ATHENS, Greece – If Golden Dawn is banned, the name National Dawn will do instead.
Ilias Kassidiaris, lawmaker and spokesman for the extreme right party, has announced the founding of National Dawn, a party that would serve as a way to circumvent a possible ban on Golden Dawn.
"Patriots will have a party to vote for in the next election if (authorities) go ahead with the coup to ban Golden Dawn," he told a gathering of about 3,000 Golden Dawn supporters Saturday.
Kassidiaris was the keynote speaker at the Golden Dawn rally held to commemorate a 1996 incident which cost the lives of three navy officers and brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war. Golden Dawn has been holding the rally for years at the monument dedicated to the three officers, in central Athens.
While the extreme rightists dispersed peacefully, there were scuffles between leftists staging a counter-rally at Syntagma Square, a few hundred meters away outside the Greek parliament.
Police had banned both right and left extremists from marching through central Athens to prevent bloody clashes between the two. The scuffles broke out when the leftists spotted a man carrying a Greek flag, attacking and injuring him slightly.
Riot police used stun grenades and tear gas to disperse the crowd. The chase eventually ended at a subway station, where police again used tear gas amid protesting commuters and chased protesters through the tunnels. Protesters set fire to garbage cans and an ATM but the riot was short-lived. Police detained six persons and eventually arrested one.
Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, his deputy and four other lawmakers, a third of Golden Dawn's 18-member caucus in the 300-strong Greek parliament, are behind bars pending their trial for allegedly being part of a "criminal organization." Michaloliakos was arrested last September, days after a leftist rapper was murdered by an alleged Golden Dawn member.
A prosecutor's report called Golden Dawn a "criminal organization" that has engaged in attacks on people, some fatal, with migrants a favorite target. The report said Golden Dawn functioned as a top-down organization with a strict hierarchy, with Michaloliakos as a "fuehrer-like leader" who was aware of all criminal actions.
Since the arrest of Michaloliakos and his acolytes, there have been calls to ban the party and Saturday's move is a contingency response to provide a legal front in case of such a ban.
"We will contest the elections, whatever happens. Greek patriots have founded National Dawn, which does not include the Golden Dawn 'murderers,'" Kassidiaris said with a heavy dose of irony, referring to his imprisoned colleagues. He himself is running for mayor of Athens in the May local elections, but also faces charges similar to those of the jailed lawmakers.
A formerly marginal group with neo-Nazi roots, Golden Dawn exploded in popularity amid Greece's financial crisis, a growing sense of insecurity and an expanding migrant presence. It entered Parliament for the first time in June 2012, as the No. 5 party, gaining 7 percent of the vote. Despite the jailing of its leaders, it consistently comes in third place in opinion polls, although its appeal has dropped back to single digits.
Associated Press journalists Vassilis Katsardis and Zacharias Ioannidis contributed to this report.