NEW YORK (Reuters) - Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party would damage itself if it tries to force elections by walking out of parliament in a pique over a government crackdown, the country's deputy prime minister said on Wednesday.
Evangelos Venizelos, who is also foreign minister in a coalition government, was responding to Greek media reports that Golden Dawn, which denies a neo-Nazi label, was considering pulling its 18 deputies from the 300-seat parliament, hoping to force political change.
"This is a kind of political suicide for them," Venizelos predicted in an interview with the top editors at Reuters in New York. "It's not a threat. It's a great opportunity."
The party did not confirm any plans for a walkout on its website and did not immediately respond to calls from Reuters.
Golden Dawn entered parliament for the first time last year, capitalizing on discontent over a financial crisis that has seen incomes plummet and unemployment rise to nearly 28 percent. A fringe party until recently, it has become Greece's third most popular political force in opinion polls.
But its support dropped by a third this month after an anti-racism rapper was stabbed to death by a self-proclaimed supporter. Golden Dawn denied it had anything to do with the killing.
Greeks staged protests and the government ordered a crack-down on the party, including an investigation of any possible link to the murder. Athens fired senior police officers suspected of protecting Golden Dawn members.
Human rights groups have long linked Golden Dawn supporters, who dress in black and are often seen giving Nazi-style salutes, to violent attacks on immigrants, something the party denies.
Venizelos said the government was taking all possible legal measures against Golden Dawn, including sending police and prosecutors to investigate other possible criminal activities such as illegal fundraising and links to the underworld.
Greek media reported that Golden Dawn was considering pulling its deputies from parliament in reaction to the crackdown, hoping to force new elections, at least in some constituencies if not nationally, in order to show their standing is strong and to shake the political establishment.
Venizelos said opinion polls showed their standing had quickly declined after the killing, which had unified mainstream political parties against Golden Dawn.
A survey by the ALCO pollsters in the days after the stabbing found support for the party fell by 4 percentage points to 6.8 percent. Nearly 80 percent of Greeks said such violent acts were a threat to democracy.
Venizelos said if the far-right deputies pulled out, elections would take place in only 15 constituencies and give an opportunity for parties to present a united front.
"It's a great opportunity for the so called constitutional spectrum to organizes a unified reaction against Golden Dawn," he said.
Additional reporting by Dan Burns and Jim Gaines; Editing by Lisa Shumaker