ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek lawmakers voted to cut off state funding to the far-right Golden Dawn party early on Wednesday, the latest effort by the government to clamp down on a party it has branded a “neo-Nazi criminal gang”.
Golden Dawn had steadily risen on the back of an anti-austerity and anti-immigrant agenda to become Greece’s third-most popular party, until the killing of a left-wing rapper by a party supporter last month triggered the government crackdown.
A legislative provision passed by 235 lawmakers in the 300-seat parliament suspends state funding to political parties if their leaders, or a tenth of their lawmakers, are charged with involvement in a “criminal organization” or “acts of terrorism”. The move could deprive Golden Dawn of a major financial resource.
Athens has earmarked 11 million euros for elected parties in 2013, including 873,000 euros ($1.20 million) for Golden Dawn.
After entering parliament last year and appearing virtually immune to frequent accusations of violence against immigrants and leftists, the party has been on the defensive since the fatal stabbing of 34-year-old Pavlos Fissas.
The killing prompted prosecutors to investigate party lawmakers over a series of crimes and Prime Minister Antonis caused Samaras’s conservative-led government to probe the police force. Samaras has vowed to wipe out the party and described it as a “gang of neo-Nazis” that threatens democracy.
Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, and two senior lawmakers have been put behind bars pending trial on charges of participation in a criminal group. This is the first time that elected politicians have been jailed in Greece since a military coup in 1967. Three other lawmakers, who were arrested, have been freed pending trial. They were ordered to stay in the country.
Parliament has stripped four more MPs of their immunity to allow a deeper investigation into accusations against them.
If convicted, Golden Dawn lawmakers face a prison sentence of up to 10 years. If they are acquitted, the party will receive the state funds it is owed.
Golden Dawn, with a red-and-black swastika-like emblem, has tapped into Greeks’ anger at the political class and won support with promises like ridding Greece of immigrants and sealing its borders with landmines.
But since Fissas’s killing, the party’s support has fallen by about a third.
The party rejects accusations of violence and the neo-Nazi label. All six lawmakers who have been charged deny the allegations against them, saying they are being persecuted because of their nationalist beliefs.
Golden Dawn abstained from the vote and said the funding cut-off would only disrupt its community initiatives, such as “for-Greeks-only” food handouts and blood donations.
“This provision is unconstitutional and illegal,” Golden Dawn lawmaker Ilias Kasidiaris said during the debate.
In turn, Golden Dawn last month filed a lawsuit over state funds the co-ruling Socialist PASOK party received in 2007-2010.
Members of parliament do not lose their political rights or seats unless there is a final court ruling against them. ($1 = 0.7260 euros)
Reporting by Renee Maltezou and Harry Papachristou; Editing by Stacey Joyce