Should Greece Ban Golden Dawn?

After the assassination of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in a suburb of Athens on Wednesday, the Greek government is contemplating banning the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, whose supporters have been accused of carrying out the killing.

There are two principal questions for policy makers to answer, one practical, the other theoretical. First, will banning Golden Dawn help the organization’s recruitment or enable the police to destroy its infrastructure? And second, do they have the right to restrict speech and representation in this way?

The Greek party system has splintered  in the last five years, as the center-left PASOK and center-right New Democracy have lost their privileged position. Several smaller parties, including Golden Dawn, have benefited from the weakness at the center. Between 1985 and 2009, New Democracy and PASOK won about 80-85% of the total vote, with the remainder going to much smaller parties. The May 2012 election saw the two combine for just over 32% of the total vote, while five more radical parties on the left and right claimed almost half of the total vote. A second poll in 2012, held in June, produced slightly more cohesive results, as New Democracy rebounded from 18.85% of the vote to 29.66%, giving the two center parties about 42% combined. The main swing among the more extreme parties was towards the left-wing anti-austerity SYRIZA, which rocketed from 16.79% to 26.89% in just two months.

Golden Dawn has materialized out of almost nothing in the last four years. In the 2009 general election, it only won 0.29% of the total vote. In the May and June 2012 elections it won 6.97% and 6.92%, respectively. What is particularly interesting about these figures (despite the small sample size of just two elections) is how stable they are as the vote shares of many other parties changed significantly. The change in Golden Dawn’s share of the vote was less than any other party which received more than 1000 votes in the June poll. Even in an age of weakening party identities, there is still some level of party loyalty in European politics, so it is fairly likely that most people who voted for Golden Dawn in May 2012 voted for them again in June.

What are the implications of this? Most importantly, the consistency of Golden Dawn’s vote share suggests a group of supporters with deep loyalty to the party’s professed ideology. The anecdotal evidence of party members engaging in violence against migrants and leftists supports this conclusion as well–a party with a loyal following is more likely to have supporters who will take their political views into the streets and confront, intimidate, and assault opponents.

If this conclusion is correct, then official sanctions against the party are unlikely to make its members into popular martyrs–as long as there is widespread political support for such legislation (which there seems to be at present) and the key political actors characterize the party as fascist (a label which it rejects). While its members publicly draw on the memory of the post-World War II dictator Ioannis Metaxas, they will be stained by any associations with fascism. This is particularly true in the current political climate wherein some commentators have labeled Angela Merkel’s government a neo-fascist regime for its bailout conditions.

Legislation that allows for a state crackdown on Golden Dawn activities, therefore, will probably not increase its support. About 50% of the electorate voted for the four main left-wing parties in the last election, and given Golden Dawn’s attacks on leftist political activists, they won’t gain many followers from those groups. On the right, it seems unlikely that the Samaras government would proceed with punitive action without a consensus in the New Democracy party, and the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas may produce such uniformity of views. Fyssas was the first Greek to be killed by Golden Dawn supporters, and this seems to have hardened parties across the political spectrum against the fascists. Golden Dawn may gain a few more supporters from the right, but their association with political violence could prove to be tremendously damaging.

The main risk of a government response is not that Golden Dawn will gain supporters, but that its grass-roots followers will become more violent. A crackdown is likely to convince at least some members that they are a repressed group, which may induce acts of violence or domestic terrorism.

The second question is probably more difficult to answer than the first. I am not an expert in Greek constitutional law, but I think that the first paragraph of Article 5 of the constitution suggests that the state does have authority to at least curtail and scrutinize the activities of Golden Dawn.

All persons shall have the right to develop freely their personality and to participate in the social, economic and political life of the country, insofar as they do not infringe the rights of others or violate the Constitution and the good usages.

(emphasis added)

An avowed Golden Dawn supporter has killed another Greek citizen. It is logical to suggest that this action was the result of the supporter’s political beliefs. Combined with the recent history of violence against Greeks and migrants, the state probably has the legal and moral authority to undertake punitive action. On one hand, restricting the activity of Golden Dawn may provoke further violence. On the other, it may allow the police to break up the organization and prevent future violence.

This is by no means a clear-cut choice. The restriction of political rights is an extreme step and, if it is ever taken, it must be taken only in extreme circumstances. Whatever the Samaras government chooses, it will be treading a tricky line between liberty and life. Liberty without life is pointless. Life without liberty is no life at all. The endgame is economic revival, which will hopefully soften the grievances of Golden Dawn supporters and bring them back into the fold of normal party politics. The choice for now is whether state action will produce more violence than it can prevent.

On Topic: Syria

The most explosive, headline-grabbing hot-spot on the American news for the past few weeks has been Syria. Should the US intervene with military force after the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashir al-Assad’s government? Does the United States need allies, a UN resolution, or Congressional approval? What are the implications of military action?

An important rule of bloody civil wars is that there is rarely, if ever, an obviously optimal solution. In this case I would argue that there are only a series of bad options, and it is not clear which is the least bad. I don’t have an answer, but here is a run-down of some pros and cons, as well as some discussion of morality and legitimacy.

First, and most importantly: around 100,000 people are already dead after two and a half years of fighting. This means that, to some extent, American military action is too late. At the same time, there are millions of Syrian civilians who still could be helped by a cessation of hostilities–although it’s not clear that a US strike would produce such an end. The point of this brutal statistic is that condemning the alleged killing of over a thousand people by chemical warfare looks ridiculous when the “international community” has stood by as more than eight times as many people have been killed. And that is because it is at least a little ridiculous.

At the same time, there is good cause for alarm about the use of chemical weapons. They are banned for a reason: they are highly lethal weapons that can be used to kill large numbers of people, they are not easily controlled, and they have horrifying effects on survivors. A military response that indicates general disapproval of their use may produce positive consequences in the future. At least in theory, it could make other nations that possess chemical weapons less likely to use them. However, the real problem here is probably that any country is even allowed to have chemical weapons. Perhaps action in this area would be more effective than lobbing cruise missiles. But such negotiations do no good for the Syrians, and the choice I just posed is false. President Barack Obama can both try to stop the current bleeding (through military or peaceful means) and work to destroy all chemical weapons. However, any action on the latter is very unlikely.

The principal concern with any US military action should be whether it will achieve a defined goal. In this case, can aerial strikes prevent President Assad, either technically or out of fear, from using chemical weapons again? And, as a follow-up, will US action be likely to reduce the number of people killed in Syria in the future by bringing an end to the civil war? Finally, the State Department’s question: how does any action affect US interests? The last, I suspect, will be the most important determinant of any military action. It very often appears to be the deciding point.

The technical question is impossible to answer with certainty. Even the US military probably has less information than they would want about the location of potential targets at this stage. Surely President Assad’s government has moved their command and control installations and their chemical stockpiles. The US may be able to destroy some capabilities, but it seems increasingly unlikely that the American military will know where to bomb.

As for the psychology of the situation, it is also difficult to determine. I suspect that President Assad may be deterred from future chemical weapons use, but not from continuing to wage war on current terms. Only a crippling set of strikes or significant American intervention on the ground would force him to the negotiating table. As it is, he has very little to lose by continuing on the current path. The segments of the population alienated by his conduct of the war are lost to his side, and there is no chance of medium-term national reconciliation.

It seems unlikely that a foreign intervention that is not significant enough to affect the course of the civil war (i.e. determine its outcome) will save a significant number of Syrians. Of course, saving one life is precious, but the political calculations in Washington and other capitals are unlikely to work in that way. To risk something, President Obama and others must expect that they have a reasonable chance of a significant gain. As with just about everything so far, we can’t know, but I am doubtful that any low-level intervention will have determinative importance in the strategic military situation.

President Obama pulled an interesting political trick by roping in Congress to vote on action in Syria. He spread out potential blame for whatever decision the United States makes (although, of course, not making a decision to act now is effectively a decision to not act in the short-term), but probably has not spread much of the potential credit if the decision turns out to be popular. Americans don’t like Congress as a body and will be more likely to credit him for any bit of good news. At the same time, the President can say that he deferred to the nation’s representative body, sharing any potential blame if the situation worsens or if US intervention goes badly. It was a clever, conservative move.

Given the opposition to intervention in Syria among the public, it seems unlikely that there will be US intervention. Add to this the time delay since the alleged chemical attacks, and the warning to the US from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and there is an increasing set of pressures against an American strike. There is no clear “good” option. Good luck to Congress and the President in picking the least bad one.