At a time of growing concern about the future of democracy, the apparent fall of the Greek Golden Dawn in the recent national election provides some insights into how democratic states and societies try to defend themselves from extremism. The failure of the party to enter the Greek parliament is not only due to the deflation of the economic crisis but also due to the way institutional and societal actors reacted to the threat the Golden Dawn posed for Greek democracy.
In the past few years, the Greek Golden Dawn became one of the most closely observed far right parties in Europe.
This was not because of its electoral importance – the nearly 7% it received in the previous four elections is only a fraction of electoral support for far right parties elsewhere in Europe and mostly inconsequential for Greek legislative politics.
Media and academic spotlights turned to the Golden Dawn because it was a very rare phenomenon of a party with extreme ideas and violent practices gaining electoral traction in an established democracy. Voters are known to turn their back to parties with a similar profile (e.g. the National Democratic Party of Germany, the Casa Pound Italia or the British National Party), relegating them to the very margins of electoral politics. The electoral ascendance of such an extreme party, added to growing anxieties about the broader state and fate of democracy (Bermeo 2016; Berman 2019).
Given the extreme profile of the Golden Dawn, it was only natural that most observers of the recent parliamentary election noted the spectacular failure of the party to reenter the Greek parliament, as it closely missed the 3% threshold.
Understanding the fall of the Golden Dawn
The fall of the Golden Dawn is naturally associated with the fading of the grievances that the acute economic and, ultimately, political crisis had generated. It is also due to the positioning of mainstream (the New Democracy) and new (the Greek Solution) actors in the competitive space, especially on issues close to the core of GD’s ideology, like the Macedonia issue. In many ways, then, the GD’s failure is due to a typical change in voter demand for, and party supply of the ideas, policies and positions advocated by the party.
But there is a lot more going on here than an analysis of voter preferences and party positions would suggest. The electoral collapse of the party is also due to the way Greek institutional and societal actors responded to the GD.
On the institutional front, the ideas and actions of such an extreme party generated responses by Greek authorities, reminiscent of those undertaken by democracy defenders in the interwar years (Capoccia 2005). After a long period of relative inaction, in 2013 Greek judicial authorities prosecuted the leadership and dozens of party functionaries for a series of criminal offenses associated with its violent activity. Greek police changed its administrative structures to better handle racist violence and monitor extremist behavior. Greek legislators passed laws that seriously undermined the resources available for racist mobilization and many mayors denied the GD the use of public venues and city squares.
On the societal front, the rise of the GD led to a cycle of antifascist mobilization that complicated the organizational efforts of the party to infiltrate local communities. Antifascists took direct action against the GD but also indirectly, by pushing for stronger institutional responses. Especially in urban centers, the street politics of the GD brought together a variety of actors ranging from teacher unions to activist lawyers. Hundreds of societal groups utilized a range of organizational, communicative, intellectual and spatial resources. Through a combination of institutional and non-institutional tactics, antifascist actors sought to obstruct party efforts to dominate in immigrant-rich localities, including the islands.
These institutional and societal responses took a toll on the organizational infrastructure of the Golden Dawn, especially in settings where institutional and societal actors worked together. By 2019, dozens of local party branches, inaugurated by hundreds and, sometimes thousands of party supporters, shut down due to the exit of members. Many others became empty shells with barely any activity. The militant activism of the GD, key for earlier electoral breakthroughs, gave way to sporadic leafleting, and indoor propaganda activities. Half-hearted voices within the party for a more moderate party course were overshadowed by the introspection and feuds caused by institutional and societal pressure. For a party that prided itself for its street politics, its significant withdrawal from the streets was a prelude to its major defeat in the polls.
Despite its notable electoral defeat, it might be premature to write the Golden Dawn off the party map. After all, the grievances, challenges and issues that brought such an extreme party to the fore have faded but are still there. A large portion of its voters fled to a new and untested party (the Greek Solution) whose long-term viability is unknown. And a number of its local branches remain relatively active with dozens of local activists ready to “return to the streets,” as its leader pledged after his stunning defeat.
But, although the future of one of the most extreme parties in Europe remains unclear, the lesson told by its fall is a lot clearer and must not be missed: when vigilant, democracies can effectively defend themselves from anti-democrats.
Ellinas, A. A. (2013). The rise of Golden Dawn: The new face of the far right in Greece. South European Society and Politics, 18(4), 543-565.
Ellinas, A. A., & Lamprianou, I. (2017). How far right local party organizations develop: The organizational buildup of the Greek Golden Dawn. Party Politics, 23(6), 804-820.
Berman, S. (2019). Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day. Oxford University Press.
Bermeo, N. (2016). On democratic backsliding. Journal of Democracy, 27(1), 5-19.
Capoccia, G. (2005). Defending democracy: Reactions to extremism in interwar Europe. JHU Press.