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What Do Greeks Really Want? Meet the Voters of the Country’s Extremist Parties

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?

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 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 immigrant 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.

I approached a grizzled middle-aged man at the Independent Greeks rally and asked him what drew him to Kammenos. “New Democracy and PASOK sold us out,” was his response. He was in the merchant marine, he told me, and spent 20 years as a union cadre of DAKE, the union organization linked with New Democracy. “New people are needed. If Kammenos was not around I would vote for SYRIZA,” he noted. It is telling that Kammenos, despite his origins on the right, praised the economic program of SYRIZA in the run-up to the election—a program which calls for bank nationalization, a repeal of wage and pension cuts and of new, more flexible labor laws undermining collective bargaining. In fact, Golden Dawn’s anti-immigrant venom aside, its economic proposals are often hard to distinguish from those of SYRIZA and Independent Greeks.

Another man, a lawyer, argued that Kammenos would have been a much stronger negotiator than either Evangelos Venizelos, the leader of PASOK, or Antonis Samaras, the head of New Democracy, in the tough talks with the IMF and Greece’s Eurozone partners about the terms of the second bailout. “He would have brought European investments to Greece. His hard position would have borne fruit,” he told me. As we spoke, the enthusiastic crowd chanted “traitors” at every mention by Kammenos—hoarse but unremitting at the podium—of Venizelos and Samaras. They also yelled “Goudi”—a chilling, but now sadly common, reference to the place where politicians and generals were executed by the Greek government in 1922 for their role in Greece’s catastrophic defeat that year by the Turks in Asia Minor.

There are two explanations that reconcile the sentiments I encountered on the campaign trail with the apparent reality that Greeks want to retain their membership of the euro and their good relations with their neighbors. One is ignorance. Many Greeks are simply unaware of the degree of mistrust and exasperation that exists towards Greece in European circles; hence they are easily led to believe that a tough, patriotic new Greek leader—not a coward or a traitor, as they think of the heads of the old parties of power these days—would bang his hand on the table and immediately Brussels and Berlin would bend to his will.

The other explanation, though, is desperation. The Greek economy is in its fifth year of recession, with unemployment above 21 percent and more than one in two young people without a job. Wages and unemployment benefits are down, while taxes and prices keep going up. The leaders of PASOK and New Democracy keep telling Greeks that further austerity is necessary to secure the next installments of the new loan from the EU and the IMF, without which Greece will abandon the euro and be led to bankruptcy and mass poverty. Unsurprisingly, they have stopped listening.

Already bankrupt and poor, they feel that things cannot get any worse, and so they no longer believe that their aspirations are connected to politics to begin with. The tragedy, of course, is that such sentiments are a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yannis Palaiologos is a journalist in Athens, Greece.