Crackdown or Breakdown: Greek Democracy and Its Discontents

History shows that breakdowns in democratic institutions and culture are the midwife of political extremism. The democracy-extremism connection is currently being played out in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, where Nikos Michaloliakos, head of the far-Right Golden Dawn Party, was jailed last week as part of charges that his party is endangering the country's democracy.

The crackdown on Golden Dawn began last weekend, when Greece's Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, ordered wholesale arrests of leadership and functionaries in the reactionary party. The Prime Minister's domestic message, that the government in Athens will brook no extremist threats to the country's democracy, was amplified in the echo chamber of the UN General Assembly on his policy junket to the United States.

It's ironic that Greece, an economic basket case subjected for the past half-decade to derision by the European Union's core countries smug with economic stability, could take the lead where Europe's self-styled modernists have lagged. After all, it is cases like France, the Netherlands, Austria, and non-EU Switzerland, where extremist parties regularly capture far more than Golden Dawn's 7% of the Greek vote; the far-Right in those countries deliberately draws from national-historical taproots missing in Greece, where living memory equates fascism with savagery, given the experience of Nazi German occupation in Greece during WWII. None of the governments in the aforementioned countries has moved decisively to a zero-tolerance position against a freely-elected, fascist, extremist party.

There should be no quibbling with the Greek government's categorical endorsement of rule of law and tolerance, but the Prime Minister's actions expose a policy paradox--how to crack down on political extremism without producing a breakdown of democratic principles and processes--that makes the Greek story relevant across Europe, especially given the Continent's spectacular failures to resolve that same policy conundrum during the 20th-century.

When riots spread to several cities in Greece after a Golden Dawn supporter admitted to the killing of leftwing hip-hop rapper Pavlos Fyssas, the government's decision to roundup Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos, four other party MPs, and a group of party functionaries, met with an initial outpouring of popular applause and media congratulations in Greece and beyond. Samaras signaled to the Greek citizenry that his New Democracy Party stands resolved to protect the body politic against the pernicious dangers of Golden Dawn's xenophobic language and neo-Nazi appropriations, which have produced episodic social violence catalyzed by illegal immigration and economic deprivation and fueled by charges of police brutality and due-process violations. Samaras' bold action also signaled to the international legal community that Athens took seriously the April 2013 report of the Council of Europe, which identified permissible legal parameters for banning Golden Dawn to safeguard democracy in Greece. Furthermore, Samaras was undoubtedly signaling the all-important IMF-EU-ECB Troika that controls the funding spigot for Greece's financial bailout, as well as the leading Leftist opposition party, SYRIZA, that the New Democracy government remains subservient to the terms of a rescue plan based on austerity uber alis--no matter the social convulsions and humanitarian costs of skyrocketing unemployment, the normalization of suicide as response to the despair of economic ruination, and growing reports of country-wide food and medicines shortages.

Applause for Samaras' bold actions has been quickly muffled by cries of constitutional and legal foul, from constitutional experts and legal scholars concerned with the potential blowback on democracy caused by the clampdown on extremism. The members of Golden Dawn now in custody have been charged with murder, attempted murder, and blackmail; the charges against individuals are being developed to support the foundational allegation that Golden Dawn is a criminal organization that has used systematic violence, along with money laundering and other illegal and corrupt practices. It's the latter claim that matters most, because it constitutes the underlying justification for the government's stated goal of banning Golden Dawn as a threat to democracy.

The burden of proof about the criminal nature and operations of Golden Dawn as a political organization constitutes a separate, albeit related, issue from the illegal actions of individuals belonging to the party. Lawyers and jurists are now debating how to balance the constitutional prohibition on banning political parties against a criminal-code provision that bars from elected office any individuals convicted of flagrant crimes. Meanwhile, political pundits are trumpeting the political-culture and rule-of-law issues refracted through the government move against Golden Dawn. The political class that has governed Greece for the last four decades--in effect, rotating governments helmed by PASOK and New Democracy--has also stewarded the country to economic calamity, and these same political elites have largely escaped culpability (much like Wall Street plutocrats and their government enablers have done in the United States). Consequently, the Greek electorate has grown cynical about democracy as a political system that holds leaders accountable. Golden Dawn has seeded its racist, xenophobic, populism and its street violence in these cracks in the edifice of Greece's democracy, so a smart and scrupulous use of democratic procedure could go far towards reinvigorating the social contract between state and society.

Now is the moment of truth for Prime Minister Samaras and the Greek political class writ large, as well as the country's body politic, to channel the wisdom of their classical ancestors, and recognize that strong democracy is the only way to repel the pernicious threat of political extremism. The government must be absolutely scrupulous in its respect for the constitution and rule of law as the allegations about Golden Dawn and its leaders moves to trial, with no judicial compromises; similarly, the Greek public must demonstrate its agreement with Prime Minister Samaras' recent statement in New York that "there is no room for the neo-Nazis in any part of the democratic world," by condemning outright the ideas and practices of Golden Dawn.

There is no room for shortcuts or triangulation in a healthy democracy. If the Athens government can deal with the scourge of political extremism and the toxin of Golden Dawn by scrupulously using the tools of democracy, suddenly, Europe may be looking to Greece for its political strength, rather than its economic weakness.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she co-chairs Study Groups on Southeastern Europe, and Muslims and Democratic Politics; Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.