ATHENS, Greece – Greece swore in 300 legislators for just one day before it dissolves Parliament and calls new elections, among them 21 lawmakers from Golden Dawn — arguably the most far-right party to be involved in a European national legislature since Nazi-era Germany.
Formerly a shadowy fringe group, Golden Dawn vehemently rejects the neo-Nazi label, insisting it is a nationalist patriotic party, but its meteoric rise from a largely marginalized outfit a few years ago to one that won nearly 7 percent in recent elections has alarmed many in Greece and in Europe.
In the traditional Parliamentary swearing-in ceremony Thursday, Golden Dawn legislators refused to stand as two Muslim deputies took their oaths on the Quran instead of the Bible.
"Beginning today Golden Dawn is officially in Parliament to speak the language of truth and to express all Greeks," said Ilias Kassidiaris, who was elected into Parliament and is also the party spokesman.
But the party, like all others, will be tested once more at the ballot box next month. The May 6 election left no party with enough votes to form a government after Greeks furious over the handling of the country's financial crisis deserted the two formerly dominant parties, the socialists and conservatives. They turned instead to smaller groups to the right and left of the political spectrum, including those on the extremes.
Coalition talks collapsed after nine days, leaving no other option but a repeat election. A caretaker government has been appointed, to be led by a senior judge, and the newly sworn-in Parliament is to be dissolved Friday so an election can officially be called, expected for June 17.
Golden Dawn gained from both a protest vote from people angered by increasing hardship ensuing from austerity measures imposed in return for billions of euros in international rescue loans, and from a backlash against an illegal immigration problem that has spiraled out of control.
"People say they are trouble, they might hit people and do other things, but there are some people that were helped by Golden Dawn," said Athens resident Mattheos, who would not give his surname. "They are not right about everything, about land mines on the border, but they are right about one thing - immigration."
Golden Dawn campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, promising to expel all illegal immigrants and clean up crime-ridden neighborhoods, while also delivering care packages of food and clothing to needy Greeks. It also advocated planting land mines along Greece's border with Turkey to stop any more illegal immigrants entering the country.
While rejecting the neo-Nazi label, some of its members have openly admired some of Hitler's policies, saying he worked to better the lot of his people. Party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos caused a backlash in Greece earlier in the week when he claimed Nazi concentration camps did not use ovens and gas chambers to kill prisoners during the Holocaust.
Its members have also been blamed for violent racist attacks in the center of Athens and elsewhere.
"We are now in a world in which we should not be afraid. We will face the problem face to face. We will deal with it with democratic means, with dialogue," said Mike Matsas, head of the Jewish Youth of Athens. "I think people and society, with their sanity, will understand sooner or later what they (Golden Dawn) are and will take appropriate measures."
In the run-up to the last election, there was a backlash against the party in Greece and abroad. Since their strong showing at the polls, politicians and civil rights groups have criticized them as an extremist party with no place in Parliament.
"The Golden Dawn party is a dark stain on European politics. For the first time in over six decades a seemingly long hidden Nazi ideology returned to power," said Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress. "The Golden Dawn party is not a far-right wing party, it represents a neo-Nazi vision and ideology that many believed was isolated. Their political rise should have sent shock-waves through Europe and we expect politicians to openly reject this new-old danger."
The party has been sidelined by Greece's politicians.
Michaloliakos, who came to prominence a few years ago when he gave a fascist salute during his first appearance as a newly-elected member of the Athens City Council, was not invited to power-sharing talks in the aftermath of the May 6 vote.
None of the other parties sought out Golden Dawn's support, and Greek President Karolos Papoulias, who brokered the last efforts at breaking the political deadlock, didn't invite Michaloliakos to negotiations over a potential technocrat government. Michaloliakos then stayed away from the final meeting called to decide on a caretaker government, where constitutionally all parties with parliamentary representation must be invited.
"We haven't seen that brand of a far-right party entering a national parliament but I wouldn't divorce it from a broader trend," said Matthew Goodwin, an associate fellow at Chatham House, explaining that extremist right-wing groups have been on the rise since the 1980s, long before the current financial crisis, and don't just try to win seats in legislatures but have active cells, defense leagues and other grassroots activities.
Opinion polls in recent days have shown a distinct fall in support for Golden Dawn, although it might still gain above the 3 percent threshold needed to enter parliament.
"The party of Golden Dawn is small and will probably decline in its electoral influence," said political science professor Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos. "If it has an influence, this will not be in terms of affecting parliamentary politics of our country. It will be an influence on matters of foreign policy."
Greece's 16-member caretaker Cabinet, led by Council of State head Panagiotis Pikrammenos, a 67-year-old judge, was also sworn in Thursday to lead the country to next month's election.
Giorgos Zanias, a senior Finance Ministry official and top negotiator in the nation's huge debt write down deal concluded earlier this year, has been appointed caretaker finance minister. Veteran diplomat Petros Molyviatis was named foreign minister, a post he also held in 2004-06.
The temporary government will not be able to take any internationally binding decisions, and its sole aim is to lead the country into the new elections.
Karel Janicek in Prague, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw and Annita Mordechai in Athens contributed.