ATHENS, Greece — Greece's election campaign turned ugly Thursday on live TV: The spokesman of the extreme-right Golden Dawn party, after trading insults of "commie" and "fascist," lunged at two female left-wing politicians on a mainstream morning talk show, throwing water at one and smacking the other three times across the face.
The violent display reminiscent of trash TV, a week and a half ahead of crucial elections, stunned Greeks as they seek to avoid a catastrophic exit from Europe's common euro currency. A prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Ilias Kasidiaris, whose party alarmed Europe by gaining 21 of Parliament's 300 seats in Greece's inconclusive May 6 elections.
Golden Dawn, which vehemently denies the neo-Nazi label, has been accused of violent attacks against immigrants in Athens. The party denies involvement in the attacks, insisting it is a nationalist patriotic group. It campaigned on a platform of ridding the country of illegal immigrants and cleaning up crime-ridden neighborhoods, and advocates planting anti-personnel mines along Greece's borders to stop migrants from sneaking across.
The attack "put on public display what was widely known," said the radical left-wing Syriza party, whose member Rena Dourou was splashed with water on the show. "The true face of this criminal organization."
Tempers frayed on the daily morning political show on the private Antenna television station during a political debate, to which representatives of all seven parties that won parliamentary seats on May 6 had been invited.
Discussion had turned to the country's natural resources. But it went off on a tangent about political history in Greece, which suffered a vicious civil war between Communists and the right-wing after World War II, and a seven-year military dictatorship that ended in 1974.
Kasidiaris, his temper wearing thin, shot an insult of "you old Commie" at 58-year-old prominent Communist Party member Liana Kanelli, in return for her branding him a "fascist." Kasidiaris, 31, who served in the military's special forces, also took offense at a reference by Dourou to a court case pending against him.
It all careened into violence when Dourou said there was a "crisis of democracy when people who will take the country back 500 years have got into the Greek parliament." Kasidiaris bounded out of his seat and hurled a glass of water at her, shouting an insult loosely translated as "you circus act."
Talk show host Giorgos Papadakis – shouting `'no, no, no!" – ran over to Kasidiaris, attempting to calm him down. But the Golden Dawn member turned on Kanelli, who had stood up and appeared to throw a newspaper at him.
Kasidiaris hit Kanelli three times – with hard right-left-right slaps to the sides of her head.
Papadakis tried and failed to restrain him.
The channel cut to a commercial break, and returned five minutes later without Kasidiaris.
The court case Dourou referred to was one in which Kasidiaris is accused of participation in a 2007 attack on a student. He faces charges of assisting in robbery and bodily harm after his car was allegedly used in the incident in which a student had his identity card stolen. Kasidiaris claims the accusation is politically motivated by Syriza members. The case was to be heard in court on Wednesday but has been postponed to June 11.
Papadakis and Kanelli later said attempts had been made to restrain Kasidiaris after the scuffle by shutting him in a room in the TV channel's building, but he broke through the door and left. Police were searching for him to serve the arrest warrant, which under Greek law must be carried out within 48 hours. If he is not arrested within the time limit, the case is dealt with under ordinary court procedures, with a court case being scheduled.
"The government condemns in the most categorical way the attack by Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris against Liana Kanelli and Rena Dourou," government spokesman Dimitris Tsiodras said. "This attack is an attack against every democratic citizen."
Tsiodras called on Golden Dawn to condemn its member's actions.
For its part, Golden Dawn said it was Kanelli who first attacked Kasidiaris, "hitting him unprovoked in the face with a packet of documents."
"Golden Dawn continues its fight for a strong nationalist movement against everyone, and naturally against the orphans of Marx, who dominate on the (broadcast) channels and are playing a dirty propaganda game," the party said in a statement.
"If you want us to condemn our co-fighter for a truly unfortunate moment, you should first condemn the insults and the attack by Liana Kanelli, otherwise you are nothing but sad hypocrites following orders."
The party, which blasted journalists for a mud campaign against it in cohort with the other political parties, said it would boycott the media.
"We announce to the Greek people that before the media shut us out, we are shutting them out. We don't need them. We have half a million Greeks on our side," it said in a statement posted on its website.
Golden Dawn won nearly 7 percent of the vote on May 6, giving it 21 seats in the 300-member Parliament. It was a radical increase from its showing in the previous elections in 2009, when the party won just 0.31 percent of the vote.
Greeks reeling from two years of austerity amid their country's vicious financial crisis punished the two main parties, the conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK, turning instead to smaller radical parties to the right and left.
The 300 deputies took up their seats for a day last month before parliament was dissolved and new elections called as no party won enough votes to form a government. Coalition talks collapsed after 10 days.
"The people voted for them because they didn't know what Golden Dawn was. They didn't know they're a new form of neo-Nazis," said Athenian Maria Misaridaki walking through the capital's central Syntagma Square. "They saw the violence. It should open their eyes so as not to vote for them."