Europe's far-right softens image for elections

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Associated Press

Posted on May 20, 2014 at 8:11 AM

Updated Tuesday, May 20 at 8:33 AM

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — There were no intimidating guards at the door, or angry chants of "Blood, Honor, Golden Dawn," as there have been in the past.

In fact, the guests looked more like members of a large wedding party than supporters of Europe's most prominent extreme-right political group.

At a central Athens hotel, Golden Dawn presented candidates for this week's European Parliament elections who would have looked out of place a few months ago: Lawyers, entrepreneurs, and university lecturers, the women seated at the front.

Struggling to form alliances, even the most extreme parts of Europe's far right are softening their image, as a wide variety of anti-establishment parties seek gains across a continent emerging from financial crisis.

Golden Dawn's leaders for decades expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler and their supporters staged regular protests in paramilitary-style outfits. The leaders are currently jailed on charges of running a criminal organization,

This week, though, campaign volunteers handed out helium-filled balloons to children, and candidates ran under the relatively tame slogan of "For a Europe of Nations, Not Banks."

Campaigns elsewhere in Europe were also tempered.

In Hungary, Gabor Vona, leader of the far-right Jobbik party, previously described Jewish groups as "Israeli conquerors," pledging that his country would not give into them even if "all of Europe licks their feet."

Now, Jobbik has cut out his vitriolic rhetoric against Jews and Gypsies, and Vona is seen on party pamphlets cradling three puppies in his lap.

Far-right and ultra-nationalist parties are likely to win or regain representation in around a dozen of the European Union's 28 members, with Austria's Freedom Party likely to make a strong showing, along with France's National Front, Jobbik and nationalists and anti-immigration parties in Latvia, Bulgaria, Denmark, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Golden Dawn is polling around 8 percent in opinion surveys, and its candidate for mayor of Athens received 16 percent of the vote in weekend municipal elections.

Despite the success, cooperation with other nationalists in Europe could prove difficult.

France's surprise poll leader, the National Front, has publicly distanced itself from Golden Dawn and Jobbik as it bids for the mainstream vote. And Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigration Dutch Freedom Party, also described Golden Dawn as "too extreme and militaristic" to allow an alliance.

Dutch researcher Cas Mudde argues the popular perception of a far-right ascendancy across Europe is mistaken.

"When you put it in a historical context, there isn't actually that much change," said Mudde, an assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia in the United States.

The far-right vote, he said, has receded in as many countries as it has gained over the past decade.

"Parties come and go. The Greater Romania party had been a been a major party through the 1990s and then completely disappeared," he said, while British National Party leader Nick Griffin is unlikely to be re-elected to the European Parliament.

Far-right support rises and falls, Mudde argued, as issues like local corruption, immigration, and multiculturalism appear and fade from national debate.

The once-marginal Golden Dawn saw its support explode as financial crisis sank Greeks into poverty, and voters of traditionally dominant parties became disillusioned.

But economic hardship alone is a poor indicator, according to Greek political scientist Nikos Marantzidis.

"The rise of Golden Dawn has more political origins than financial. If you look at financially troubled Spain, Portugal and Ireland, they saw no rise of the ultra-right," said Marantzidis, an associate professor at the University of Macedonia in northern Greece.

"There is always a nationalist backdrop in countries where far-right support has risen."

State funding for Golden Dawn was axed this year after party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and other senior members were jailed during a judicial investigation into alleged links between the group and frequent attacks against immigrants and left-wing activists.

Lawyer Georgia Vardoulaki, a Golden Dawn candidate, maintains the charges were engineered by the government to stop her party's rise in popularity, which reached double digits nationally in 2013 surveys.

"We are not Greek Nazis or Greek Fascists. We are Greek nationalists. ... We support nationalism and our race," she said, adding that Golden Dawn hoped to be part of a nationalist voting bloc in the EU parliament.

"The European Union started off with the aim of being a family of nations and has morphed into a bloc of masters and slaves," she said. "I think the elections will send a message to a Europe that is rotting and is losing its identity. One thing is certain: Our voice will be heard."

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AP writers Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Mike Corder in The Hague, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Elaine Ganley in Paris, and other correspondents around Europe contributed to this report.

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