ATHENS, Greece — Reeling from a vicious financial crisis that has cost them pensions and jobs, Greeks have been turning away in droves from the mainstream politicians they feel have let them down. Another political force is trying to tap the void, with blunt promises to "clean up" the country.
It's one that could see Europe's most extreme far right deputies take up seats in Greece's Parliament in crucial May 6 elections.
Black-clad Golden Dawn members have been storming across the campaign trail across Greece, stopping to chat at cafes and shops, handing out fliers promising security in crime-ridden neighborhoods — and vowing to kick out immigrants.
Greece's borders, they say, must be sealed with land mines to stop illegal crossing into a country that became the entry point for 90 percent of the European Union's illegal migrants. Authorities estimate there are about 1 million migrants living in this country of 11 million.
Appealing to populist sentiment, Golden Dawn has been gathering donations of food and clothing to deliver to the needy while pledging to make politicians accountable for the crisis. Ordinary Greeks are struggling under tough conditions demanded for rescue loan deals that have pushed the country into a fifth year of recession.
"Golden Dawn stands against this corrupt system of power. All those who are responsible for the waste of public money must go to jail. That is our priority," said Ilias Kasidiaris, a 31-year-old party member who served in the Greek army's special forces.
Around him, the party offices in downtown Athens were a hive of activity, with newcomers dropping in and the membership list growing by the day. In the back, T-shirts and caps are for sale marked with the party logo, taken from the ancient Greek meander, a motif resembling the swastika and often seen on ancient mosaics, carvings and wall paintings.
Firmly on the fringe of the right since it first appeared 20 years ago, Golden Dawn garnered a meager 0.23 percent in the 2009 elections. Now, it looks set to easily win more than the 3 percent threshold needed to enter Parliament, with recent opinion polls showing support at about 5 percent.
The party has a barely veiled sinister side, and has been blamed for vicious attacks on immigrants. Members skirt questions about violence, saying they have no knowledge of such incidents.
"We don't do anything, we protect the Greeks," said Epaminondas Anyfantis, a mild-mannered, 59-year-old candidate who looks the antithesis of many of the young, muscled and shaven-headed members. "Now, if in protecting the Greeks, a foreigner might get a slap or a kick or something, I think that's in the framework of the protection of the Greeks. ... Because unfortunately the Greeks at the moment have come to the point of asking Golden Dawn for protection."
With parts of central Athens turning into ghetto-like neighborhoods where drug users inject openly and muggings and burglaries are regular events, many have lost confidence in the police.
Giorgos Vardzis, who lives in the small seaside town of Artemida, has taken down the numbers of Golden Dawn members in case of emergencies.
"Who else should I call, the police? ... When you ask for help from the police because you're being killed, you have to be killed first, and then the police will come," he said.
Immigrants are increasingly concerned.
"We are worried very much," said Javed Aslam, the head of the Pakistani community in Greece, during a recent anti-racist demonstration. "This is very bad. You can imagine one political party with weapons, with knives, they are going out in the roads, and this is politics? This is not politics!"
Led by Nikolas Mihaloliakos, who won a seat on the Athens city council in 2010 local elections and shocked Greeks by delivering a fascist salute in his first appearance there, Golden Dawn rejects the neo-Nazi label, pointing out that many of their fathers fought the Germans during the Nazi occupation of Greece.
"We are Greek nationalists. Nothing more and nothing less than that," said Kasidiaris.
But they don't hide their admiration for many of Hitler's policies, saying he eliminated unemployment in Germany. Golden Dawn members often give fascist salutes at marches and rallies featuring nationalist slogans and burning torches, pictures of which adorn walls in party offices.
And they are tapping into a deep well of discontent with the parties that have dominated Greek politics for decades, conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK.
"Our children have no jobs. They cut my husband's pension," said Evlambia Spantidaki, sitting on the porch of a friend's house in Artemida. "For a while I voted New Democracy. I changed and voted for PASOK. But now nothing, none of them."
This year, her vote will go to Golden Dawn.
"All those people who are following us at the moment, let's be realistic ... they didn't suddenly become nationalists from one minute to the next," said Giorgos Germenis, a member of the party's political council responsible for ideology. He is running as a Golden Dawn candidate in the wider Athens area. "It is a vote of protest. They find confidence in the face of Golden Dawn, that it will enter Parliament and really shake up the system."
With none of its more than 220 candidates, bar its leader, a recognized politician, the party also plays to voters disillusioned with the political elite.
"We will never become politicians. We are soldiers and we will die soldiers," said Anyfantis. "We are soldiers fighting for a cause."
In a country that suffered famine under Nazi occupation and saw arbitrary detentions and torture under the 1967-74 military dictatorship, the party's growing popularity has alarmed many.
"I have been surprised and very worried by the explosion in the opinion polls of Golden Dawn, the most extreme form of the extreme right," Athens University political science professor Ilias Nicolacopoulos said shortly after elections were declared in mid-April.
So the mainstream has been scrambling to win back the right-wing vote, putting immigration at the top of the agenda. Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysohoidis has pledged to build detention centers for 30,000 illegal immigrants by 2014, with the first one to open within days. Police have raided migrant apartments, and legislation now allows authorities to force migrants to have health checks and medical treatment.
Immigrant groups say there has been a spike in racist violence recently.
"There is a worrying trend of racist attacks directed against non-EU foreigners in Greece," said Ketty Kehagioglou, UNHCR spokeswoman in Athens. "In times of instability it is always easy to look for scapegoats and extremist groups take advantage of this situation."
In an Athens hospital ward, Pakistani migrant Mohammad lies propped up on a bed, his right arm in a cast, his head bandaged, his nose broken — the result of a severe beating one recent Sunday night by a group of about 25 men armed with wooden bats and iron rods, he said.
Across town in a small one-bedroom flat, his friend Ahmad is recovering from head and hand injuries from the same attack.
"They just asked 'what's your country?' and then they start beating us. ... With hands and wood and the iron rod," Ahmad said. Neither had spoken to the police about the incident. Fearing reprisals, they asked for only their first names to be used.
For their part, Golden Dawn seem confident of taking up parliamentary seats after May 6 — even if it is on a protest vote.
"That is why the whole system is fighting us," said Anyfantis. "Because they are afraid that when we get into Parliament, the Greek people will understand that we are neither a gang, nor Nazis, nor children of Hitler. ... We are just Greek patriots, we love our country. We are prepared even to sacrifice ourselves for our beliefs, for the country, for its people."