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Greeks aghast as far-right party wins votes - but whose?
ATHENS (Reuters) - Almost all Greeks are angry at their country's desperate economic plight these days. Up to seven percent, though, are so angry they seem to have almost become invisible.
Rage with traditional parties and fears over a recession-driven rise in crime have given the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn a vote share of around seven percent, catapulting the party from obscurity to winning 21 seats in parliament.
But the Greeks who cast their ballots for the far-right group are hard to find - or, at least, reluctant to admit how they voted. And some of the few who do say they now regret it.
A 63-year-old taxi driver, who gave his name only as Leonidas out of fear of reprisals, said he voted for the party because his colleagues had been attacked by immigrants.
"But now I realize they (Golden Dawn) are just thugs. I wouldn't vote for them next time," he said.
Since last week's election, TV and internet pictures have emerged of party members in heavy metal makeup, splashed with fake blood and brandishing hunting knives, making Nazi-style salutes or smiling next to an Auschwitz oven.
Linked to racist attacks on immigrants, Golden Dawn says it wants to seal Greek borders with landmines and its election flyers promised to "rid the country of their stench".
But in rundown Athens neighborhoods, the party has managed to build a Robin Hood image among some.
Its members - often muscular young men with shaved heads and tight t-shirts - escorted elderly women to the bank and delivered bags of food to poor families struggling to get by during the country's harshest economic crisis in decades.
Analysts said obscurity had helped the party's cause in a country that resisted Nazi occupation in World War II and was later ruled by a military junta.
"Half of those who voted for them didn't know what they represented, they thought it was a joke. It backfired. I hope they realize their stupidity now," said Yota Frangiskou, a 32-year-old secretary.
The party has been around for two decades, but none of its members are well-known apart from leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos.
Mihaloliakos, an admirer of Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas who ruled from 1936 to 1941, served in the army special forces after being jailed for possessing explosives in the 1970s.
The group uses an ancient Greek symbol resembling the swastika as its logo and books on Aryan supremacy line shelves at its offices, but it denies the neo-Nazi label.
The majority of those who voted for Golden Dawn were men aged 25-34, unemployed and without higher education, pollsters say. Fewer than half of them told pollsters they believed the party represented them, however.
"May God help us. I dread to think that they got in," said Maria Savelona, a 51-year-old widow, who did not vote for them. "People voted in anger, without thinking. When they realize what they did, they'll be afraid."
Analysts wonder whether Golden Dawn can sustain its appeal if repeat elections are held soon.
"It looks like it was more of a reflex reaction, a passive choice. It wasn't a conscious decision," said Dimitris Mavros, head of MRB polling group.
Greek journalists largely avoided covering the party's election campaign. They complained at what they said were efforts to bully reporters at Golden Dawn's first post-election news conference.
Party members ordered journalists to stand to attention for Mihaloliakos and those who refused were expelled.
"Acting like bouncers, they showed their true colors," the Athens Union of Journalists said. "We are not afraid of you. We will reveal your role. You will not have your way."
The party dismissed the incident as a prank.
"The government has been playing pranks on the Greek people - cutting its wages, pensions, sending riot police to spray them with chemicals. Asking journalists to stand up out of respect is no big deal," the party's spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, told Greek TV.
Mihaloliakos made clear at his first public appearance that getting into parliament would not turn his small army of "brave boys in black" into moderates.
He warned those who "betrayed the motherland" to run scared, banging his clenched fist on the podium, a bodyguard on each side: "We are coming!"
For a handful of Greeks, such images and language seem to be less scary than the reality of austerity and the prospect of being ruled by parties they blame for decades of corruption.
In a blog which reproduced a 1987 article by Mihaloliakos praising Adolf Hitler, one visitor posted: "I'd rather be governed by a madman than a thief."
(Writing by Karolina Tagaris; editing by Andrew Roche)
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