ATHENS Slapping a woman on live television has tarnished the image of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party, and its spokesman's attack may cost the anti-immigrant movement votes as well.
"You saw right in front of you the full brutality and ugly behavior of a young neo-Nazi man beating up a defenseless woman," political analyst Theodore Couloumbis said after Thursday's live TV shocker. "It's a simple as that."
Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris provided the most dramatic image of the campaign so far for Greece's critical June 17 election during a live television debate when he hurled a glass of water at one female politician and surged from his seat to slap another in the face.
"My first reaction is that it will hurt their chances, especially with women," Couloumbis said.
Golden Dawn came from nowhere to win 7 percent in a May election and entered parliament for the first time on a wave of hostility towards illegal immigrants in austerity-ridden Greece.
With the new vote looming, the last polls produced before a pre-election blackout showed support had dropped but still remained comfortably above the 3 percent threshold needed to enter parliament.
An arrest order was issued for Kasidiaris but he remains at large and could still run in the election if he is not apprehended and convicted before a 48-hour deadline expires at midnight on Friday.
Under Greek law, suspects arrested within 48 hours, face immediate trial. If they are not, they face a regular court date that does not prevent running for office.
The daily Ethnos newspaper ran with the headline "Black Dawn", while daily Ta Nea wrote "No to Violence."
"With his punch, the Golden Dawn deputy ripped off the mask of this neo-Nazi organization. Greeks can no longer claim ignorance - these people have shown their true colours," it wrote in a front-page editorial.
Golden Dawn caused a major upset in the May election, winning unprecedented support by building an image as the protector of vulnerable Greeks, including the elderly, who have suffered heavily in the savage economic downturn.
In a country that resisted Nazi occupation in World War II, it has been at pains to reject the label of a neo Nazi party but it uses an ancient Greek symbol resembling the swastika as its logo and books on Aryan supremacy line shelves at its offices.
Kasidiaris, who was elected to parliament in May despite a previous assault charge which he denies, faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail if convicted. He dismissed the incident on Friday, saying he had been provoked.
"She (Communist party member Liana Kanelli) raised her hand and hit me first and since I respect my honor and my name, I had to defend myself. The police ought to arrest her," he told Star TV by phone from an undisclosed location, according to a recording broadcast by the channel.
He is already due to stand trial on June 11 on separate charges - which he denies - of helping assailants attack a university professor in 2007.
Women's groups decried the attack as sexism against female politicians and journalist unions asked the National Council for Radio and Television to ban Golden Dawn members from news shows despite legal requirements that all parties in parliament are given equal air time.
The Council said the election law must be upheld but Golden Dawn said it was pulling out of TV shows on its own anyway.
Its members appeared undaunted by the incident that may cost them their place in parliament and gathered at several rallies near Athens late on Thursday, making anti-immigrant speeches and chanting, with fists raised: "Blood, Honor, Golden Dawn!"
Leftist groups are organizing demonstrations across the country, including central Athens late on Friday, to protest against the extreme-right group.
(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Michael Roddy)