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Greek Unease Fuels Rise Of Far-Right 'Golden Dawn'

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Greeks go to the polls Sunday in a climate of intense voter anger at the politicians they blame for turning their country into an international economic pariah. Protest votes could fill Parliament with an array of new parties, and most surprising is the growing popularity of the xenophobic Golden Dawn, which espouses a neo-Nazi ideology.

Costas Panagopoulos, who runs the Alco polling agency, says he has never seen such an unstable political climate in Greece. There are hardly any campaign posters from the long-dominant Socialist and New Democracy parties. Traditional outdoor rallies have been replaced by quiet, indoor gatherings with loyal supporters.

The muted — apparently clandestine — campaign stems from the two big parties' plummeting credibility.

"There is a lot of anger within Greek society," Panagopoulos says. "We are moving to the elections wanting to punish those we blame for today's situation."

The Anti-Austerity, Anti-Immigrant Party

The mainstream parties are paying the highest price for the country's economic decline. One of the most active new parties is the ultra-right-wing Golden Dawn.

Its latest rally was in the working-class neighborhood of Bournasi. Party supporters here are mostly young, muscular, tattooed men, heads shaven, wearing black T-shirts with the party logo — an ancient Greek motif resembling the swastika. They blame the eurozone crisis on what they call international "banksters."

After almost negligible support in elections three years ago, polls suggest Golden Dawn could win as much as 5 percent. Its message is simple: Dump austerity measures and kick immigrants — all of them are considered illegal — out of Greece.

"We are a Christian nation and we are Europeans. We don't need Asians, Muslim fanatics in our country, simple as that," says Ilias Panagiotaros, Golden Dawn spokesman, as he explains party policy: "Seal our borders with mines, full protection from army in the borders, high penalties and fines for Greeks who rent houses to illegal immigrants, high penalties and fines for Greeks who have illegal immigrants in their jobs."

The Golden Dawn bookshop sells Hitler's Mein Kampf and other neo-Nazi propaganda. But Panagiotaros sidesteps a question about members' use of the Nazi salute.

"You call it Nazi salute. That was how they were saluting in ancient Rome, in ancient Greece, so we consider this ancient Greek saluting," he says.

A Prayer To 'Restore Order'

In Agios Panteleimonas, a neighborhood densely populated by Asian and African immigrants, the crime rate has soared in recent years. This is Golden Dawn's recruiting ground, among the native, impoverished and frightened underclass.

Party members offer themselves as bodyguards to escort the elderly to ATM machines and grocery shopping. In front of the Orthodox Church, large graffiti proclaims "Greece for Greeks."

An elderly woman, who gives only her first name, Stavroula, is grateful to Golden Dawn. "I pray to God," she says, that "they will enter Parliament and restore order."

Pollster Panagopoulos says Golden Dawn does not have deep political roots in a country that prides itself on its heroic anti-Nazi resistance in World War II. He blames the mass media for failing to inform voters about the party's real ideology.

"They do not know what these guys believe," says Panagopoulos. "Those people, first of all, they do not believe to democracy. We are talking about Nazis."

And yet, Golden Dawn's anti-immigrant campaign has put the spotlight on an issue long ignored by the political mainstream — the large inflow of immigrants, now representing 10 percent of the population.

In a bid to catch up, the government this week opened the first of dozens of detention camps for illegal immigrants.

Golden Dawn is one of several fringe parties — on the left and the right — taking advantage of the discredited political mainstream. Several analysts say this fragmentation will make governing difficult — a reminder of the instability and social unrest of Weimar Germany in the 1930s.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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