Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party is increasingly assuming the role of law enforcement officers on the streets of the bankrupt country, with mounting evidence that Athenians are being openly directed by police to seek help from the neo-Nazi group, analysts, activists and lawyers say. In return, a growing number of Greek crime victims have come to see the party, whose symbol bears an uncanny resemblance to the swastika, as a "protector".
One victim of crime, an eloquent US-trained civil servant, told the Guardian of her family's shock at being referred to the party when her mother recently called the police following an incident involving Albanian immigrants in their downtown apartment block. "They immediately said if it's an issue with immigrants go to Golden Dawn," said the 38-year-old, who fearing for her job and safety, spoke only on condition of anonymity. "We don't condone Golden Dawn but there is an acute social problem that has come with the breakdown of feeling of security among lower and middle class people in the urban centre," she told the Guardian. "If the police and official mechanism can't deliver and there is no recourse to justice, then you have to turn to other maverick solutions."
Other Greeks with similar experiences said the far-rightists, catapulted into parliament on a ticket of tackling "immigrant scum" were simply doing the job of a defunct state that had left a growing number feeling overwhelmed by a "sense of powerlessness". "Nature hates vacuums and Golden Dawn is just filling a vacuum that no other party is addressing," one woman lamented. "It gives 'little people' a sense that they can survive, that they are safe in their own homes."
Far from being tamed, parliamentary legitimacy appears only to have emboldened the extremists. In recent weeks racially-motivated attacks have proliferated. Immigrants have spoken of their fear of roaming the streets at night following a spate of attacks by black-clad men on motorbikes. Street vendors from Africa and Asia have also been targeted.
"For a lot of people in poorer neighbourhoods we are liberators," crowed Yiannis Lagos, one of 18 MPs from the stridently patriot "popular nationalist movement" to enter the 300-seat house in June. "The state does nothing," he told a TV chat show, adding that Golden Dawn was the only party that was helping Greeks, hit by record levels of poverty and unemployment, on the ground. Through an expansive social outreach programme, which also includes providing services to the elderly in crime-ridden areas, the group regularly distributes food and clothes parcels to the needy.
The strategy appears to be paying off. On the back of widespread anger over biting austerity measures that have also hit the poorest hardest, the popularity of the far-rightists has grown dramatically with polls indicating a surge in support for the party. One survey last week showed a near doubling in the number of people voicing "positive opinions" about Golden Dawn, up from 12% in May to 22%. The popularity of Nikos Michaloliakos, the party's rabble-rousing leader had shot up by 8 points, much more than any other party leader.
Paschos Mandravelis, a prominent political analyst, attributed the rise in part to the symbiotic relationship between the police and Golden Dawn. "Greeks haven't turned extremist overnight. A lot of the party's backing comes from the police, young recruits who are a-political and know nothing about the Nazis or Hitler," he said. "For them, Golden Dawn supporters are their only allies on the frontline when there are clashes between riot police and leftists."
Riding the wave, the party has taken steps to set up branches among diaspora Greek communities abroad, opening an office in New York last week. Others are expected to open in Australia and Canada. Cadres say they are seeing particular momentum in support from women. With Greeks becoming ever more radicalised, the conservative-led government has also clamped down on illegal immigration, detaining thousands in camps and increasing patrols along the country's land and sea frontier with Turkey.