Immigrants steered clear of Wednesday's rally in support of Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party that shocked Europe with a third-place showing here in last month's European parliamentary elections, and the police looked relieved. On this day, at least, there would no clash between the party's supporters and their enemies outside the Greek parliament.
The clash instead came inside as MPs voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of three jailed Golden Dawn MPs, including party founder and leader Nikos Michaloliakos. Eight months ago, they and more than a dozen others were hauled away in handcuffs after being charged with running the party as a criminal gang, as if they were mafiosi. The arrests came after anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas – stage name Killah P – was knifed to death last September in an Athens suburb by a self-confessed Golden Dawn supporter.
"I am the head of Greece's third-largest party," Mr. Michaloliakos shouted to the parliamentarians, at one point telling the speaker to shut up. "You have kept me in prison, unfairly, for eight months… Golden Dawn is the victim of a political plot."
Mr. Michaloliakos is not entirely wrong about that. The crackdown on Golden Dawn since the murder of Mr. Fyssas was designed not only to bring offenders to justice; it has been an effort to reverse the political momentum of a far-right party that many consider dangerous. That effort has apparently failed. Golden Dawn captured more than 9 per cent of the Greek vote in the European elections on May 25 – a gain over the 2012 Greek national elections, in which it won 6.9 per cent of the vote and claimed 16 of the parliament's 300 seats. In municipal elections last month, the party took 16 per cent of the vote in Athens, triple its support four years ago.
The question now, for Greece as well as for Europe, is whether Golden Dawn will tone down its members' racist talk, and distance itself from attacks on immigrants as it moves into the mainstream. So far, the party's efforts to do that have produced dubious results. Other far-right parties in Europe, notably the National Front, which won the French vote in the European elections, have been more successful in shedding their ultra-xenophobic pasts (although the Front remains broadly anti-immigrant).
The party, of course, has pat answers for every accusation. They are not neo-Nazis; "we are Greek nationalists, that's it," says Ilias Panagiotaros, a Golden Dawn MP. They are not racists; they are against illegal immigration and think that legal immigration should be stopped because of Greece's crushing jobless rate of 27 per cent. They admit that a few of their supporters have been involved in violent attacks but insist this is not condoned and the perpetrators should face justice.
But the common view in Greece that many, perhaps most, of the party's members are neo-Nazis has not changed. A few of them openly sport swastika tattoos, including party spokesman Ilia Kasidiaris. A raid last year on the house of a fugitive businessman linked to Golden Dawn unearthed a trove of Nazi memorabilia and weaponry. Reports of verbal and physical attacks on immigrants by party supporters are common.
At the same time, there is no doubt that Golden Dawn has run a savvy grassroots campaign since the 2012 general election.
In the centre of Athens, where poverty is rife and one shop in three went out of business during the crisis years, the party won support by distributing free food to the needy. It later refined its appeal to the downtrodden by convincing some doctors to provide free care. At the same time, leaders ramped up their rhetoric against immigrants in general and rising street crime in particular, blaming the later on illegal immigrants.
Party officials argue that Golden Dawn appeals to voters because they feel the mainstream government coalition, led by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of the centre-right New Democracy party, has failed them. "In difficult [economic] situations and occasions, people start to pay attention," Mr. Panagiotaros says. "It's also a moral appeal. We have big issues which affect this economy, like illegal immigration, millions of them, and most are fundamental Islamists."
Instead of being repellent to Greeks, the anti-immigrant rants had the opposite effect, to such a degree that the ruling coalition adopted some of Golden Dawn's policies. In his 2012 election campaign, Mr. Samaras spoke of the need to "reclaim" city centres from migrants. His party's candidate for Athens mayor came out forcibly against the construction of a mosque in the city, arguing that it would be "another magnet for illegal immigration."
Golden Dawn's electoral success does not come as a surprise to Thanasis Kampayannis, a human-rights lawyer who is a member of Keerfa, an anti-fascist and anti-racist group.
While he does not think that fully 9 per cent of Greeks are outright neo-Nazis, there is no doubt that more than a few are, he said, while many others are attracted to Golden Dawn at a time of great economic hardship. Still others, he said, are casting a protest vote. "Golden Dawn has an inner core of neo-Nazis, a middle ring of racists and an outer ring that is simply against the system, against the government, against the austerity programs," he says.
Some immigrants, meanwhile – especially those from Asia and North Africa – think racist attacks by Golden Dawn supporters remain unofficial party policy. Asif Ali, 30, a Pakistani who arrived in Greece 11 years ago and now works at casual jobs in construction and home care, says he has been attacked three times.
The first time, in 2012, landed him in hospital. "I didn't go to the police because I lacked legal documentation," he said. "I was afraid I would end up in jail, not them."
The second attack, later that same year, on a bus, gave him a broken nose. "The police handcuffed one of the Golden Dawn guys who hit me, but they also handcuffed me," he said.
The third time came last summer, after he went on TV to complain about the attacks.
"Golden Dawn recognized me from the TV and they came after me," he says. "Now I'm afraid for my life. I'm trying to find a way to leave Greece."