In the cradle of democracy, next week's elections are not looking good — for Greeks, European unity or NATO.
In local elections held Sunday, 16% of Athenians voted for Ilias Kasidiaris, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn's candidate for mayor of Athens. Kasidiaris, who sports swastika tattoos and once read from "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" on the floor of Parliament, did even better in the neighborhood where Plato founded his Academy, winning 1 in 5 votes there, three times what the party won in 2012.
"The message of the citizens will be even more fierce in the [European Parliament] elections," Kasidiaris said in an ominous "victory statement."
"Then they will understand the rage of the people."
Never mind that six Golden Dawn leaders are in jail and two dozen others, including Kasidiaris, are under investigation. The Greek government seeks to prove that the group is a top-down criminal organization responsible for crimes that include assaults on migrants, arson, possession of explosives and two murders. Yet Greek political analysts expect Golden Dawn to win two seats in the European Parliament in the May 25 elections, in line with projections that far-right parties will gain strength across Europe.
Among the candidates running under the Golden Dawn banner (which looks strikingly like a Nazi flag) are two retired generals who have held senior positions in the Greek military. One worked at NATO Central Command and on the European Union military staff, while the other commanded Greek special forces.
Two other Golden Dawn candidates for the Euro elections flew to Moscow this spring to meet with Alexander Dugin, an ideologue and longtime Vladimir Putin supporter, on the desirability of a Eurasian alliance between Russia and its former Soviet satellite states. Dugin has been meeting with far-rightists from across Europe.
This raises uncomfortable questions as the United States rallies the 28 members of NATO to stand strong against Russia on Ukraine. Staunchly anti-communist Greece joined NATO in 1952, but Golden Dawn is anti-NATO, viewing Russia as Greece's natural ally. How many other Greek senior officers secretly sympathize with Golden Dawn's ideology?
Most analysts see the elections as a referendum on EU austerity and immigration policies, but Greek leaders warned that Golden Dawn's victory was more than an economic protest vote.
"I shudder to see that 1 in 6 of our fellow citizens voted for a neo-Nazi candidate," said Andreas Papadopoulos, who is running for the European Parliament.
The socialist PASOK party, which has been a strong opponent of Golden Dawn, fared particularly poorly in the local elections. Its leader, Greek deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos, declared, "It is the urgent duty of all citizens and social forces who believe in democracy and human rights to battle the fascist-ization of political life."
While Golden Dawn, Hungary's Jobbik party and other far-right parties are running strong across Europe, they can't win a majority anywhere — yet. So it would be tempting to dismiss Golden Dawn's popularity as a protest against the painful cutbacks imposed as a condition of Greece's financial bailout. It would also be reassuring to view the party's feisty pushback against government prosecution as a legal oddity that will naturally correct itself.
But that would underestimate the malevolence of Golden Dawn. Like other neo-fascist parties, it can make hateful vitriol against Jews, gays, Roma, socialists, migrants and even Brussels bureaucrats seem acceptable, if only by dint of making it commonplace. But Golden Dawn puts muscle behind its menace. Its leaders deny organizing a terror campaign against migrants, but there are hundreds of reports that migrants as well as Greeks of color have been beaten, tortured, mutilated and killed. Prosecutions have been rare, convictions even rarer.
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has been at pains to distance his center-right party from Golden Dawn, launching, if belatedly, the sweeping raids against party leaders in September. But there have been accusations of complicity between extremist strains in Samaras' New Democracy party and the far-rightists. There is disturbing evidence that Golden Dawn has also had support from the "deep state" — wealthy business owners, the police and even the Greek Orthodox Church. And Golden Dawn's anti-Semitism just doesn't seem to raise hackles in a country that pollsters say is the most anti-Semitic in Europe.
Prosecutors have only 18 months to investigate, try and conclude their case against the group, and the clock began ticking with the arrests in September. In a rare public statement, the two magistrates in charge of the case warned that Parliament's delays in lifting immunity so Golden Dawn lawmakers could be questioned and charged could result in suspects going free.
Judicial officials, and their families, have also been receiving death threats. The latest one was two bullets enclosed in a threatening letter mailed last week to the lead prosecutor of the Supreme Court, who had appointed the two magistrates.
The Greek government's case is unprecedented in seeking to dismantle a democratically elected group for its criminal activity. A credible prosecution of neo-Nazi leaders — not for their hateful ideology but for their criminal acts — could restore battered public confidence in the rule of law. But it must be strictly by the books, respecting stringent European human rights standards.
Unfortunately, the government has undermined its own credibility. Last month, a leaked videotape showed a senior aide to Samaras telling Kasidiaris that the criminal case had been filed because Samaras feared losing votes to Golden Dawn. The aide was forced to resign. But Kasidiaris reportedly spent the Easter holidays in the company of senior police officers, and last week he donned a suit and tie to campaign for the European Parliament.