ATHENS, Greece – Greece's coalition government was in disarray Thursday over efforts to crackdown on growing racist violence, as majority conservatives and their center-left partners clashed over the best way to tackle anti-immigrant violence.
The embarrassing rift in conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' government occurred amid pressure from the European Union and human rights groups to toughen anti-racism laws.
Greece, in its sixth year of recession -- and with the highest number of immigrants entering the European Union illegally -- has seen a sharp rise in violence against non-European immigrants, as well as a surge in support for the xenophobic and extreme right Golden Dawn Party.
Samaras' center-right New Democracy party refused to endorse draft legislation overhauling laws on racial equality, and instead submitted more limited amendments to laws passed in 1979.
But his coalition partners, the Socialist Pasok party and Democratic Left, submitted the more extensive proposals as a private members bill.
"What matters is that we unite political parties and the people against the Nazis, and not to let the danger of neo-Nazism divide us," Samaras said in a written statement.
Formed after general elections last June, the ruling coalition cannot pass legislation without some form of cross-party support.
The European Union, as well as international Jewish groups, have urged Greece to tackle racism by criminalizing incitement to commit racial violence among other measures.
The New York-based organization Human Rights Watch on Thursday also urged the swift adoption of measures against racial violence.
"With people being attacked on the streets, Greece urgently needs to beef up its criminal justice response to hate crimes," Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch said.
Opponents of the racism bill argue it could violate constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly. Meanwhile leftwing parties claim Samaras' conservatives fear antagonizing the far right as the country recovers from its crippling financial crisis.
Late Wednesday, several thousand Golden Dawn supporters attended a rally in central Athens. Holding Greek flags and fire torches, the crowd chanted: "Foreigners out of Greece."
Campaigning aggressively against immigration and Greece's bailout agreement, Golden Dawn has reaped a surge in support in recent years. The party elected 18 members to the 300-member parliament in last year's general election with nearly 7 percent of the vote.
An opinion poll for private Mega television published this week suggested support for the extreme right party has risen to 10 percent.
The GPO survey of 1,200 adults, conducted May 24-27, found two-thirds regarded Golden Dawn as a threat to democracy, and half supported the anti-racism law. Fewer than 40 percent of those who voted for Samaras' center-right New Democracy in the last election back the proposed legislation.
"There is no doubt that this law is targeting Golden Dawn," Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos told his party's lawmakers ahead of Wednesday's rally.
"Let them bring the law to parliament and we will see, finally, who is with Greece and who is on the side of the illegal immigrants."
Golden Dawn denies any involvement in attacks against immigrants, though party supporters have been arrested as suspects in several recent incidents.