The result of the elections of May 6th in Greece was a stunning defeat of the bipartisan system with the main parties of New Democracy (conservative) and PASOK (socialist) suffering major defeats. New Democracy still managed to come first, with 18.85% of the vote and 108 seats in the parliament (50 bonus seats go to the winner according to a quaint Greek electoral law). This is certainly a Pyrrhic victory compared to its previous showings: 33.47% (2009) and 41.84% (2007). PASOK finished 3rd with a shocking 13.18% and 41 seats, plummeting from 43.92 % (160 seats) in 2009 and 38.10% (102 seats) in 2007.
Second place was taken by SYRIZA (not an actual party but a coalition of radical left parties) which managed to gather 16.78% of the vote and thus take 52 seats. This was a huge improvement for a group that is continually accused of harboring affection for illegal immigrants and anarchist rioters, and compared very favorably with the 4.60% (13 seats) in 2009 and 5.04% (14 seats) in 2007.
The conservative-right wing party LAOS, suffered a major defeat and did not manage to get past the 3% benchmark that is necessary to be represented in parliament. The Independent Greeks, a populist right-wing group that split from New Democracy, due to disagreements over fiscal arrangements with the EU-IMF, came fourth.
The real shock of the election for the media, both locally and internationally, however, was the success of the Golden Dawn party, which grabbed 6.9% of the vote and saw 21 of its members elected to parliament. In 2009 the same party had achieved only 0.29%.
Although the result was surprising there had been signs of growing support for the party. For four years, at least in the center of Athens, there has been ongoing tension between Greeks and immigrants. Golden Dawn campaigned in the area of the most intense conflict, setting up a web of support for those Greeks unlucky enough to live there. From engaging in street fights with immigrant gangs and leftist thugs to providing security for old people, it managed to build a steady base that allowed it to be elected in the Athens mayoral council in 2010 with an impressive 5%, compared to the 1.35% that it had achieved in 2006.
But does the rise of Golden Dawn stem directly from its actions supporting those blighted by mass immigration? Apparently not. The percentage of its vote was equally distributed in immigrant-hit areas and remote villages that haven't seen a single immigrant. With a dynamic campaign, it managed to become a serious funnel for the anger of the Greek people towards the political class.
In addition to dedicated racialists and nationalists that the party drew away from LAOS and other smaller organizations, Golden Dawn also managed to be the number one choice amongst the apolitical youth of Greece (18-24) and the 2nd choice behind SYRIZA in the 18 to 35 demographic.
The obvious conclusion is that it was used as a stick to hit the system with by a large number of people who are not ideologically committed but didn’t want to their vote to be used by the extreme left; in other words, it was an aggressive protest vote from people who wanted to see the shocked and sour faces of the TV-reporters and mainstream politicians when the exit polls were announced. In this it more than succeeded.
Golden Dawn also directly benefitted from the sharp decline in support for the conservative parties, caused by their support for continuing austerity. There were cases of disappointed groups of people in the local chapters of the main conservative party of New Democracy and the "right wing" LAOS just changing their label and rebranding themselves as Golden Dawn. Especially LAOS was hard hit, with its leader voting for the agreement for fiscal help and taking part in the coalition government of New Democracy and PASOK. Here they held four ministerial posts, but when they decided to quit the coalition, two of their four ministers defected to New Democracy.
The 'antifascist' stance of the media
Before the elections two strategies were adopted by the political establishment against Golden Dawn. At first the party was simply not mentioned, except in cases of violent clashes. When the polls nevertheless showed support growing to about 1.5%, there was a change of strategy, with the media focusing on the party. It started using the "Hitlerite" mantra. Because Golden Dawn had started out as a strict National-Socialist organization in the 1980s and had used some Nazi imagery in its publicity, there was quite enough content to feed this kind of portrayal. But in an age when the mass media and politicians are deeply distrusted by the people, their attempt to paint someone as an "enemy of the people" doesn't necessarily work well and sometimes backfires.
After the elections there was a spate of publicity for Golden Dawn, concentrating on their successful candidates. Their backgrounds were used to attack the party. These included a black metal artist, a man facing charges for assault, and someone married to a Mexican.
The media also went wild over an incident on the night of the elections, in which party members demanded that reporters stand up when Nikos Michaloliakos, the leader of the party, entered the room for a press conference. The order was given in a brusque military style. Some of the journalists objected and were asked to leave the press conference. Over the following days, Golden Dawn responded to the incident in several ways.
Some members said that when reporters are invited to a party's premises they should follow the rules. Others implied that it was "revenge" for years of mistreatment by the media. In a TV interview, Golden Dawn's leader classified it as a "mistake" of party cadres, and said that reporters won't be asked to stand up when he enters the room. As a "counter measure" when Michaloliakos met with President Karolos Papoulias, in a cycle of meetings held with all the leaders of the elected parties, politicians from other parties made a point of sitting down, even on the floor.
Only a few days after the elections and with attempts at forming a government failing, the first new polls showed Golden Dawn's support falling to between 3.8% and 4.5%, dangerously close to the all-important 3% threshold needed to win seats in parliament.
Golden Dawn was carried to electoral success on three waves: a wave of anti-government sentiment, a wave of disappointment amongst the members and voters of the LAOS party, and a wave of anger at the upsurge of immigrant crime that Greek society is experiencing. This boosted the party far beyond its previous and natural size. Its success was also based on a potent image of fit, young men ready for conflict, which fitted part of the public's mood, with Greek citizens wanting to throw a metaphorical punch at the political system. But this kind of gesture politics only works for a short time and soon peaks. The shock has a temporary value.
Golden Dawn will have to show in the near future if it can remain a serious political player. Its success in getting 6.9% of the vote gives it an opportunity, but will it be able to seize this chance?
There are two possible approaches. One is to transform the immature nationalistic sentiment of the Greek people to a true alternative political outlook. Many doubt this can be done, due to the nature of the party and the human resource aspect, including a lack of mid-level staff and its personality-centered cadre of leadership. Another possibility is for the party to play to its existing but self-limiting strengths by retaining the brutish, "hard" image and to reinforce that.
Sooner or later some kind of stability will be reestablished in Greece, probably through a coalition government following further elections. According to the latest polls, SYRIZA has already overtaken New Democracy and will make a leftist bid for power. This might see voters flocking back to the conservative banner in order to avoid risks, such as the exclusion of the country from the EU or the endemic chaos that would result from the collapse of the conservatives as a major force in Greek politics. Will Golden Dawn manage to stand up to those challenges?
Its predecessor as the political expression for Greek nationalism, the LAOS party, didn't succeed. It got lost on the way. We will see if Golden Dawn will manage to overcome its own limits or whether it will just keep being the local rough boys.
The truth is that up to now it doesn't have the political infrastructure that you would expect of a 7% party. Most of its local chapters were organized only a few months, weeks, or days before the elections. Its most prominent members only became known to the public after the elections. Will they be able to handle the pressure of a continuous media spotlight? We will have to wait to see.