An eclectic rally crowd hails Greece’s neo-Nazi party
A spokesman for Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, Ilias Kasidiaris, rises to the podium in front of a few hundred cheering supporters at a final rally in an Athens suburb ahead of Sunday’s elections.
A surprisingly mixed crowd of skinheads, women and students applaud the elected ex-soldier who slapped a female communist politician on live television last week, after being elected to parliament in an inconclusive vote in May.
“Another punch for the lesbian!” supporters called out to general hilarity.
Martial music blares out at the rally as supporters wave blue-and-white Greek flags ahead of elections that could determine Greece's future in the eurozone.
The site chosen for the gathering ─ opposite the Greek defence ministry ─ is also no coincidence for the tightly-knit, martial-oriented group.
Kasidiaris was speaking under the equestrian statue of Marshal Alexander Papagos, the leader of Greece’s forces against Fascist Italy in World War II.
He faces a trial for assault over his televised stunt, but is far from cowed.
“I have heard it said, from coffee shops to social media sites, why don’t we send Kasidiaris to talk to (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel?” he said proudly.
Once a tiny minority group regularly accused of racist attacks, the party entered parliament in the election last month with a vote of 6.9 percent.
Its supporters are hoping for a even better score in a follow-up ballot on Sunday in an ever more uncertain climate for Greece, which is suffering a fifth year of recession and painful budget austerity cuts foisted on it in return for bailout money.
“I think this election is going to be better for us than the last one... Maybe 10 percent,” said Vassilis Bardis, a tattooed 43-year-old security guard.
Behind him a placard reads: “Creditor Sharks, Hands Off Greece!”
Another rallying cry for the party has been immigration, a concern among many Greeks in this time of crisis. “We have nothing against immigrants but we believe we have to secure our country,” Bardis said.
Nearby Panos chants with vigour: “This is our country!” “Foreigners out!”
“(Former French National Front leader Jean-Marie) Le Pen is not as strong as we are. We’re more extreme,” the 30-year-old engineer said with pride.
Around him, there are a few skinheads but also many ordinary local residents and groups of young people who are tempted to vote for a politically extreme party at a time when almost half their generation is unemployed.
“I am not a fan of hooligans but I like this party’s ideas,” said a 17-year-old just old enough to vote, who declined to give his name.
“I don’t believe in barbary against immigrants but we don’t have jobs for all these people. We want Greece to be for the Greeks,” he said.
Stavroula, 22, said she was going round all the parties’ election rallies “to listen to what they have to say”. The nursing student said she could not exclude a vote for the ultra-nationalists despite the violence linked to Golden Dawn.
“There is no hope left for young people. I don’t know whether I will have to go abroad to find a job,” she said.
Asked if she was shocked by the slapping incident on television, she said: “There is always a reason for things to happen. I don’t really care.”
Another muscled lawmaker from the party, Ilias Panagiotaros, said the incident had had the effect of attracting voters instead of driving them away.
“He defended himself, he was attacked by this lady. A majority of Greek people blessed him for doing this. This has a ‘red bull’ effect on our party.”
When a journalist mentions the word “neo-Nazi” a thuggish-looking man with a shaved head behind him bristles threateningly and shouts: “We are not Nazis! Who is the idiot who said that? We’re nationalists!”
As the election rally draws to a close, the crowd intones the national anthem and hardcore supporters in the front row perform the Nazi salute.
Eva, a 22-year-old psychology student with an angelic face, makes no secret of her allegiance as she walks away: “They are totally right on everything.”