ATHENS (Reuters) - Arm raised in a Nazi-style salute, the leader of Greece's fastest-rising political party surveyed hundreds of young men in black T-shirts as they exploded into cheers. Their battle cry reverberated through the night: Blood! Honour! Golden Dawn!
"We may sometimes raise our hand this way, but these hands are clean, not dirty. They haven't stolen," shouted Nikolaos Mihaloliakos as he stood, floodlit, in front of about 2,000 diehard party followers filling an open-air amphitheatre at Goudi park, a former military camp near Athens.
"We were dozens, then a few hundred. Now we're thousands and it's only the beginning," cried the leader of Golden Dawn, a far-right party that is seeing its support soar amid Greece's economic collapse. Last month's rally revealed the party, which describes itself as nationalist and pledges to expel all illegal foreigners, has a new-found sense of triumph, even a swagger, that some find menacing.
Riding a wave of public anger at corrupt politicians, austerity and illegal immigration, Golden Dawn has seen its popularity double in a few months. A survey by VPRC, an independent polling company, put the party's support at 14 percent in October, compared with the seven percent it won in June's election.
Political analysts see no immediate halt to its meteoric ascent. They warn that Golden Dawn, which denies being neo-Nazi despite openly adopting similar ideology and symbols, may lure as many as one in three Greek voters.
"As long as the political system doesn't change and doesn't put an end to corruption, this phenomenon will not be stemmed," said Costas Panagopoulos, chief of ALCO, another independent polling company. "Golden Dawn can potentially tap up to 30 percent of voters."
The party now lies third in the polls, behind conservative New Democracy and the main opposition, the radical leftist Syriza. Violent behaviour by Golden Dawn members, who often stroll through run-down Athens neighbourhoods harassing immigrants, seems to boost rather than hurt the party's standing.
As the government imposes yet more austerity on an enraged public, the collapse of the ruling conservative-leftist coalition remains on the political horizon. The possibility that Golden Dawn could capture second place in a snap election is slim but real, say pollsters.
Analysts believe that, ultimately, the party lacks the broad appeal and structure needed to gain mass traction. In World War Two Greece suffered massacres and famine in its fight against the Nazis, and the spectre of the 1967-1974 military junta still hangs heavy over its modern politics. So why are many Greeks now turning to a party whose emblems and rhetoric, critics say, resemble Hitler's?
Golden Dawn denies any such resemblance. In an interview with Reuters at an open-air cafe in the Athens district of Papagou, a traditional neighbourhood for military personnel, Ilias Panagiotaros, a Golden Dawn lawmaker and spokesman, explained the party's appeal. "Golden Dawn is the only institution in this country that works. Everything else has stopped working or is partially working," he said.
"We operate like a well-organised army unit, because the military is the best institution in any country."
NO LONGER MARGINAL
Short, squat and combative, Mihaloliakos once praised Hitler and denied the Nazi gas chambers existed. A former special forces commando in the Greek army, he met the leaders of the Greek military junta while in prison for carrying illegal weapons and explosives as a member of a far-right group in 1979.
When pressed on such issues, Golden Dawn says they are all in the past and it is looking to the future.
For years after Mihaloliakos founded the party in 1985 it remained marginal: in the 2009 elections Golden Dawn won just 0.29 percent of the vote, or fewer than 20,000 votes. Yet in June, the party amassed votes from across the political spectrum, wiping out the more moderate nationalist LAOS party and winning support from as far left as the communist KKE party, pollsters said.
Now it is stealing votes from New Democracy, which flip-flopped on the international bailout keeping Greece afloat and, after coming to power, imposed harsh cuts instead of relief measures. Though Golden Dawn attracts mainly urban male voters up to 35 years old, the party is also gaining its share of women and the elderly, primarily those suffering unemployment or falling living standards, say pollsters.
Part of its appeal is down to the sort of welfare work that Hamas, the Palestinian party, does in Gaza. Golden Dawn distributes food in poor neighbourhoods, helps old ladies get money safely from ATMs - and has also set up a Greeks-only blood bank.
One story repeated at cafes, but not verified, is that of a Greek whose house is taken over by immigrants. When he asks the police for help, he is given the Golden Dawn number. Not only do they throw out the squatters but deliver the house clean and painted, the tale goes.
"I voted for Golden Dawn for the first time in June and I will vote for them again because they are the only ones who really care about Greece," said 45-year-old Demetra, an unemployed Athenian, as she walked through the party's rally at Goudi park. "All the other politicians have sold us out."
The gathering was a chance for the party to relish achievements and flex muscle. Well-built youths in black T-shirts emblazoned with the Swastika-like party logo stood in military formation at the entrance. Two men stood to attention on both sides of the podium, flagged with a big sign reading "Getting the stink off the country", while speakers delivered patriotic oratories.
A short film showed highlights of the year, which included attacks on immigrant street vendors, clashes with police outside parliament and food distribution to the poor. When the film showed Golden Dawn lawmaker Ilias Kasidiaris slapping a female communist lawmaker, Liana Kanelli, across the face on live TV, youths bellowed profanities against the victim.
"Golden Dawn's target is simple. We want the absolute majority in parliament so we can replace the constitution with our own," Kasidiaris told the crowd. "It will then be easy to immediately arrest and deport all illegal immigrants."
Pollsters were ready to write off the party when Kasidiaris slapped Kanelli after she swatted him with some papers during a dispute he was having with a Syriza lawmaker. Kasidiaris says he was defending himself; Kanelli says she was coming to the aid of the Syriza lawmaker after Kasidiaris had thrown water at her.
Painting Golden Dawn as an aberration stemming from the financial crisis, pollsters said the party's support would dwindle. The opposite happened - the party gained 3 to 4 percentage points in polls as a direct result of the Kasidiaris incident.
"In this slap, Greek society saw the whole, immoral political establishment get slapped," said Panagiotaros, a thick-set man with a shaved head and a goatee. "People thought: finally!"
‘SPEAK GREEK OR DIE'
In parliament Golden Dawn's 18 lawmakers cluster in a rear corner of the marble-covered hall, but make no attempt to hide their ideology. Recently, Panagiotaros asked the welfare ministry to find out which babies admitted to state day-care centres were actually Greek. Eleni Zaroulia, wife of party leader Mihaloliakos and also a lawmaker, described immigrants as "every sort of sub-human who invades our country carrying all sorts of diseases."
Artemis Matthaiopoulos, another Golden Dawn lawmaker, was formerly the bassist for a heavy metal band called Pogrom, which produced songs such as "Speak Greek or Die" and "Auschwitz".
Rights groups say racist attacks in Greece have been surging, but that many immigrants are reluctant to report them because of their illegal status or mistrust of the police.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other groups recorded 87 racist attacks in the first nine months of the year (comparable statistics for previous years are not available). Perpetrators often used clubs or crowbars and sometimes large dogs, say rights groups. In May an Albanian was attacked with a sword by a masked motorcycle rider; in August a young Iraqi was stabbed to death.
"This is not even the tip of the iceberg - there are even more attacks that are not recorded anywhere," said Daphne Kapetanaki of the UNHCR.
Victims or witnesses sometimes identify Golden Dawn members as the attackers. Javied Aslam, head of the Pakistani Community in Greece organisation, estimates that about 400 Pakistanis have been attacked in the past eight months by Golden Dawn supporters. "There is a huge climate of fear," he said. "People don't leave their houses and workers who leave for their jobs in the morning fear they may not come back home."
Golden Dawn strongly denies any involvement in racist attacks. Several of its members have been detained in relation to such assaults, but have been released for lack of evidence.
One Nigerian victim, 31-year-old Confidence Ordu, said he was beaten up by Golden Dawn supporters in broad daylight in Athens in January as passersby looked on without intervening. Ordu, who was granted asylum when he came to Greece five years ago, said he was walking out of a central Athens subway station when four men dressed in black attacked him, shouting "You don't belong here. Greece is for Greeks".
"I tried to fight back but there were four of them," said Ordu. "They kept punching and hitting me while I was on the ground. There was nothing I could do. So I acted like I was dead until they left. I had blood all over my face and arms."
Bleeding profusely, he went to a nearby police station. He says police first demanded to see papers proving he was a legal immigrant before taking down details of the assault.
"I'm scared all the time and I watch my back all the time," he said. "I only go to places I know. I never go out at night."
Like other victims, he accuses Greek police of supporting Golden Dawn and hindering immigrants in reporting attacks. In a July report, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said gangs of Greeks were regularly attacking immigrants with impunity and authorities were ignoring victims or discouraging them from filing complaints.
Greek police deny accusations they are soft on, or even sometimes work with, Golden Dawn. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias has vehemently denied reports that police were beating up illegal immigrants and has threatened to sue British newspaper The Guardian over the issue. He is at such odds with Golden Dawn that the party ridiculed him during the youth festival at Goudi park.
But a member of the police officers' union, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, admitted there was some sympathy for the party among the ranks. "There are some among the police who ideologically support Golden Dawn and a handful that have been violent against illegal immigrants," the unionist said. "But these cases are being probed by justice."
With more than one million foreign nationals in Greece, a country of 11 million people, tensions are unlikely to ease any time soon. While the government regularly rounds up thousands of immigrants, only a few hundred are sent to specially-built detention centres.
Many migrants pouring in from Asia and Africa, mainly through Greece's porous border with Turkey, dream of moving on to other European countries, but find themselves trapped in Greece by EU rules that return them to their point of entry. Aid groups say they are often forced into crime to survive.
In one case that shocked the nation in 2010, two Afghans lethally stabbed a 44-year-old Greek on the street to steal his video camera as he was taking his pregnant wife to hospital. They were caught trying to sell the camera for 80 euros ($101) and were later sentenced to life in prison for murder. In another much-publicised case, a grandfather was killed on a bus for a handful of coins.
Such incidents, unheard of in Greece a few years back, have fanned resentment against foreigners, who are also seen as stealing jobs while one in four Greeks is unemployed. The jobless rate among young Greeks is even higher - more than 50 percent for those under 25.
Ahead of a visit to Berlin in October, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy, told German media that Greece's woes were similar to conditions that led to the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany and ushered in the Nazis. Extreme leftist populism and "an extreme right, you could almost say fascist, neo-Nazi party," were clashing in the same way that battles between communists and fascists marked the 1919 to 1933 Weimar years, he said.
Syriza is already leading New Democracy in some opinion polls and Golden Dawn could grow stronger, say some observers. George Kyrtsos, an editor who managed the election campaign of the far-right LAOS party, said: "If New Democracy shows signs of collapse, we may see outrageous situations... the two top parties fighting it out on the streets."
Golden Dawn, which gives few details of its finances beyond saying it is funded by supporters, is now opening offices across the country and in Greek communities overseas, including New York.
Panagiotaros, the party spokesman, said he and his colleagues would even be ready for the top spot. The party's priorities for government, he said, would include eradicating corruption and jump-starting the economy, but most importantly closing the borders and expelling all illegal immigrants.
"We will seal the borders but do it properly, not the nonsense they are doing now. Then we will immediately deport all illegals," he said. "Although, when we come to power, they'll leave by themselves."
(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou and Deepa Babington.; Editing by Richard Woods and Simon Robinson)