The Wall Street Journal asks Harris Mylonas to comment on the rise of fringe parties in Greece.
After two years of government cutbacks brought on by Greece's debt crisis, the signs of social decay are everywhere in Athens and the mood in the capital is despondent.
Downtown Athens today is a shadow of its former self. Its streets, formerly once lined with crowded elegant stores and vibrant cafés, are now scarred by shuttered shopfronts, crime, homelessness and periodic rioting.
Businesses are closing at a record pace, and unemployment in the greater Athens area has soared to more than 23%, above the national average. Regular demonstrations have frightened away tourists, and thousands of the city's hotels and retailers are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.
Beyond the social turmoil, this new reality presents a particular political problem for Greece's main conservative party, New Democracy, which hopes to win Sunday's parliamentary election and lead the next governing coalition. Athens has always been their stronghold, but the city's unhappy residents are abandoning them for fringe parties of the right and left, including the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.
The capital, the core of a wider metropolitan area of some three million inhabitants, has some 700,000 residents and 17 parliamentary seats up for grabs. It serves as a bellwether for broader discontent over the country's austerity policies and, more specifically, over Greece's two leading political parties. The New Democracy and the Socialist Pasok parties have governed Greece for much of the past four decades and are blamed for the country's economic crisis.
Although New Democracy is expected to emerge as the biggest party, the rise of groups like Golden Dawn is cutting into its vote share, of the vote, making it harder to muster a majority in Parliament. At the least, it will have to renew its coalition with the Socialists, and will likely be forced to govern while facing raucous, consistent opposition dominated by far-left and far-right groups firmly opposed to austerity measures.
The government, in response to the decline of the city's center, has implemented increased police patrols, a three-year rebuilding plan and fresh promises to relocate thousands of illegal immigrants to detention camps. around the country. But for many Athenians, those promises come as this is too little, too late.
"I'm no fascist, but this time I'll vote for Golden Dawn just to shake up the dirty political system," said Kostas Kalatzakos, owner of a small store in Athens. "Robbers have broken into my shop three times in the past two years, and the last time around the police sounded annoyed when I called them to come and investigate. Of course nobody is ever caught."
With such newfound supporters, Golden Dawn, using neo-Nazi rhetoric and a logo of an ancient symbol resembling the swastika, is poised to enter Parliament for the first time. Recent public-opinion pPolls show support for Golden Dawn, hovering between 5% and 6%, well above the 3% minimum threshold needed to enter Parliament and potentially securing them as many as 15 seats in Greece's 300-member legislature.
The party advocates the immediate expulsion of all illegal immigrants and "Jobs for Greeks." Its platform states that e country's borders with Turkey should be sealed with land mines. Immigrant groups have accused Golden Dawn members of abuse, beatings with iron rods and threats of reprisals when the immigrants speak out. The party denies those allegations.
Its economic manifesto includes foregoing all debt repayments, forming "special teams" to investigate corrupt practices, arresting and imprisoning politicians and state servants found guilty of economic mismanagement, nationalizing banks, and returning "to traditional family values."
Such rightist ideology until recently has won gained little traction in Greece. In the 2009 elections, Golden Dawn managed a meager just 0.23% of the vote. In 2010, it the party was able to take took a seat on the Athens city council, its first ever electoral victory. A variety of community initiatives, such as having party members escort elderly residents to the bank and providing food for the needy, those in need, have helped win over local residents.
"Two very mean-looking but polite boys came with me at the ATM to pick up my pension and then they brought me back home carrying the groceries to my apartment," said 72-year-old Anastasia Petikari, a retired teacher in Athens. "I felt very sorry about this, but to tell you the truth I also felt secure. This country is in a pitiful state."
She declined to say which party she would support in the elections.
Ioannis Vourdis, a candidate for the Athens parliamentary district with Golden Dawn, said: "such programs have long been used by the party to build votes. Our support increased after people saw that we help, and not just during the election period. This has been happening for years."
Harris Mylonas, assistant professor of Political Science at George Washington University, says that a lack of a viable immigrant-integration policy, along with the country' economic problems, have provided fertile ground for a radicalized Greek society. "This has made it possible for parties such as Golden Dawn to appear as the defenders of the Greek people against the rest." he said.
In this case, "the rest" seems to include some established elected political leaders.