By Harry Papachristou
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's far-right Golden Party has threatened to pull out of parliament, a move that would trigger a wave of by-elections that could destabilize the country, its leader said late on Thursday.
The threat came after a self-proclaimed Golden Dawn supporter killed an anti-fascist rapper in Athens last week, prompting a court investigation into whether the country's third most popular party is a criminal organization.
The seemingly politically motivated stabbing sparked outrage and violent protests in the crisis-struck country. Police have been searching Golden Dawn party offices and several of its members were arrested or received suspended jail sentences for illegally carrying or owning weapons.
Golden Dawn has denied any links to the rapper's killing and its leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos warned it may pull its lawmakers from parliament if the crackdown did not stop.
"We have not reached a final decision yet. All options are open," he said on television channel Vergina TV.
Golden Dawn has 18 out of parliament's 300 lawmakers. If they quit, they would have to be replaced through special elections in every electoral district they represent, which includes most of the country's biggest.
If such by-elections were won by the opposition, as some polls indicate, the country's fragile two-party ruling coalition would become politically untenable, Mihaloliakos argued.
"Golden Dawn holds a weapon in its hands to cause a political earthquake. Those in charge should bear that well in mind," he said.
With political stability a key condition for the smooth going of Greece's EU/IMF bailout, senior officials have dismissed any notion that the government was under threat.
By-elections would not lead to a general vote that could destabilize the country, Interior Minister Yannis Mihelakis said on Thursday. "The whole affair has already damaged the country enough. A general election would just make things worse," he told Skai TV.
"It's not a threat. It's a great opportunity," deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos told Reuters on Wednesday after then unconfirmed reports that Golden Dawn was considering pulling its lawmakers.
Golden Dawn boasts a swastika-like symbol, its supporters have been seen giving Nazi salutes and Mihaloliakos has denied the Holocaust. The party denies the neo-Nazi label.
It has surged in popularity over the past year and been accused by human rights groups of attacking immigrants and political opponents with impunity by police.
Greek prosecutors investigating Golden Dawn have already found early evidence that could help them establish that it is a criminal organization, a senior court official told reporters on Wednesday.
Branding the group a criminal organization is expected to be the first step for the government to begin reining in the party because an outright ban is difficult to push through under current Greek law.
The government has said it was instead planning to unhinge the party by cutting its funding and targeting individual members who may have masterminded attacks on immigrants and opponents as part of a criminal organization.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)