Greek election: the fascist and the migrant

It surprised many people – both inside and outside Greece – that for the first time ever, a political party with fascist ideology not only received enough votes to enter Parliament (they got 7% of the vote – more than twice the Greens party) but that they were also the #1 party in a number of electoral districts, receiving more votes than any other single party.

The party in question is called Chrysi Avgi, Golden Dawn.  They are perceived more as a gang than as a political party, but in fact they have been on the ballot regularly for years, always receiving much less than 1% of the vote, and never getting close to the 3% required to enter Parliament.

Their basic ideology is one of ultra-nationalism, in which Greeks by blood are inherently superior to others and all immigrants, legal and illegal, must be forced out of the country.  Some of their writings celebrate Adolf Hitler, the SS, and specific Nazi philosophies.  They are famous in Greece for violent attacks against immigrants in Athens.

Politically, although they operate within a democratic context (the Parliamentary system), they are against democracy as a concept, in favor of dictatorship and fascism.  They consider the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas in Greece in the 1930s as the true government of Greece.  So while they are able to be democratically elected, they don’t recognize the democratic process.

Pre-election polling suggested that 4-5% of Greeks would vote for Golden Dawn.  Although many people didn’t believe it could happen – remember that Greece lost a higher percentage of its people to the Nazis in World War II than almost any other country, due to suffering one of the most, if not the most, brutal of all the German occupations – the poll result prompted a discussion, outside the general economic debates that characterized the campaign, about whether a fascist party like Golden Dawn could actually be elected into Parliament.

Although the mass media didn’t feature members of Golden Dawn on their endless informal television debates between candidates – and there is disagreement on whether this is because the mass media didn’t invite them, or Golden Dawn refused to appear – there was still some reporting on activities of Golden Dawn in the wider Athens community.

Golden Dawn members were shown distributing food and clothing to poor Athenians as part of the “softer side” of their party.  It also became generally known that members of Golden Dawn made themselves available to serve as security escorts for Greeks living in ghettoized neighborhoods, to take older and frailer Greeks to banks, shopping, etc., so that they could leave their houses without being mugged by illegal immigrants.

Whether it is possible to leave one’s house without being mugged by illegal immigrants in these neighborhoods is a different issue; the fact remains that the image of elderly Greeks trapped in their homes by the drug-addled immigrant menace outside their door circulated widely in Greece in the two months before the election.

How big of a problem is illegal immigration in Athens, and why?  After all, with 22% unemployment and 53% youth unemployment, why would anyone looking for a better future want to come here?  Well, the truth is that the vast majority of them don’t want to be in Greece at all.

Greece happens to be located on the very eastern edge of the European Union.  If Turkey were a member of the European Union, this would not be the case; however the fact of the matter is that Turkey is not, and Greece is the first EU country that a person would enter if coming from the east or middle east.

Not only is Greece the first country one comes to, but it also has a particularly bizarre geography:  several thousand islands, the vast majority uninhabited; a long river border with Turkey; and one of the longest coastlines in the world (8,500 miles).   This means that Greece receives by far the most illegal immigrants of any EU country, simply by virtue of its geography.

I’m no specialist, and although I myself am an immigrant to Greece, I don’t know all the details because I have always been legal.  But the general policy about illegal immigration in Greece is to discourage immigrants from crossing the border (there is a plan to build a tall 12.5 km wall between Greece and Turkey in a particularly ‘porous’ spot; border police patrol the border with Turkey), but once someone actually does cross the border, they are processed officially:  photographed, given a piece of paper giving them the right to stay in Greece for thirty days while their application for political asylum is reviewed, and, well, that’s pretty much the end of it.

The city of Alexandroupoli is the first major city you come to in Greece after crossing the border from Turkey.  We spend a lot of time there.  Every time we drive past the train station, there is a clump of several dozen illegal immigrants waiting for the train to Athens.  They have their 30-day asylum paper, and their goal is to get to Athens where they hope to find a place to live, a job, and so on.  When the 30 days is up, they simply don’t show up for a hearing.  Asylum is granted to fewer than 2% of applicants anyway, so they know their chances are better outside the system after the 30 days expires.  Estimates of the number of these undocumented immigrants in Greece vary, but tend to be around 1 to 1.3 million people, or about 10% of the population of Greece.

Of course, there is no work in Athens either.  So most people in this situation hope to go to one of the other EU countries where the outlook is better – Germany, for example.  However, if they are caught outside Greece, they are returned to Greece.  Their return to Greece is required by the terms of an EU treaty.  In this way, other EU countries are able to remove their illegal immigrants legally and cheaply by sending them to Greece or one of the other ‘gateway’ countries like Italy.  As a result of this treaty and geography, Greece currently has to deal – financially and legally – with over 90% of illegal immigrants in the entire European Union.

Greece doesn’t have enough money to deal with this situation.  Greece doesn’t have enough money to pay pensions and wages, so it’s hardly surprising.  It’s easy for Greeks (and others) to criticize the Greek government for the backlog of asylum applications, the poor conditions of the few jails for the ‘caught’ immigrants (some who overstayed the 30 day grace period are jailed, though the vast majority aren’t, because there simply isn’t money or space), and so on.  Having been through the immigration process myself, where it took approximately fourteen months from the date of application to the date of issuance of my residence permit – and that in the best of circumstances, where we did everything perfectly and on time and rigorously legal – I know that the system is slow, overburdened, and terribly underfunded.

As a result of the simple fact that Turkey is not in the EU, the “Dublin II” treaty that sends almost all illegal immigrants in the entire EU to Greece for ‘handling’, the economic crisis in Greece, and the severe unemployment, there is now a very large population of undocumented immigrants in Greece who don’t want to be here, can’t leave, can’t stay, and can’t work.  These immigrants have clustered into certain areas of Athens for a variety of reasons; and there are now entire neighborhoods and districts in Athens which have in effect been ghettoized – actual property values have gone down, businesses have closed, crime has increased, drug use and human trafficking have become problems, and the local Athenian populations have become marginalized – the extent of each of these problems open to interpretation, of course.

This is an issue that has existed in Greece for some years, but of course with the crisis and growing unemployment, it has, as one might reasonably expect, worsened in the past few years.  In the few months before the election last week, in a desperate effort to deflect attention from their own failure to stop the economy hurtling into the abyss during their time in power, the two big political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, settled on this issue as the New Big Deal that we all need to talk about non-stop, and hopefully in that way forget about the economy long enough to vote.

So, New Democracy, traditionally right of center, attacked PASOK for doing nothing about illegal immigration (rightly, I suppose, since PASOK hadn’t; neither had New Democracy of course).  PASOK reacted by swiftly developing the concept of “closed hospitality centers,” which their opponents called “concentration camps” or “a drop in the bucket,” depending on their political orientation.

PASOK claimed that they planned to open a closed hospitality center in every prefecture in Greece.  Each one would hold up to a thousand illegal immigrants found to have overstayed their 30 day grace period.  In a desperate rush to make this a reality before the election, they commandeered disused army camps around the country.  The local populations in the towns and villages nearby erupted into a furor over this:  whether because they didn’t want their town to play host to a concentration camp, or because they didn’t want a huge population of illegal immigrants numbering more than their own population in their town, again depended on the political and social orientation of each person.  But almost nobody welcomed the idea, outside of a few Athenians who were happy to hear that at least some of the illegal immigrants would leave their neighborhoods.

Of course, arithmetically, no such measure could make much impact on the situation in Athens.  A few low-paid jobs at the local level.  A few more spots in the Athens boarding houses for new immigrants.

In the immediate days running up to the election, when this mess had more or less played out with the hopelessness of “shoveling up” (to use the politicians’ phrase) a fraction of the illegal immigrants that arrive in Greece daily, and depositing them in a place where Greek taxes would have to pay their food, sanitation, and ultimate travel costs back to their home countries becoming more and more obvious, the government had to find a quick new way to make an impression.

They chose to attack some of the most vulnerable members of Greek society – if they can even be considered members at all:  unlicensed illegal prostitutes in central Athens, specifically those who are HIV positive.

Although anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows that paying €20 to have sex with a victim of sex trafficking on the streets of a huge city – without a condom – is one of the better ways to increase one’s chances of catching something unpleasant, the Greek government, and in particular the sinister-sounding Ministry of Citizen Protection, ruled it in the interest of public health to publish the photographs and personal details of HIV positive women accused of prostitution in central Athens, splashing these photos across the TV news and newspapers.  They provided a hotline for men to call if they thought they might have been infected, so they could get hooked up with HIV tests.

Not only did they hope to capture public approval for “breaking the story” so to speak, but they went ahead and charged the women with purposefully trying to infect the public with HIV.  No mention was made of the possibility of illegal immigrant women being forced into prostitution without condoms, or of the need to provide these women with basic medical care.

The public response was a quick condemnation of the government’s decision to expose personal details and photographs of the women.  Although the television reports nightly kept count of how many more HIV positive prostitutes were caught that day, as well as the number of married men calling the government’s hotline, the issue was briskly pushed aside by the election itself.

So, where does that put us?  PASOK, and ND before them, were completely unable to handle the immigration problem.  PASOK’s stumbling attempts to appear “hard on immigration” backfired; ND barely had to say a word to condemn their mess.  But ND themselves had no well thought out position on immigration either.  The parties of the left, like Syriza and the Communist Party, completely reject the concept of being “hard on immigration” in the first place.

It was this series of real and constructed issues in the years and days leading up to the election that most people gave as the explanation for the sudden rise in the appeal of Golden Dawn, the fascist party, in the pre-election polls.  Golden Dawn’s anti-immigrant stance is unmatched by any other party or movement in Greece; a vote for them would appear to be a strong message to the government that some citizens take the issue seriously, one that a few closed hospitality centers and photographs of HIV positive prostitutes can’t solve.

But what actually happened?  Golden Dawn captured 7% of the vote, and 21 seats in Parliament.  Who were all the people who voted for them, putting aside (or approving of and accepting) their fascist and neo-Nazi ideology?  Was it really the frail grandmother in immigrant-flooded neighborhoods of Athens, that appreciated the local Golden Dawn member coming by to escort her to the ATM to get her pension?

Not really, as it turns out.

Greece has a secret ballot; however, there are a few very specific electoral districts that can be more or less picked apart.  Most Greeks vote in their home town, which means that many Greeks have to travel from their residence (often Athens) to their village or town.  This should be the case for police officers also; except that police are considered too essential to lose to this mass exodus, and are allowed to vote in special police electoral districts within Athens itself; and those who work in prisons are allowed to vote on the grounds of the prison itself.

In the Nigrita Prison in Serres, in northern Greece, where the vast majority of voters are police and prison employees (because the prison is not really in use yet), Golden Dawn came in first place.  Likewise, Golden Dawn came in first place in the police electoral districts in Athens – and with much higher percentages than the general population in even the most immigration-hit ghettoes of downtown Athens.

So if the electorate of Golden Dawn is the police, including the riot police who patrol the demonstrations – most of which are left-leaning – in front of Parliament and in the other major squares of Athens – what additional weight does that give to the hundreds – if not thousands – of complaints of police brutality against peaceful protesters (episodes that have been caught on video camera over and over, and while not shown on television, flood the internet)?

What does it say about the use of tear gas, which has reached exceptional levels in Athens?

What does it say about the videos of clearly elderly and disabled citizens being beaten without any provocation?

What does the complete refusal of any other political party to meet with or talk to Golden Dawn say about them, when one considers that the police force is the direct executive arm of the government?

What is the true nature of the connection between Golden Dawn, the Greek police, and the parties that control the Greek police (PASOK, ND)?

What is happening within the Greek police force that young men from good families are becoming fascists?

What role does the EU’s insistence on putting the entire weight of European illegal immigration on Greece’s shoulders play in the growth of extreme nationalism in the Greek police force?

Many people believe that if we have new elections soon – because of a failure of the parties to form a coalition or ecumenical government now – the Golden Dawn vote will decline dramatically.  These people believe that the voters who chose Golden Dawn did it out of anger, to send a powerful message.  But if the voters are police who have developed a fascist ideology, why should their votes change?

Now that Golden Dawn has started to appear on television, where it can’t help but make itself look extremely stupid (their paranoid and megalomaniac antics have to be seen to be believed), it’s hard to believe that most of those voters would vote for them again – unless they have ideological reasons for doing so.  Although Golden Dawn is openly fascist, misogynistic, antisemitic, ultranationalist, and pro-Hitler, they are also the only non-Communist party that supports Greece leaving the Euro currency.

Is the current media trend to make fun of Golden Dawn’s recent antics the right way to deflate them – or is it likely to incite them even further?  Or should the media do as one channel did and give them a voice via an interview on their terms?

What responsibility does the media have to air the voice of a neo-Nazi party, simply because they received 21 Parliament seats, when the Green party received none, yet shows up regularly in television debates and discussions?

How many of Golden Dawn’s voters are simply non-Communists who think Greece would be better off returning to its own currency?

How badly must those people want Greece out of the Euro, to vote for the neo-Nazis?

All these questions are in play as we wait to see if we will go to new elections – something that appears more and more likely tonight – or if a government will be formed with 21 neo-Nazis in Parliament.  And if we do have new elections, will Greece elect twenty-one neo-Nazis, or fewer, or none, or more?