Greek coalition talks drag on to end TV crisis

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s governing coalition failed to end a political crisis triggered by the closure of state broadcaster ERT, but said talks would continue Thursday to try to avoid a snap election that could delay vital economic reforms and disrupt the country’s bailout program.

Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras held his second meeting in three days Wednesday with his coalition partners — the Socialist Pasok and Democratic Left parties — who oppose his decision to switch off ERT’s signal and fire its 2,700 employees.

“We know the great majority of the Greek people do not want elections,” Pasok leader Evangelos Venizelos said after the more than three-hour meeting.

“The agreement must guarantee the immediate re-operation of public television on all frequencies.”

ERT was axed last week as international pressure is growing on the bailed-out country to honor its commitment to fire public servants and speed up long-term cost cutting reforms aimed at making Greece’s budget and national debt sustainable.

The corporation, whose workforce costs have been considerably trimmed over the past three years, is funded by obligatory contributions from all Greeks — whether they own a TV set or not — and by advertising revenue. After years of murky finances, ERT is now turning a modest profit, and critics argue that sacking its entire workforce makes no financial sense, particularly as the state budget will have to bear the cost of compensating all laid-off workers.

The dispute has raised the threat of early polls in recession-mired Greece, just one year after the last general election.

Debt monitors from the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank suspended their inspection in Athens “to allow completion of technical work” and will resume at the end of the month, a joint statement said Wednesday.

Most analysts have argued that politicians are unlikely to gamble on the country’s vital bailout program given that opinion polls suggest no party would emerge the outright winner.

Vassilis Korkidis, head of Greece’s main ESEE trade association, warned that forcing an election would serve nobody, while threatening “disaster for all.”

“Taking Greece to the polls would just demonstrate how unable politicians are to handle the (country’s) extremely difficult situation,” he said.

A series of creditor-mandated income cuts and tax hikes have deepened a recession now in its sixth year and forced tens of thousands of businesses to close with the loss of about a million jobs, sending unemployment to a record high 27 percent.

Before the meeting Wednesday, Pasok spokeswoman Fofi Gennimata demanded the government switch ERT’s signal back on, in compliance with a high court decision this week.

But the majority conservatives insist the public broadcaster will remain off the air until a more efficient state TV and radio network is set up.

Gennimata denied reports that senior members of her party were seeking Samaras’ replacement as prime minister.

Fired ERT employees have continued unauthorized broadcasts since the June 11 closure, streamed mostly online and on disused analog frequencies, and have even expanded regional TV and radio programming this week.

Media unions Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Greece’s finance and media ministers, accusing them of violating the high court ruling.

Greece’s two largest labor unions staged a protest rally outside ERT headquarters, a building 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of central Athens that remains occupied by laid off broadcast workers for a ninth day.

“There can be no compromise with the barbarism of these layoffs or the screens going blank,” left-wing opposition leader Alexis Tsipras said. “Whatever is decided tonight, ERT will stay open.”

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