The brutality of the crime would be shocking anywhere: the gunman walked up to three young men, all members of Golden Dawn, on a busy neighborhood sidewalk and fired 12 bullets in seven seconds, finishing off two victims with bullets to the head and leaving the third seriously wounded before escaping on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice.

It is hard to imagine many other countries — especially mature Western democracies — where the murder of two rank-and-file members of a relatively small political party could raise serious fears of political instability and national division. Yet this is how precarious things have become in Greece, as the country labors through its sixth year of recession and the third year of an economic recovery program that is long on austerity and short on growth. Political and social tensions feed off current misery and draw on deep historical roots of division.

“This is like lighting a match in a powder magazine, especially when there are so many other fires burning in the economy,” Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said after the Nov. 1 killings.

He is trying to keep Greece on track to meet commitments to the country’s creditors while dealing with a political system so fragmented and confrontational that it seems to be wired for conflict. Mr. Samaras heads a coalition of his center-right New Democracy and the center-left Pasok.

The main opposition party — the leftist Syriza — rose from the fringes to become the second largest party last year; the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which used to have but a few thousand supporters, gained enough votes to take 18 seats in the 300-member Parliament and become a disturbing presence in politics and society.

The crisis, and the measures aimed at combating it, have resulted in high unemployment (28 percent), a steep drop in gross domestic product (28 percent from 2008), higher taxes, lower incomes, fewer benefits, widespread insecurity and a loss of faith in the political system, democratic institutions and even in the European Union.

The opposition parties have gained support with promises that they will restore all that has been lost during the years of austerity and reform. Elections for the European Parliament and for local authorities in May could see them making more gains, perhaps making the government’s position untenable. That could force early national elections that, if recent polls are confirmed, would result in a further strengthening of Syriza and Golden Dawn, and a deadlock leading to more fragmentation, division and instability.

Political intrigue, violence and division were staples of Greek history until the country’s accession to what is now the European Union in 1981. The monarchy, the military, foreign powers and the realities of the Cold War all played a role in stoking those fires, but they were also able to end them when they chose to. The monarchy was abolished by referendum in 1974 after the collapse of the right-wing military dictatorship, and the military has been defanged by decades of European Union membership. The end of the Cold War was followed by European Union and NATO expansion into Greece’s neighborhood, meaning that the country was no longer an exception in the region. Foreign powers have more pressing concerns than Greece’s well-being. It is up to the Greeks and their institutions to safeguard stability.

This is why the murders are significant. Golden Dawn has been a destabilizing force in Greece’s politics and society since its sudden rise in the polls last year. Its members were increasingly belligerent — in Parliament and in the streets, where they carried out attacks (some of them lethal) on immigrants and political opponents. They appeared to be acting with impunity because neither the government, nor the police, nor the judiciary seemed willing to act against them — until Sept. 18, when the anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered by a Golden Dawn member. (He confessed to the crime.)

The authorities came down hard. Golden Dawn’s leader, his deputy and other members are now either in prison or free on bail awaiting trial on charges of running a criminal organization; the party’s state funding has been suspended and its police protection revoked.

The country’s democratic institutions were reasserting themselves. Now they have to prove themselves quickly and find the culprits in the Nov. 1 attack. The police suspect that it was carried out by extreme-left-wing terrorists, successors of the “November 17” gang that murdered 23 people between 1975 and 2002, when the police finally broke it up. The group (espousing a mix of Marxism and violent nationalism, as if this were not a contradiction in terms) depicted itself as an avenging angel of the underdog left, selecting targets from the business, political and police establishment, as well as military and diplomatic representatives of the United States and Britain, whom they blamed for helping a right-wing government defeat Communist guerrillas in the civil war of 1946-49, which followed the Nazi occupation.

Supporters of Golden Dawn, who see themselves as underdogs and nationalists, have long chafed at leftist domination of the public debate and the leftist sense of victimization. The murder of two Golden Dawn members has suddenly given its supporters the moral high ground and heightened their sense of injustice. That could translate into an even stronger showing in the polls. Worse, it might prompt revenge killings by what is, after all, a professed paramilitary organization.

With forces of the political left and right gaining strength and perhaps headed for a conflict, with the center struggling to hold, we might see what seemed impossible until recently: a new round of civil strife after decades of peace and progress. Though a descent into political violence is not imminent, the scene is set in a way that depends too much on what fools with guns will choose to do.


Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini.