gas which, he seems convinced, will turn Greece into the Saudi Arabia of the eastern Mediterranean. For these and other priceless nuggets, he was awarded 10.6 percent of the vote on Sunday.

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Yannis Palaiologos is a journalist in Athens, Greece. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.