Rapid rise of fascists fuelled by discontent

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Out buying cigarettes, Panayiotis Roumeliotis was surprised to be asked for his identity card by two young men with shaved heads. It was his first direct contact with the vigilante groups that have become a feature of life in some areas of the capital.

"They were calling themselves the residents association, but they were just fasistakia (little fascists)," said the 28 year-old. Over the last two years, Mr Roumeliotis has watched the central Athens neighbourhood of Ayios Panteleimonas, where he grew up, undergo an ugly transformation.

Taking the bus on another morning soon after, a gunshot shattered the back window and a gang of men forced the driver to stop. When the doors opened, they came onto the bus and started to assault the non-Greek passengers. The attackers were wearing T-shirts from the right wing extremist group Golden Dawn.

Formerly a solid middle class neighbourhood, the economic crisis and waves of new arrivals have changed the area and erased old certainties. Property prices here have dropped to as little as one quarter of what they were five years ago. On the side streets among the North African-run mini markets and Nigerian internet cafes, newcomers from West Africa push shopping trolleys full of scrap metal stripped from deserted buildings. Drug dealing is rife and violent crime has rocketed. The square in front of the local church, daubed in anti-immigrant slogans, has witnessed pitch battles between anarchists and Golden Dawn followers.

Mr Roumeliotis said he would not support the fascists, but that other family members may well be doing so. "People here have been forgotten by the government," he said. "They have done nothing about immigration."

What was happening in Ayios Panteleimonas came to the attention of the rest of Greece when members of Golden Dawn were voted onto its local council.

Until recently, developments in the neighbourhood were seen as dangerous but largely irrelevant to the national scene. At Greece's last general election in 2009 Golden Dawn, whose members use the Nazi salute and whose party symbol is an adapted swastika, polled fewer than 20,000 votes nationwide. Now as the country goes to the polls again on Sunday, broader aspects of Greece are now echoing the experience of Ayios Panteleimonas with the result that national politics are more closely resembling those of the embattled area.

It's in this environment that a fringe group of neo-Nazis that would previously have struggled to attract a hundred supporters to one of its rallies seems set to enter parliament according to polls.