ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras faced a double challenge on Monday from coalition partners furious over the shutdown of state broadcaster ERT and a court hearing that could put the shuttered station back on air.
ERT’s abrupt closure last week in the name of austerity to please EU and IMF lenders triggered a deep rift in the ruling coalition, throwing the debt-choked nation back into turmoil just as faint hopes of a recovery had begun to sprout.
Exactly a year after a general election brought Samaras and his two leftist allies to power, the three parties have fed fears of hugely disruptive snap polls by refusing to compromise over an entity widely unloved until its shock overnight closure.
“It’s clear that over the last days any semblance of logic in dealing with this issue has been lost,” said Costas Panagopoulos, head of ALCO pollsters.
“The most absurd thing is that we are talking about a possible destruction of the country over ERT.”
The center left daily Ethnos screamed on its front page: “Find a solution!”
Aware that his allies stand to lose heavily in any election, the conservative Samaras has refused in flurry of speeches to turn the “sinful” ERT back on, vowing to fight to modernize a country he says had become a “Jurassic Park” of inefficiency and corruption.
His PASOK and Democratic Left allies, aware that they risk humiliation and the loss of any future say in the coalition, rejected Samaras’s offer of a limited restart of broadcasts. The three party leaders are to meet at 1630 GMT to seek a solution.
“It’s impossible to say how far they will go because all logic has gone out the window,” said Panagopoulos. “Normally, you would expect they would not be willing to throw everything up in the air over this decision. Greece has gone back to where it was a year ago in terms of political instability over ERT.”
He estimated a 30 percent risk of elections over the summer, despite all three parties insisting there will be no early poll.
“We don’t want early elections, we want to do our job,” Makis Voridis, a lawmaker from Samaras’s New Democracy party told Reuters. “We promised reforms to the Greek people and ERT is a small first step.”
Opinion polls over the weekend showed that a majority of Greeks opposed the shutdown, due rather to its abruptness - screens went black a few hours after the announcement, cutting off newscasters mid-sentence - than to the decision itself.
Journalists have gone on strike, thousands have rallied in protest outside ERT’s headquarters and the broadcaster’s 2,600 staff have continued to broadcast over the Internet in defiance of management orders to pack up and leave.
On Monday, the bootleg feed showed a video montage of ordinary Greeks, including young children, recounting how they felt when the broadcaster was taken off air.
Still, not all Greeks were impressed with the outcry over ERT and the strikes in its defense in a country grinding through its sixth year of recession, with unemployment at 27 percent.
“It annoys me that journalists decided to revolt because 2,500 of their colleagues lost their jobs. What about the other 1.5 million people who are unemployed?” said 63-year old Marika Vlassopoulou, a pensioner.
“Shutting down the state broadcaster like this was an ugly move but this is how life will be from now on. We must not go to elections. We have no money to waste and this country is tired, politically and socially. We don’t trust anyone anymore.”
Also on Monday, Greece’s top administrative court will hear an appeal by ERT’s trade union against the government’s decision to shut down the broadcaster, with a ruling expected later on Monday or Tuesday.
A ruling in favor of the union would temporarily suspend the government decision, meaning ERT’s signal would be restored.
Still, officials have said the decision to shut down the broadcaster helped Greece obtain its latest tranche of bailout funds worth 3.3 billion euros last week from lenders, so Samaras has already pocketed a minor victory from the shutdown.
A ruling switching the signal back on could offer the coalition partners a way out of the impasse by allowing each party to maintain its position but defer to the court’s decision as the final say on the matter.
Ahead of the hearing, ERT’s screens went from black to showing color bars on Monday morning, and NERIT - the name the government says will be given to the new-look broadcaster on its relaunch in a slimmed-down version - appeared in the index.
The European Broadcasting Union, which has campaigned to reopen ERT and managed a work-around to get it on air for some viewers last week, condemned on Monday what it said was the threat of legal action by the Greek government against satellite operators that transmit the ERT signal in Europe and Asia.
Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou and George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Paul Taylor