Proposed law to curb the rise of the far-right Golden Dawn party has highlighted rifts between conservatives and their partners
The Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras,will hold emergency talks with his coalition partners over the proposed anti-racism law. Photograph: Photonews/Getty Images
The Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, has held emergency talks with his coalition partners over implementing anti-racism legislation seen as a crucial step to reining in the increasingly popular neo-fascist Golden Dawn party.
The law, which has whipped up a storm of controversy among traditional conservatives in Samaras's New Democracy party, comes amid mounting official concern over how to curb the organisation's meteoric ascent.
"We have an international obligation to enforce measures to combat racism – measures to answer the charges that have been made against our country," the socialist Pasok leader, Evangelos Venizelos, told the Guardian before the talks. He added that the Australian government had banned Golden Dawn officials from visiting the country.
In successive polls the extremists have been shown to have entrenched themselves firmly as Greece's third-biggest political force.
On the back of disaffection over hard-hitting austerity measures, support for the far rightists is in double figures, in sharp contrast to the 5-6% poll ratings for the once-mighty Pasok, a junior partner in Samaras's tripartite alliance.
Emboldened by its soaring popularity, Golden Dawn has assumed a more aggressive stance, threatening migrants, lambasting minority groups and hurling abuse at politicians in the Athens parliament.
Last week, the parliament's speaker implemented a blanket ban on weapons being carried into the chamber after a Golden Dawn MP was caught with a pistol after a particularly lively debate. Greece is also under unprecedented pressure from Europe to impose tougher punishments on the perpetrators of racially motivated crimes following a surge in violence against immigrants.
The rise in racist assaults – 220 attacks were reported between October 2011 and December 2012 – has been blamed on the neo-Nazi party, whose manifesto includes a pledge to rid Greece of "immigrant scum". Earlier this month, the EU human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, said the violence amounted to an "early form of far-right terror" and called on Greek authorities to pass legislation that would curb the party's influence.
"It worries me deeply that the European community and national political leaders appear not to be fully aware of the serious threat that these organisations pose to the rule of law and human rights," he said, referring to the rise of the far right in Greece and Hungary.
Last week, the country's Muslim Association was warned its members would be "slaughtered like chickens" if they failed to leave. The threat followed the party's pledge that it would put 100,000 people on the streets of Athens if the government pressed ahead with a long-delayed plan to build a mosque in the capital.
The anti-racism law, which aims to criminalise incitement to commit acts of racial violence and denial of Nazi war crimes, was seen as the best way of confronting such thuggery. Instead, it appears only to have highlighted the rifts between the majority conservatives and their leftwing and centre-left partners, with the deputy interior minister on Monday saying he believed existing legislation was more than adequate to combat racism. "I think [it] covers the needs set out by the EU directive," he told state-run TV.
Conservative reluctance to endorse the bill has prompted criticism that its members are colluding with Golden Dawn in combating immigration in Greece.