Voters in Greece have punished the coalition government’s austerity regime in regional and municipal elections, with a strong vote for the radical left Syriza party.
But the increasingly sharp polarisation in Greek politics also showed a worrying rise in the share of the vote for the nazi Golden Dawn in the first round of the elections held on Sunday 18 May.
Syriza is only a point behind the leader in the race for mayor of Athens and is narrowly ahead in the battle for regional governor of Attica, the region surrounding the capital where about a third of the population lives.
The ruling coalition of the conservative New Democracy and social democrat Pasok parties is desperately worried about the second round of elections and – more importantly – their fate at the polls for the European Parliament, which will take place on the same day.
Voters have used this week’s first round as a referendum on austerity – even harsher in Greece than in the rest of Europe – and sent a warning shot across the government’s bows. Pasok in particular has seen its support plummet as voters move left towards Syriza.
There is huge anger at the harsh austerity measures linked to the “memorandum” – the bailout by the International Monetary Fund and the EU.
In Athens, Syriza is in the tightest of races with Pasok– both will go through to the second round in the mayoral contest, but for the first time since the end of the Colonels’ regime in 1974, New Democracy will miss out on the second round.
And the contest is also neck and neck between Syriza and New Democracy for the governorship of the Ionian Islands, with Syriza just a point behind.
But the results for the fascists of Golden Dawn show a worrying increase since the 2012 general election when the party came from nowhere to take 6.9% of the vote.
Although local and parliamentary elections are not always directly comparable because voting patterns can be different, the Golden Dawn share of the vote across the country has grown in these polls, to reach 7.8%.
The new results are far higher than in the last municipal elections in 2010, before the fascists’ 2012 surge, when Golden Dawn took 5.3% in Athens and less than 2% in the city of Thessaloniki and the Peloponnese region.
This time Golden Dawn has stood in all but one of the 13 regions – and in some of these it will be encouraged by a strong vote. In Athens, Golden Dawn has won a substantial 16.1% share, putting the fascists only narrowly in fourth place behind New Democracy.
Golden Dawn has won 11.1% in Attica, 9% in the Peloponnese and Central Greece regions, 8.7% in Central Macedonia, 7.8% in Western Greece and 6.9% in Thessaly.
In total, the fascist party has picked up around 450,000 votes. This is only slightly higher in absolute numbers than the 440,000 it took in May 2012.
But the rise in the Golden Dawn vote is significant and worrying: it comes despite the widespread exposure of the party’s nazi politics since the 2012 elections – when it was a largely unknown force – and despite the fact that several of its leaders are in jail, charged with membership of a criminal organisation in the wake of the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas last year.
But with around a quarter of the population thrown out of work in the past three years, bitterness at austerity can push people into the arms of the fascists as well as to the left.
In a telling comment ahead of the poll one voter, a 45-year-old mother of two, told the Reuters news agency:
I’ll vote for Golden Dawn or Syriza. Why vote for those who have robbed us? My husband’s salary has shrunk to €600 (£488.50), I’m out of work and my young son got a night job for €400 to help us out
It’s not a matter of ideology, I don’t give a damn about their politics. My message is clear and I’ll use every opportunity to send it: Get out!
Next week’s second round will decide the key city mayors and the regional governors.
And the European elections could prove a tipping point for the government. Prime minister Samaras has urged voters to return to New Democracy so that Greece can take “stable steps” – towards more austerity. There is a possibility that more defeats for the coalition parties next week could force a general election.
But the European poll now also looks likely to see the election of Golden Dawn MEPs for the first time.
This is an election where racist and fascist parties across Europe are expected to make gains. But the Greek nazis – along with Hungary’s Jobbik – represent the most open and hardcore wing of European fascism. MEP seats for Golden Dawn will raise the bar for fascists elsewhere in Europe.