The recent murder of left-wing activist Pavlos Fyssas in Greece has drawn further attention to the rise of the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn. For many, this phenomenon may be understood as the result of the economic crisis facing Greece, the severe austerity measures, declining living standards, the lack of jobs and the government shut-downs.
However other European countries facing similar crisis conditions including the economic problems of debt, low growth and high unemployment have not seen such a rise in right-wing extremism. In Ireland there is no extreme right-wing party. In Spain, the regionalist/nationalist Platform for Catalonia has experienced some increase in its support at the local level, but this is only marginal. In Portugal the Partido Nacional Renovador remains on the fringes of the party system. And in Italy, support for the Lega Nord actually declined in the latest elections. Greece is to a great extent a unique case.
If we define extremism as the absence of pluralism, then we may understand the rise of the extreme right in Greece in terms of the country's nationalist culture and the historically embedded political polarization between left and right. This political culture is deep-rooted shaped by the institutionalization of mass nationalism post-independence, the country's bloody civil war and the military dictatorship. While the two sides agree on little, there is a shared culture of intolerance, lawlessness and defiance of authority which are defining features of Greek national pride.
This is being constantly reinforced by Greece's national education system: Greeks are taught to glory in lawlessness and defiance. They are raised with narratives of national heroes whose ultimate deed is self-sacrifice for their nation; and with a discourse which portrays Greece as having been historically a victim of outsiders, be it the Ottomans, modern Turkey, Germany during the Second World War or present day Germany.
This deeply embedded polarization on the one hand, and the sense of national superiority, based on ethnic and Orthodox religious identity on the other, have inhibited the consolidation of a liberal mainstream political centre, the establishment of a strong civil society and a political culture based on pluralism and toleration. Any attempts to reform the system that propagates this worldview are quickly shut down.
In this sense, the crisis has not created the rise of the Golden Dawn, but it has facilitated it by exposing the weak democratic foundations of Greek society. During the post-dictatorship era, the democratic system became premised on populism, corruption and clientelism rather than strong civil society institutions. It contained but did not eradicate Greece's culture of political polarization, violence and intolerance.
The recent economic crisis threw that political system into turmoil. The resulting fragmentation of the party system has allowed the political expression of a culture of intolerance in the form of support for extreme parties.
The rise of the Golden Dawn is increasingly leading to the legitimization of violence, further polarization of debate into far left and right, and legislation focusing on stricter immigration and citizenship.
One part of the issue is that the main opposition to the Golden Dawn comes from radical left-wing forces, further fuelling political polarization. Another is the party's broad electoral support. Recent polls show that while there is some truth in the view that the far-right is backed by angry young men, middle-aged voters are also among the most supportive, with rising popularity among older people and pensioners. Voters come from both low but also middle educational backgrounds, and most professions. Although most come from the right of the political spectrum, a significant percentage consider themselves 'centre-right and/or centre-left', and some are former voters of left-wing parties.
A poll conducted just after the murder has indicated that the Golden Dawn remains the third strongest party with its support down from 8.5% in early September to 7% - although there is a decline, this is still a high percentage for a party so tainted with violence and extremism.
Banning the Golden Dawn might provide a short-term solution, but will not solve the problem in the long-term. A ban is likely to be seen as illegitimate and create a backlash; it could force the Golden Dawn underground and lead to the emergence of similar movements whose members see themselves as street soldiers united by the ultimate goal of freeing Greece from colonizing outsiders.
The question is less about whether we should tolerate the intolerant in the short-term, and more about how we may foster a society that does not produce a culture of intolerance in the longer term. What is needed is a strengthening of civil society and an education system that promotes pluralism, respect for institutions and the Rule of Law; in other words, a strong, liberal, mainstream political centre which values not simply procedural, but most importantly substantive democracy.
Note: this a co-authored post with Dr. Sofia Vasilopoulou, Lecturer in Politics, University of York, UK