There’s a lot happening in the world this week, with the United States election campaign, a revolution in Kyrgyzstan, continued Brexit negotiations and the resurgence of Covid-19 in many countries. But one of the most significant events was in Greece, with the culmination of a story that dates back seven years.
Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the leader of Golden Dawn, and his senior colleagues were arrested in 2013 and charged with running a criminal organisation, with responsibility for organising street violence and intimidation, including the murder of an anti-fascist musician. Yesterday, after a trial lasting more than five years, they were found guilty.
You can read my original report on the case here, updated here. It would be an understatement to say that a lot has happened in Greece since then: a radical left government came to power in 2015, won a referendum to back its defiance of the European Union over debt relief, was re-elected after reaching agreement with the EU anyway, and then lost office again last year. But throughout, the wheels of justice continued to slowly turn.
Golden Dawn had first entered the Greek parliament in the May 2012 election, winning 7.0% of the vote and 21 seats. It maintained that level of support, winning between six and seven per cent at the second election of 2012 and the two elections of 2015. But last year it fell to 2.9%, below the 3% threshold for representation.
The story of rise and (sometimes) decline of the far right is familiar across Europe. Even on the far-right landscape, however, Golden Dawn stood out: its strategy of violence and its embrace of neo-Nazi imagery put it in a different category from the parties that other democracies worry about. It seems unlikely that it could ever have found much support were it not for the severity of Greece’s economic crisis.
So, what to do about such a party? Some countries have laws that allow the banning of extremist parties, but they are liable to be ineffective or – worse – to be abused. And if a significant percentage of voters want to vote for fascists, rigging the system to deny them representation is probably not the best way to pacify them.
Instead, the Greek strategy seems to me to be the right one. Golden Dawn really was something more than a normal political party: it was an organisation established for criminal purposes that engaged in criminal activities. It’s entirely appropriate that its leaders should be held responsible, not, in any meaningful sense, for “political” offences but as ordinary common criminals.
The prosecution of Michaloliakos and his crew has been a bipartisan enterprise. It began under a conservative government, continued when the leftist Syriza was in power, and now has ended when the centre-right is back in charge. Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomed the verdict, tweeting aptly that “Democracy won today. It is up to all of us to win every day.”
It cannot be stressed enough that this sort of bipartisanship is absolutely essential in the struggle against democracy’s enemies. It is not always found; we have already seen mainstream centre-right parties stay silent in the face of creeping authoritarianism in countries like Hungary, Poland and Israel, and in Australia our government routinely treats the far right as an ally.
Although Golden Dawn is a case apart, that’s no reason to be complacent about the threat or assume that every such group will be so helpful as to advertise its position by using a distorted swastika as its emblem. Other far-right parties have been less explicit about adopting violence as a mode of operation, but there are worrying signs, not least among the supporters of Donald Trump in the US.
Greece has given us a good lesson in how to deal with the fascists. Let’s hope we never need it, but let’s also hope we remember it if we do.