PIRAEUS, Greece (Reuters) - In the port of Piraeus, dozens of young men with shaven heads and black t-shirts packed a small room one evening to hear Golden Dawn’s dream of a Greece purged of foreigners, its borders sealed with landmines.
“We want all illegal immigrants out, we want to take their stench out of this place,” said Frangiscos Porihis, an election candidate for the ultra-nationalist and highly secretive party.
“They shouldn’t be here and they will leave one way or the other - the good or the bad way,” he told the Piraeus meeting.
With Greece deep in economic and social crisis, the party is promising voters in next month’s elections to start by expelling illegal immigrants - before moving on to the legal ones.
Nevertheless, Golden Dawn denies it is neo-Nazi, although its leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos did introduce himself to Athens city council last year with a Nazi salute.
With its anti-foreigner message plus some welfare parcels for a few of Greece’s many needy, Golden Dawn has emerged from obscurity in the last few months and now seems certain to enter parliament comfortably when the nation votes on May 6.
Flanked by bookshelves lined with books on Aryan supremacy and nationalism, the Piraeus audience listened in rapt attention. Leaflets declaring “Not a single unemployed Greek, not a single illegal immigrant in Greece” lay on tables, alongside manifestos proclaiming “Greece belongs to Greeks”.
Outside, the group’s flag - with an ancient Greek symbol that resembles the swastika set against a red background - fluttered in Piraeus, 10 km (six miles) south of central Athens.
Opinion polls suggest that Golden Dawn could win around 5 percent of the vote, comfortably above the 3 percent threshold for entering parliament. This would be a staggering feat for a party considered until now by many Greeks as little more than a rabble-rousing fringe group which took 0.23 percent in the last general election three years ago.
Linked to racist, anti-immigrant attacks, Golden Dawn is set to become the most extreme right-wing party to sit in parliament since Greece returned to democracy after the fall of a military dictatorship in 1974.
Golden Dawn’s rhetoric resonates with Greeks who blame rising crime on the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants flocking to the country’s porous borders.
Nine out of 10 illegal immigrants entering the European Union in 2010 arrived in Greece, largely from Turkey by land or sea. Last year Italy took the top spot due to a jump in arrivals of people fleeing the Arab Spring upheaval.
Nevertheless, Greece has more than one million immigrants, legal and illegal, in a country of 11 million people.
West African hawkers are a common sight on the streets of Athens, playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the police. However, many are also from Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Africa, hoping to make their way to more prosperous EU countries to the north where work is available.
The party’s community-based efforts and anti-politician talk have also won fans among Greeks bristling with anger at an entire political class which they see as corrupt and self-serving, analysts say.
With repeated waves of wage and pension cuts to save the country from bankruptcy, Greece has sunk into its deepest recession since World War II.
“It’s not that Greeks became right-wing overnight,” said Thomas Gerakis, head of the Marc pollster group. “They just want to send a message to the political system as a whole.”
Golden Dawn’s candidates are not career politicians; they include farmers, shepherds, workers and retired army officers.
The party has no recognizable names apart from its leader Mihaloliakos, who served in the Greek special forces and was elected to the Athens city council in 2010 - giving the Nazi salute on his first appearance there last year.
“Golden Dawn has the advantage of being invisible,” said a political analyst, who declined to be named. “Apart from Mihaloliakos, even I don’t know any of the other faces in the party and I’m in the business. That works as a protective shield for them.”
Polls show the party taking between 4.1 and 5.7 percent next month. Much of that has come at the expense of the nationalist LAOS party, whose ratings plummeted after it joined the outgoing coalition government last year. It later quit after refusing to accept the austerity conditions of Greece’s latest bailout.
In working class neighborhoods of Athens, Golden Dawn has been quietly building itself up as a friendly, reliable face among hard-hit Greeks that the state has failed to help.
For over a year, party members have given needy families bags of rice and pasta, olive oil and clothes in cartons labeled: “I vote for Golden Dawn to clean up the place” and “For Athens to become Greek again”.
Former Socialist voter Katerina Karousi, a 76-year old cancer patient, broke down in sobs when party members showed up at her doorstep with large bags of food on Friday morning.
“I hear they are doing nice things for people. Why not vote for them?” said her husband, 79-year old Andreas Karoussis.
On their way out, a Golden Dawn member bade the couple farewell with: “Call us if you need anything - I mean anything.”
At another stop, 41-year-old Constantina Tassiou looked bewildered and overwhelmed as Golden Dawn members piled clothes and supermarket bags at her doorstep.
“It’s the first time someone has brought us clothes and food. Only the church has helped us so far,” said Tassiou, an epilepsy sufferer whose family lives on her welfare benefits. “I’ll vote for Golden Dawn, maybe it’s time for something new.”
Elsewhere, Golden Dawn escorts the elderly who are wary of immigrants to bank ATMs, said spokesman Elias Panagiotaros.
Golden Dawn’s manifesto is less benevolent than the good-neighbor image its food drive has helped to cultivate. Illegal immigrants must be immediately arrested and deported, and legal immigrants eventually expelled as well, the group says.
It wants crimes committed by immigrants to fall under a special category, with their sentences carried out in special detention centers where the immigrants are put to work.
“There are people who have been living in a building for 40-50 years and they suddenly realize that it’s only them and maybe another family and that the rest are third-world foreigners who live in groups of 30-40 in one apartment,” said Panagiotaros.
The group has little sympathy for the political class. Politicians behind Greece’s crisis must be hauled before a special court, jailed and their property seized, the group says, while any Greek refusing to join the conscript army will be stripped of their citizenship and exiled.
Despite the comparisons with neo-Nazism, Golden Dawn has paradoxically tapped into anti-German sentiment by attacking the bailout package from the EU and International Monetary Fund and what it calls German domination of Europe.
Set up in 1992 and relaunched in 2007, the party admires Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas, who refused to surrender to the Axis powers in 1940.
It calls itself nationalist and insists its logo is the ancient Greek Meander symbolizing bravery and endless struggle.
The group remains enigmatic. Its leader Mihaloliakos declined to be interviewed and ruled out in a campaign speech on Monday any cooperation to forge a coalition government.
“We will never, ever make a deal with the powers of the bailout. A war to the end! We will win our homeland back!” he told cheering supporters.
Members say discipline and years of unwavering dedication are required to win acceptance. One said it can take up to three years to become a member - starting first as a supporter, then as trial-members before joining the “family”.
“For the Communists we are Nazis, for the Socialists we are fascists and for the conservatives we are extreme right,” said Nas, a Golden Dawn member who declined to give his last name. “Let them call me what they want. I do what I do with honor.”
Writing by Deepa Babington; editing by David Stamp