Banning Golden Dawn

The Problems of Greek Democracy

They are at it again. By that, we can refer to those critics who see in Greece the basket case of all basket cases, the economic nightmare, the social dysfunction, a client who goes to a psychiatrist but evidently can’t pay the bills.  The picture is dismal, made even more dismal by the critics who are hectoring Greece for what it is not.

Let us take a contribution in Haaretz by Charilaos Peitsinis which has much to recommend it, other than the warning signals about what Greek society has come to represent.  “In recent months, Greek society has grown to increasingly resemble the Weimar Republic, a historical symbol of a dysfunctional democracy besieged by increasingly violent political extremes.

There is little doubt that desperation has bred violence.  The murder of the anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by a follower of the far right Golden Dawn party has been taken to be the breaking point, the terrifying catalyst of what is to come.  The state lies accused of, if not being complicit, then at the very least being indifferent to a “crack down” on “illegal behaviour”. The anti-immigrant agenda of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is cited as an example.  “For two years,” claims Peitsinis, “Golden Dawn has been patrolling towns and indiscriminately attacking immigrants and its ideological enemies.”

To move to ban the organisation will be tantamount to an enormous gagging order.  Suggestions abound that the group might well be engaged in extensive criminal behaviour.  It has certainly engaged in extensive violent confrontations – the attack on supporters of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) in Perama, where Fyssas’s murder took place, was one such example. Eight communist party members were hospitalised.  But such a drastic action has the danger of validating the very stance Golden Dawn is taking: an attack on a society that is rotten, that has lost its direction and can’t even claim to be remotely democratic.

Encouragement is being given for the banning by such individuals as the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner Nils Muižnieks.  The group “shows clear contempt towards democracy and poses a threat to the country’s social cohesion and stability.” He does not consider the paradox of banning a group that has become a prominent political party with elected representatives.  The greatest democratic sentiment is allowing it to prevail, rather than stifling it by dictatorial fiat.  And thus, we have the Weimar dilemma – whether to exercise anti-democratic powers to protect the democratic body.

To be fair to Muižnieks, he does accept that a “ban in itself would not make hate crimes disappear”.  What is required is “a profound overhaul of policies to counter hate, especially racist crime”.  His suggestions are extensive, though verging on that scolding tone that has become customary when discussing Greece.  A “systematic, continuous training of judges, prosecutors and the police” would be needed.

Moves have been recently made to affect change in a police culture that is deemed complicit in the policies of Golden Dawn.  Resignations have taken place.  The drumming up of awareness within the institutional circle, however plodding, has also made an appearance.  The commissioner does accept that some steps have been taken – the creation of anti-racist units in the police, to take but one example. But these are the tentative steps on the arduously long road.

Golden Dawn is also driving up the pressure, courting instability and the bluff of Parliament.  Their representatives – some 18 out of 300 MPs – are threatening to pull out of the body altogether. The subsequent by-elections may well further destabilise the situation.  A ban would be the icing on a rather poisonous cake – it would drive the disease underground, the disaffection into enforced captivity.  Fine to let sleeping dogs lie, but when they refuse to, we have another set of problems to deal with.  Best then to keep the sickness open, to have the MPs who are a sign of a state’s problems, rather than a ban, which would merely serve to hide them.

In all of this it is tempting to ignore the vitality in Greek society that, while allowing the presence of Golden Dawn’s neo-Nazi stomping, will also generate severe opposition to it.  Gatherings in Athens, Thessaloniki and Crete were recently organised with supporters wearing white and embracing a platform of non-violence.  Where there is suggested complicity, there is also heavy opposition.  If this is not the democratic ferment in action, what is?

The paternalistic eye will be unsure about allowing Greeks to sort out this dysfunction.  But they are entitled to.  Insofar as the Greek political system is still permitted a modicum of sovereignty, the lecturing stance of those who tell them that democracy is good, but only in small, EU-moderated doses, is untenable. It is also, in the end, revealing.

The worst solution will be one lacking in coordination, a third-baked approach that leaves the final sample uncooked and raw.  Laws, by all means, should be enforced, though it is meaningless to consider laws in the absence of the social net that has been shredded by the onslaught of austerity measures.  Punish Golden Dawn, but in what sense?  A sick market often leads to sick citizens.  The big dispute in Greece, however, remains what medicine to administer.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: Read other articles by Binoy.