ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Sunday dismissed talk of an early election over the abrupt closure of the state broadcaster, which brought protests from viewers, workers, the opposition and his coalition partners.
Samaras defended his decision to close ERT and relaunch what he said would be a smaller, more efficient version as a way for Greece to show it was serious about implementing reforms and saving money under the terms of its international bailout.
But a clash between the prime minister and his two left-wing coalition partners over when and how to resume public broadcasts has raised the prospect of political turmoil, just a year after Greeks went to the polls, and the derailing of the bailout.
“If some people naively believe that they can trap us into an election dilemma, let them not tire themselves,” Samaras told a gathering of his conservative New Democracy party in the seaside town of Nafplio in the Peloponnese. “Nobody wants it.”
The opposition Syriza party said Samaras’s decision to close ERT was “the climax of his authoritarian policy” and urged Greeks to rally in Syntagma square in Athens on Monday at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT), where party leader Alexis Tsipras was to deliver a speech.
The Communist-affiliated trade union PAME also called a rally near ERT’s headquarters, where workers had been gathering since its closure.
The decision to take the 75-year-old ERT off air at midnight last Tuesday has split the fragile coalition. Both junior partners have said they want to avoid a new vote, although PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos told a Sunday newspaper he “was not afraid” of an election.
Opinion polls indicate that support for all three ruling parties has suffered since last year’s election. No party has enough support to govern alone.
“Moves aimed to impress, in violation of basic principles of parliamentary majority, are not reforms,” Venizelos said. The decision to close ERT was made by ministerial decree, meaning that it could be implemented without reference to parliament.
Greece has won praise from its ‘troika’ of international lenders - the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank - for its efforts to get its bailout programme on track and German Chancellor Angela Merkel telephoned Samaras on Sunday to “pledge her support”, her office said.
“Now it is of clear importance to push through all troika agreements, including those with regard to the reform of the public service,” it said in a statement.
Samaras has invited his allies, who want the immediate reopening of ERT’s television and radio stations, to a meeting on Monday. They have so far turned down a compromise involving rehiring a smaller number of staff to resume news broadcasts.
The government says ERT’s three domestic television channels and regional, national and external radio stations cost Greece 300 million euros a year.
Many Greeks have long viewed the broadcaster as a wasteful source of patronage jobs for political parties, but the abruptness with which ERT was taken off air took many by surprise. Opinion polls suggest a majority oppose the move.
Samaras argues that shutting down ERT is the only way to restructure the broadcaster, after previous attempts at reform failed. “This is what we are changing because it’s right, because it’s fair and because it should have been done years ago,” he said.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson in Berlin; Editing by Kevin Liffey