ATHENS – The only thing that's clear after the contentious and chaotic Greek parliamentary elections, which appear to be headed for a revote in June, is that Greeks are willing to go to extremes to find an alternative to the country's current malaise. Most Greek media have long vilified the Coalition of the Radical Left, known as Syriza, as crazed ideologues who incite riots. But late Sunday evening, all eyes were on Syriza's telegenic leader, a 37-year-old engineer named Alexis Tsipras. "The people of Europe can no longer be reconciled with the bailouts of barbarism," he told state-run NET TV. "European leaders, and especially Ms. Merkel, should realize that her policies have undergone a crushing defeat."
Merkel is sticking to her script, saying Greece still has to follow through on the tough terms of the bailout. Market analysts, meanwhile, continue to downgrade Greece's chances of surviving in the single currency.
Syriza got less than 5 percent of the vote in 2009, but on Sunday, May 6, the party emerged as the freshest face in Greek politics, finishing second with almost 17 percent of the vote -- its best-ever showing. It finished just behind conservative New Democracy and ahead of the long-powerful PASOK, the mainstream socialist party virtually demolished by the debt crisis. New Democracy and PASOK have jointly dominated Greek politics for the last four decades, but this time, voters blamed them for bankrupting the country and then accepting EU-imposed austerity measures in exchange for billions in bailout loans.
The economic crisis has dramatically reshaped Greek society, and these elections revealed just how fractured the country is right now. Both Tsipras and New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras failed to woo partners for a coalition government. Tsipras couldn't find allies for a governing alliance of leftist parties that would nationalize the country's banks and cancel austerity measures by reneging on the terms of the current loan agreement. He said he would only work with PASOK and New Democracy if they publicly renounced the bailout. The leaders of both parties refused. "Mr. Tsipras asks me to accept Greece's exit from the euro and the country's bankruptcy," Samaras told reporters on Wednesday.
The question that's paralyzing Greeks right now is essentially one about sovereignty. Since they don't want to accept the harsh terms that foreign lenders have imposed in return for aid, what's the other path they should take and what consequences will it have? And who is capable enough to lead them through it?
PASOK and New Democracy had a hard time handling even local problems, such as the rising crime and decay that have turned some central Athens neighborhoods into polarized, drug-infested ghettos where Greeks and new immigrants from South Asia and Africa -- many of them undocumented -- don't mix. More than 90 percent of Europe's illegal immigrants enter through Greece. Both the European Union and the Greek government have failed spectacularly to manage the rising social crisis stemming from the massive influx of jobless and often desperate people. Many end up stuck in Athens, homeless or living in severely overcrowded and unsafe buildings. Greek police attribute about 60 percent of the city center's crime to illegal immigrants, many of whom are trying to pay off the traffickers who brought them in. The growing fear of immigrant crime has fueled the rise of Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, an ultranationalist, fascist party that's best known for inciting violent attacks on undocumented migrants and employing Nazi-esque iconography. Leila Hassan, a 20-year-old mother of two from Somalia, said she was attacked by a gang of young men while walking with her toddler daughter. "They hit me in the face and yelled, 'Mavro! Mavro!'" she said, using the Greek word for black.
Golden Dawn says it's focused on protecting, not attacking. When I first spoke to spokesman Ilias Panagiotaros several months ago, he pointed out that elderly people in central Athens were too afraid to leave their homes because they would get attacked by "gangs of Afghans." Golden Dawn members escort grandmothers to ATMs, the supermarket, even church. "The police don't do anything here, so we have to do it ourselves," he said. "We are about action and we give results. People see that, and they will vote us into Parliament."
And that's exactly what happened on Sunday. In 2009, when Greeks still ostracized the party as neo-Nazi thugs, Golden Dawn got just 0.23 percent of the vote. Now rebranded as patriots for rabidly opposing the bailout and declaring, "Greece belongs to the Greeks," the party won a stunning 7 percent of the vote and 21 seats in Parliament. At a voting precinct in the central Athens neighborhood of Patissa, my mother heard several people, most of them elderly, proudly declare their support for Golden Dawn. "They're going to win and then the next day we won't have any debt!" my mother says she heard one old man exclaim to an approving crowd.
It didn't seem to matter that many of these same voters lived through the horrific Nazi occupation of World War II, which killed tens of thousands of Greeks. The night of the election, a taxi driver in his 60s actually told me that "World War II was a long time ago and these are different Nazis." The point, he said, is that Golden Dawn "will clean up Greece by force." Party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos is an aging former army commando who gave the Nazi salute after being elected to the Athens municipal council in 2010. "Those who betrayed the motherland, you should be scared now," he said on Sunday, celebrating after his party's big win.
Mainstream politicians realized that Golden Dawn's anti-immigrant, tough-on-crime message was resonating with voters, so they adapted it for their own campaigns. New Democracy's Samaras declared that Greeks had to "take back our cities" from illegal immigrants. Michalis Chrysochoidis, a PASOK deputy who served as public order minister in the caretaker government, ordered the construction of dozens of detention centers to keep immigrants until they were deported. Former Public Health Minister Andreas Loverdos, also of PASOK, blamed immigrants and drug-addicted prostitutes for spreading infectious diseases. He and Chrysochoidis released the names and photos of 12 prostitutes with HIV but sidestepped questions by Greek journalists about the government's failure to curb the illegal sex and drug trades in Athens. "Targeting and stigmatizing people as health risks doesn't solve any problems," said Apostolos Veizis, head of the medical support unit of Medicins Sans Frontiers-Greece. "It's based on the most cynical kind of politics."