Golden Dawn’s third place in the polls is not all it seems

The party is only third because of the collapse of others around it.

Polls in Greece show the far-right Golden Dawn party would come third were an election held tomorrow. The party’s policies include putting landmines on the Greek border to kill illegal immigrants, and its logo is a Hellenised swastika. The country’s Prime Minister and BBC journalists alike have drawn chilling parallels between the rise of Golden Dawn and the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s.

There’s no doubt that Golden Dawn’s mere presence in the Greek Parliament is a worrying development. But the “Golden Dawn is in third place” headline – which has now spread like wildfire through commentary about the situation in Greece – doesn’t quite capture the full picture.

The party may be in third place, but not as a result of any huge growth in support since the last election: in the 2012 elections Golden Dawn ended up with 6.9 per cent and came fifth. Since the election, they have only seen a modest increase of about 3 per cent on that figure, to 9.2 per cent.

The party is only third because of the collapse of others around it. PASOK, which won 43.9 per cent of the vote and a majority in 2009 under George Papandreou, is now on 7.2 per cent after betting the farm on the Trokia’s austerity. Its votes are now mainly split between Syriza and New Democracy.

The story is similar with the Greek Communist Party (KKE): after pursuing a disastrous anti-coalition strategy in 2012, the KKE, recently third-placed itself, has lost most of its votes to Syriza. Likewise, the centre-right, anti-bailout Independent Greeks, which beat Golden Dawn in 2012, has seen its vote drain away both to New Democracy’s promised renegotiation of austerity and Syriza's anti-bailout pole of attraction.

Is it worrying that Golden Dawn has got to where it is? Absolutely. But third place is a lot less impressive than it used to be in Greece.

The party’s poll position also fails to capture the disappearance of the old main far-right party, Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). LAOS were the main anti-immigration party before they joined the pro-bailout coalition government in November 2011, a decision which wiped them off the map politically.

To be sure, Golden Dawn are much nastier than LAOS: where Golden Dawn want to put landmines on the border, LAOS wanted to end all migration from outside the EU and deport many immigrants who were already in Greece – familiar demands from far-right parties across Europe.

But the disappearance of LAOS, which took 5.6 per cent in the 2009 elections, and the sudden emergence of Golden Dawn on 6.9 per cent in 2012, suggests a fairly direct transfer of votes between the two parties.

The number of voters willing to vote for a party of the far-right has gradually crept up as Greek society disintegrates, but an increase from 5.6 per cent to a notional 9.2 per cent over three years of human catastrophe is hardly meteoric, and should be viewed in perspective.

This analysis isn’t meant to denigrate those who repeat that Golden Dawn are now in third place without explaining its context. With honourable exceptions, the human tragedy that is unfolding in Greece is horrendously under-reported: an eye catching headline or two to draw attention to the folly of what is being imposed on the Greeks can only be a good thing.

The leader of Golden Dawn, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, speaks during a press conference at an Athens hotel. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.