In the 1980s, Christos Papadimitriou had a high-flying career setting up intensive care units at hospitals across Greece. Now retired, the doctor has found a new way to practice medicine: as an unpaid medical adviser to the
neo-Nazi Social Nationalist Golden Dawn party.
Tens of thousands of Greeks lost access to the state healthcare system when they became unemployed and can’t afford private treatment. They [Golden Dawn] are trying to help, so I volunteered,” the French-trained physician said in his cramped consulting room at the party’s Athens headquarters.
Papadimitriou takes medical histories from patients at twice-weekly sessions, he says, and recommends specialists from a list of 150 doctors who offer their services free of charge to impoverished Golden Dawn supporters."The state system is now desperately underfunded because of the crisis. Families don’t keep up with vaccinations, for example, and psychiatric help is hard to find,” he adds. “Golden Dawn’s network helps fill the gaps.”
Golden Dawn exploded on to Greece’s political scene from the wreckage of a devastating economic crisis that erased more than a quarter of the country’s economic output over five years and pushed unemployment above 26 per cent. Its members have become known for their menacing black shirts, strident anti-immigrant rhetoric and Nazi-style torchlit rallies.While the welfare programme pursued by Dr Papadimitriou is a less appreciated part of its appeal, party leaders are relying on it as they try to establish deep roots in Greek society for years to come.
The softer approach is already finding a receptive audience among the wide swath of the Greek population that has felt abandoned as the country’s crisis-hit government has been forced to slash social spending to comply with the terms of its international bailout.
“The crisis has changed the way voters interact with political parties,” said Antonis Ellinas, a political-science professor at Cyprus University. “Golden Dawn seems to have found a way to offer something to voters through its social programme and thus consolidate its support.”
As well as medical advice, Golden Dawn activists regularly distribute food to needy families, provided they are Greek citizens not immigrants. The handouts have been curtailed since parliament voted to cut the party’s €800,000 annual allocation of state funding.
|October 2013: Greece cracks down on the far-right Golden Dawn party after several members were arrested following the killing of an anti-fascist rapper.|
Yet its 16 lawmakers still contribute almost 60 per cent of their salaries to “social welfare action to alleviate poverty and maintain the dignity of Greek patriots”, says Ilias Panayiotaros, a Golden Dawn deputy for Athens.
Angeliki Papadopoulou says her family began receiving food aid from the party after her husband, a carpenter, lost his job two years ago: “They used to deliver enough to fill the refrigerator twice a month . . . Now it’s less often but it still makes a big difference.”
The jobless rate in Ano Liosia, Mrs Papadopoulou’s neighborhood in western Athens, is 70 per cent, more than double the national average.
“All our extended family will vote for Golden Dawn and so will a lot of other people around here,” she says. “They were there for us when the state wasn’t helping and neither were any of the other political parties.”
With EU elections looming later this month, Golden Dawn is polling at 7-8 per cent, putting it in third place along with a new centre-left party To Potami, or River, behind the governing centre-right New Democracy party and Syriza, the leftwing opposition.
Ilias Kasidiaris, a former army commando running for mayor of Athens at local government elections being held on May 18 and May 25, is doing better with 12 per cent, according to an opinion poll published last weekend.
The bulk of Golden Dawn’s voters used to support New Democracy, but have shifted to the right amid discontent with a traditional political class they blame for the economic crisis, the pollster said.
Until now, Golden Dawn has been more associated with street violence than public health.
Its founder and leader, Nikos Mihaloliakos, was jailed last year in a crackdown prompted by the fatal stabbing of an anti-fascist rap artist by a self-admitted Golden Dawn supporter. Two young Golden Dawn members were killed last November in an apparent revenge attack for the rapper’s death.
“We heard shots and we rushed out on the office balcony,” a burly 24-year-old dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans as he pointed to the spot on the pavement outside the party offices where his comrades were shot. “It was just like a movie.”
Although it is hard to verify how many medical patients Golden Dawn has served, much of its appeal owes to the sorry state of Greece’s healthcare system.
A chaotic two-year overhaul of the state health system aimed at reducing costs and corruption has curtailed services and driven thousands of Greek doctors to seek work in other EU countries. Even before that, patients often languished for months waiting for non-emergency surgery or resorted to paying a cash bribe, known as a “fakelaki”, for hospital services.
With a recommendation from Dr Papadimitriou, Golden Dawn’s supporters can avoid such hazards and be seen by a specialist – almost always at no charge.
“We check back with the patient to make sure the doctor they saw has kept their word and not asked for a fee,” says Jenny Christou, a professional nurse who is married to a Golden Dawn lawmaker.
Greece’s social welfare ministry did not return calls seeking comment about Golden Dawn’s activities. In general, though, the government has welcomed pro bono activities to ease the strain on the state system.[lie]
As for Dr Papadimitriou, he shrugged when asked if he felt conflicted about providing medical work for a political party implicated in violence – and even murder.
“I’m aware of the allegations about violence involving party members, but I don’t have any personal knowledge,” he said. “My role here is about obtaining medical care for the people who contact us for help.”