Greek coalition in disarray, small party considers quitting
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's small Democratic Left party could pull out of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's ruling coalition after talks to resume state television broadcasts collapsed, party officials said on Thursday, plunging the nation into fresh turmoil.
Lawmakers from the leftist party - which was angered by the abrupt shutdown of broadcaster ERT last week - will meet at 0730 GMT (0330 ET) on Friday to decide whether to continue backing Samaras, who in turn warned he was ready to press ahead without them.
"I want us to continue together as we started but I will move on either way," Samaras said in a televised statement, vowing to implement public sector reforms demanded by lenders.
"Our aim is to conclude our effort to save the country, always with a four-year term in our sights. We hope for the Democratic Left's support."
Samaras's New Democracy party and its Socialist PASOK ally jointly have 153 deputies, a majority of three in the country's 300-member parliament, meaning they could continue together, but a departure of the Democratic Left would be a major blow.
Officials from all three parties ruled out snap elections.
At least two independent lawmakers have also suggested they would back Samaras's government, which came to power a year ago and has bickered ever since over austerity and immigration.
The latest crisis began nine days ago when Samaras abruptly yanked ERT off air, calling it a hotbed of waste and privilege, sparking an outcry from his two allies, unions and journalists.
After initially refusing to restart ERT, Samaras on Thursday complained he offered to re-hire 2,000 out of 2,600 ERT workers who were fired, a compromise "courageously" accepted by the Socialist PASOK party but rejected by the Democratic Left.
"We will no longer have black screens on state TV channels but we are not going to return to the sinful regime," he said.
"At this point we had a serious disagreement over ERT. I undertook efforts to restore unity and to find a solution. I did not respond to nasty comments."
Fotis Kouvelis, leader of the Democratic Left, in turn attacked Samaras for failing to comply with a court ruling this week ordering ERT back on air and said the issue at stake was far bigger than state television broadcasts.
"This issue is not a formality, it's not procedural, it is fundamentally an issue of democracy," said Kouvelis, whose party has 14 lawmakers in parliament. "We are not responsible for the fact that no common ground was reached."
Evangelos Venizelos, leader of PASOK - which has heavily suffered from Greece's debt crisis and would lose further in a new election - also called on Kouvelis to stay in the coalition.
"The situation for the country, the economy and its citizens is especially grave," said Venizelos.
"We want the government to continue as a three-party government and we are asking Democratic Left to participate in re-establishing cooperation."
'BEGINNING OF THE END'
Greece's top administrative court on Thursday confirmed an earlier ruling suspending ERT's closure and calling for a transitional, slimmed-down broadcaster to go on air immediately.
ERT remains off air despite Monday's court ruling ordering it back on. Much of the squabbling this week centered on Samaras wanting a transitional broadcaster run by only a few staff members while his two partners wanted ERT to reopen exactly as it was before until a newer version is launched.
Samaras is under pressure to fire public sector employees to show Greece's EU and IMF lenders that it is sticking to promises to cut costs under its international bailout program.
Senior euro zone officials and the International Monetary Fund played down concerns on Thursday that Greece could face a shortfall in its finances, saying there was still time to remedy the situation.
ERT workers meanwhile have continued broadcasting a 24-hour bootleg version on the Internet from their headquarters, where workers and unions have been protesting since last Tuesday.
On Thursday, a ticker on the screen counted the hours, minutes and seconds since Greece's top administrative court, the Council of State, ordered the broadcaster back on air on Monday.
Opposition lawmakers rejoiced over the crisis.
"This is the beginning of the end," independent lawmaker Nikos Nikolopoulos tweeted, referring to Samaras's government.