Golden Dawn

Members and supporters of the far-right Golden Dawn party sing the Greek national anthem in front of the parliament building in Athens during a rally marking the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. (AFP/Getty Images / May 29, 2013)

ATHENS -- Greece’s government grappled with deepening disarray Friday as coalition partners clashed over an anti-racism bill intended to rein in the rise of Golden Dawn, a far-right party represented in parliament but blamed for violent attacks on migrants and which critics say has neo-Nazi sympathies.

The embarrassing squabble over the proposed measure comes amid growing calls by the European Union and the World Jewish Congress to toughen Greece's anti-racism laws. It also comes less than a year after conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras cobbled together a fragile coalition with two leftist parties to revive an economy reeling from harsh austerity measures and two international bailouts while at the same time protecting people from soaring crime.

The bill calls for stiff new penalties of up to two years in prison for inciting racist attacks. But by also slapping potential fines of up to $260,000 on political organizations inciting racism, the measure openly targets Golden Dawn, which went from being a fringe group last June to winning 18 seats in Greece’s 300-member parliament. The party wants immigrants expelled from Greece and uses a swastika-like logo as well as a Nazi-style salute.

Samaras opposes the bill, arguing for the need to beef up current anti-racism laws but rejecting what his aides call “the criminalization of political speech” in Greece, the birthplace of democracy.

On Thursday, however, his coalition partners -- the Socialist and Democratic Left parties -- broke ranks, submitting the controversial measure on their own. Samaras and his New Democracy party countered with their own package of proposals, which in effect blocked lawmakers from voting on the original bill.

In a statement Friday, New Democracy accused the left-wing parties of dividing the public with their bill, saying that "the only way to take on neo-Nazis is through a show of integrity and determination, not by use of political games."

The radical leftist Syriza party said it would introduce its own anti-racism bill Monday.

Although parliamentary debate is expected next week, the EU and international Jewish groups have warned Greece not to waste time in taking action against racial violence.

Formed after two highly charged elections last June, the ruling coalition cannot pass legislation without some form of cross-party support. The rift is the first major rupture within the government since its formation last year as Greece teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and a potential exit from the 17-nation Eurozone.

An economy in its sixth year of recession and an unemployment rate of about 27% have helped swell support for Golden Dawn and its aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric. Authorities link the group to rising rates of vigilantism and attacks on migrants since the June elections. More than 200 such attacks were reported between October 2011 and December 2012.

A recent opinion poll suggested that Golden Dawn’s support had surged to 10%, putting it third among voters behind New Democracy and Syriza.

"Let them bring the bill to parliament and we will see, finally, who is with Greece and who is on the side of the illegal immigrants," Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos said.

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