The economic crisis has shaken Greek’s confidence in an open society
By Angelo Tramountanis.
Greece entered the 10th year of its prolonged economic crisis with per capita GDP down by a quarter, and households’ disposable income by 30 percent. Unemployment in 2016 was still the highest in the EU at 23.6 percent overall, and the youth unemployment rate at 47.3 percent.
The collateral damage of the crisis has been a decline in the open society values of democracy, tolerance and acceptance of outsiders. The first part of this article focuses on the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party, which rose from insignificance to being the third biggest political party in Greece. The second part examines Greek attitudes towards immigration, and how these have changed.
The inexorable rise of Golden Dawn
Golden Dawn is not the only far-right party to have emerged in Greece in recent decades, but what distinguishes it from the others is its defence of Nazism and violence. Founded in 1985, this ultra-nationalist, anti-parliamentarian movement has been involved in violent attacks and murder, using openly Nazi propaganda. Until 2010, it appealed only to a few, winning 0.46 percent of votes in the 2009 European elections, and 0.29 percent in Greek elections that year.
Since then, the picture has changed. Exploiting the effects of the economic crisis and migration, Golden Dawn garnered 5.29 percent of votes in Athens in 2010 and a seat on Athens’s city council. Its leader gave the Nazi salute to cameras at the inaugural meeting.
Golden Dawn quickly set up a for natives-only solidarity network, with free food, “Greek-only” blood banks, and with party members accompanying old people to ATM cash machines to protect them from muggings. They also started to terrorise immigrants and immigrant-friendly organisations openly, when before they claimed not to, with Human Rights Watch documenting several cases ascribed to Golden Dawn of hate crimes and xenophobic violence.
The 2013 election results came as a shock when Golden Dawn had climbed from 0.29 percent in 2009 to almost 7 percent in the double parliamentary elections of 2012 (6.97 percent in May, and 6.92 percent in June). It did so mainly by attracting voters from other far-right parties. The typical Golden Dawn voter is young, male, moderately educated, and often unemployed.
In earlier years, Greece’s state institutions had been perplexed and generally ineffective in their handling of this phenomenon, but the 2013 murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas opened a window of opportunity. The public prosecutor labelled Golden Dawn a criminal organisation, and party members were arrested and arraigned to a lengthy trial started in 2015 and has been closely well monitored by the media.
It is tempting to link the economic crisis and the rise of Golden Dawn, but other significant factors include a steady decline in political trust. Not only do Greeks increasingly distrust political institutions, they also feel abandoned, insecure and disappointed. The 2008 crisis saw a sharp decline in optimism.
The remarkable rise of Golden Dawn in the 2012 elections was initially interpreted as a one-off rejection of the political establishment, reflecting anger and frustration at the effects of the economic crisis. That is probably not the whole truth. After the 2015 elections, Golden Dawn became the de-facto third political party in the Greek Parliament with almost 7 percent of the vote (6.28 percent in January, 6.99 percent in September). In 2018, exit polls showed Golden Dawn with 8 percent of the vote, so although Golden Dawn hasn’t grown as fast as far-right parties in other Member States, it has settled into a stable position within the Greek party system.
A lukewarm take on immigrants
When immigrants started arriving in Greece in the early 1990s, the media characterised them en masse as ‘criminals’. Greeks saw a sudden surge in crime that was mostly attributed to immigrants, and in particular Albanians. The myth of the criminal migrant became so well established by the mid-1990s that some 90 percent of Greek police officers blamed that increased crime rate on migrants.
Opinion surveys regularly reported public scepticism towards immigrants, with the 2002-2003 European Social Survey (ESS) confirming that when compared to elsewhere in Europe, Greece was among the least welcoming towards immigrants.
By 2010, 59 percent of people questioned said that immigration was bad for the country because it caused a rise in crime (75 percent), and weakened Greek national identity (57 percent). These figures have barely changed since then; a 2018 survey by research institute diaNEOsis suggested 9 out of 10 Greeks believe the country has welcomed too many immigrants over the last 10 years.
These perceptions get worse when it comes to Muslim immigrants, with 65 percent of Greeks viewing Muslims unfavourably, and six out of 10 wanting migration from mainly Muslim countries to be stopped. A survey by the National Centre for Social Research found 8 out of 10 Greeks arguing that Greece should accept no more Muslim migrants, or just a few.
Yet in practice many Greeks also show strong positive feelings towards refugees, and there is tangible evidence of solidarity. Two out of three Greeks say that the country shouldn’t close its borders, six out of 10 have shown solidarity to refugees, and two out of three (67 percent) expressed feelings like compassion and sadness. Two-thirds of Athenians polled said that the settlement of refugees has caused no problem in their neighbourhood, and a majority (72 percent) is in favour of refugee children attending public schools and municipality day care centres (65 percent).
Surveys have measured the impact of the economic crisis on attitudes to migrants. According to diaNEOsis, two out of three Greeks (65.4%) believe that migrants increase unemployment. It’s a view mostly held by unemployed people (71.5%), and those who can’t cope financially (87.8%), or can barely cope (71.5%). The recent shift of Greek voters to the far-right means this view is shared by supporters of the right (83.9%) and far-right (82.6%), and particularly of Golden Dawn (84.8%).
Two out of three Greeks also argue that immigrants have a negative impact on the economy (65.4%). Again, this attitude is attributed to unemployed Greeks (68.6%), as well as those barely coping financially (67.5%), or not coping at all (66%). It is that of voters for the right-wing populists of Independent Greeks (89.1%), Golden Dawn (66.6%) and the liberal-conservatives of New Democracy (66.2%), or those of the centre-right (73.6%), right (69.5%) and far-right (69%).
Greece’s economic crisis has mainstreamed attitudes that previously were scarcely spoken. The rise of far-right organisations and sceptical attitudes towards migration poses a clear threat to notions of the open society.
It could be argued that Greeks remain deeply sceptical about migration and its impact on Greece. The sudden influx of migrants since the 1990s into a relatively homogenous society has caused a knee-jerk anti-immigrant reaction, and the media has cemented and justified these feelings. Only with a new discourse on open society will we be able to increase our knowledge and understanding of this new environment.
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Angelo Tramountanis is a Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research (EKKE) in Athens.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.