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ATHENS (Reuters) - One of Greece's most popular cartoonists has pulled down his Facebook page after what appeared to be a concerted attack by pro-government cyber bullies.
A cartoon published by Arkas last month seemed anodyne enough: a newscaster saying "I have complete trust in the government. It has its feet firmly planted in the clouds."
But in Greece's polarized political climate, this prompted an avalanche of hostile messages. "You exposed yourself irreparably. It will be on your head, you'll see," said one.
The ruling leftist Syriza party, which came to power in January promising to end austerity and stand up to international lenders, denied it was involved.
"Not only we had nothing to do with this but we protested the attack," said Syriza spokeswoman Rania Svingou, adding the party's cyber team had issued a statement supporting the artist.
Such incidents however reveal a new political culture, said Yannis Ktistakis, a professor of human rights at the University of Rodopi in northern Greece.
"These are not just attacks by frustrated unemployed people," he said. "The climate has deteriorated."
As Greece faces economic catastrophe, its people fed up with the sacrifices needed to stay in the euro, a referendum on Sunday split the country, with the government firmly behind the vote to reject more austerity.
About 50 protesters recently stormed an Athens Bar Association meeting which was debating the legality of the referendum. They shouted, gestured and made threats, said association president Vasilis Alexandris.
"Despite the profanities and the psychological violence, we voted that the referendum was of questionable legality," he said. "They screamed: 'We are building gallows for you'."
Arkas, a recluse whose real name is unknown, did not respond to requests for comment. But he posted that he was "painfully surprised" to have caused such a heated reaction after poking fun at "religion, family and sometimes country, the three holy pylons of the conservative right" without incident for many years.
"There was an uproar of negative comments, some more appropriate to the age of homo erectus," he wrote.
Arkas emerged in the 1980s with cartoons of philosophical animals, such a depressed rooster and a melodramatic circus lion, who come up with lines such as: "Democracy is four wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner."
A shy man who never shows up at the papers that publish him, he has avoided publicity for decades. He is rumored to be a psychiatrist or possibly a university professor and there are no published pictures of him.
The cyber attack prompted support from fans who grew up with his cartoons and urged him to continue his work.
"This just shows what sense of humor Syriza has," posted John Avlakiotis.
And Aristotelis Vathis wrote: "For some, democracy only allows satirizing the other side. Democracy was born in Greece and it looks like it's dying here."
The first leftists to rule modern Greece, Syriza raised hopes of ending the corruption widely blamed for plunging Greece into economic crisis.
For decades, political life was dominated by families with close ties to the country's economic elite. State sector jobs and contracts went to political friends, while powerful Greek oligarchs controlled much of the media.
Syriza politicians say they have had little time to tackle such problems while handling the financial crisis, and deny accusations of sowing discord.
Critics say the government, many of whose members hail from the pro-Soviet KKE communist party, has deepened divisions in a society traditionally split between left and right and embraced some of the bad practices of the past.
"On a daily basis, there are so many arbitrary abuses. In another time, society and political parties would have revolted," said Christina Poulidou, a commentator for the Protagon news site.
In one case, the partner of a senior Syriza politician was appointed head of the public water company.
In another, a judge who wrote to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to express support for the Syriza government was made head of the supreme court, contrary to a tradition of appointing by seniority.
After the cyber attack, Arkas posted another cartoon. His newscaster says: "According to reliable sources, the government has this last negotiating card to play with its lenders: 'What are you going to do with it? You can't take it with you'."
Reporting by Dina Kyriakidou; Editing by Giles Elgood