Earlier this fall Greek courts handed down rulings that changed its political landscape. The leaders of the Golden Dawn party were convicted on a number of charges including operating a criminal conspiracy that was masquerading as a political party. The leader of the party Nikolaos Michaloliakos and other party leadership were found guilty of operating a criminal organization. Lower level members were also convicted of violent attacks and the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a Greek raper and anti-fascist.
The trial lasted 5 years and found party leadership and individual members guilty of crimes ranging from directing a criminal organization to attacks on trade unionists and illegal possession of weapons. This landmark ruling dealt a legal and political blow for the party. From a legal perspective this ruling effectively ended the leadership from being involved in politics. The full extent of the political ramifications are still to be felt but Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis offered this assessment, “an issue that has hurt the country is now closed. The political part, perhaps the most important one, closed in the elections of July 2019 when Golden Dawn did not enter Parliament.”
Golden Dawn is a far right wing neo fascist political party that was founded in the 1980’s. It began as a neo-nazi party that denied the Holocaust and harkened back to nostalgia for Greece’s former military junta. It emerged as a catchall for the remnants of rightwing elements that existed in Greek society.
In the past decade Golden Dawn has experienced an icarian rise and fall as they rode the political landscape of the 2010’s. As the Greek economy began to experience the fallout from the economic crisis of the Great Recession, Golden Dawn sought to tap into these feelings of economic anxiety. Coupled with this was the protracted negotiations between the European Union and Greece over the terms and conditions of a bailout. At the same time a large amount of refugees began to head towards Greece, either as a final destination or as a pass through to central europe. Golden Dawn played into Greeks fears about these two issues and ran on a platform that was steadfastly nationalistic and sceptical of outsiders. In recent past elections Golden Dawn showed signs of gaining popularity and membership. In the 2015 parliamentary elections they had their strongest showing and won seats in parliament making them the third largest party in parliament. In the 2019 elections the party did not win any seats and had no members in the parliament
The party’s members were frequently engaged in political violence and particularly targeted groups that the party didn’t agree with. These groups that were targeted include refugees and immigrants, the LGBT community, and members of leftist political parties.
The recent ruling, and rise and fall of Golden Dawn show the effects that democratic erosion has had on Greek society. The success that Golden Dawn had while running on a platform that combined right-wing nationalism and outright contempt of the ruling elite struck a nerve in Greek politics. At the same time of Golden Dawn’s parliamentary successes the Syriza party also enjoyed electoral wins. Both of these parties identified the undercurrent in Greek society that was fed up with the inaction of the political elite and embraced this populist spirit while doing it in two divergent ways.
This shows how the norms of mutual toleration can be worn away and lead to ordinary people embracing political violence. When a country is faced with a political crisis, such as an increase in refugee migration, the existing political situation is often magnified. In Greece this led those who feared increased refugee presence for a multitude of reasons; racism and xenophobia, economic concerns, and misplaced anger, to take that rage out on a clearly identified outgroup.
When violent far right wing parties gain acceptance and legislative power to enact their agendas this is a worrying sign for democracy and represents a clear threat to its survival.
While the full ramifications of this ruling will take time to become apparent, the conviction of the leadership of Golden Dawn is a good sign. This marks the potential for Greece to turn back some instances of the worrying trend of democratic erosion. By issuing a landmark ruling Greece has sent a clear message to similar far-right groups that this kind of political action will not be tolerated.