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Greece coalition partner pulls out ministers in wake of ERT debacle [update]

Greek Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis waits before a meeting with the lawmakers of Democratic Left party and leader Fotis Kouvelis, in Athens, Friday.

The smallest party in Greece’s ruling coalition pulled out of the government on Friday after a row over the abrupt closure of state broadcaster ERT, leaving conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras with a tiny majority in parliament.

Democratic Left lawmakers voted to withdraw their ministers from Samaras’s government but have yet to decide whether to offer external support in parliamentary votes to keep Greece’s international bailout on track, party officials said.

"The country doesn’t need elections," party leader Fotis Kouvelis said in a statement. "The Democratic Left insists on its reform policy and will continue to seek and demand solutions within the European reality."

Democratic Left has four ministers in the cabinet: Administrative Reform Minister Antonis Manitakis, Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis, Deputy Health Minister Fotini Skopouli and Deputy Education Minister Theodoros Papatheodorou.

Of the party’s 14 deputies, eleven voted in favor of leaving the government while two – Grigoris Psarianos and Vasilis Oikonomou – voted against. One person abstained.

Leaving an emergency meeting of the party's executive committee on Friday morning, Manitakis – who is at the heart of the effort to overhaul the civil service in line with demands from the country's international lenders – said that he would be tendering his resignation to Samaras later in the day.

The moderate leftist party’s departure is major blow to the conservative Samaras, who is left with a three-seat majority in parliament, making it tougher to pass unpopular reforms demanded by foreign lenders and emboldening the hard left opposition.

In a defiant address to Greeks after midnight, Samaras said he was ready to press ahead without the leftists if necessary.

"I want us to continue together as we started but I will move on either way," Samaras said in a televised statement following the collapse of three-party talks on the future of the ERT radio and television station.

"Our aim is to conclude our effort to save the country, always with a four-year term in our sights."

New hitch

The row coincided with a new hitch in Greece’s EU-IMF bailout with the discovery of a potential funding shortfall due to the reluctance of some eurozone central banks to roll over their holdings of Greek government bonds.

Ten-year Greek government bond yields rose to their highest since late April, on course for their biggest daily rise since July 2012, while Greek stocks tumbled 4 percent.

Samaras’s conservative New Democracy party and its Socialist PASOK ally command 153 deputies in the 300-seat parliament, so they can muddle through for a while without the Democratic Left’s 14 lawmakers, but the outlook is more unstable.

"The government can’t last for long in its new shape. The horse-trading will begin, there will be more crises, they won’t be able to push reforms," said John Loulis, a political analyst.

"At some point we’ll have early elections whose outcome can’t be predicted."

Officials from all three parties ruled out snap elections for now, which would derail the bailout programme.

An ongoing inspection visit to Greece by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund needs to be completed as planned in July to avoid funding problems, the lenders said on Thursday. That may require new savings measures to plug the gap.

At least two independent lawmakers have suggested they would back Samaras’s government, which came to power a year ago in an uneasy pro-bailout coalition aimed at ensuring Greece stayed in the eurozone after nearly going bankrupt.

The coalition has bickered over a range of issues from austerity policies to immigration, and lawmakers from Samaras’s parties have accused Democratic Left of blocking public sector reforms needed to secure bailout funds.

The latest crisis began 10 days ago when Samaras abruptly yanked the ERT public radio and television station off air and fired its 2,600 workers, sparking an outcry from his two allies, unions and journalists.

Calling it a "sinful" and "wasteful" hotbed of political patronage, Samaras said the move was necessary to hit public sector layoff targets set by Greece’s EU and IMF lenders.

After initially refusing to restart ERT, Samaras said on Thursday he had offered during talks with his allies to re-hire about 2,000 workers at a new broadcaster, a compromise accepted by PASOK 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.

But Kouvelis insisted on behalf of Democratic Left that all workers be rehired, saying the issue at stake was far bigger than state television broadcasts and about protecting democracy and the rule of law.

Bigger role

PASOK, the mainstream centre-left party that has been decimated in Greece’s debt crisis and would likely lose more ground in a new election, has said it will continue backing the government even without the Democratic Left.

PASOK is expected to get a bigger role in the government after Democratic Left’s departure, with its lawmakers likely to fill more ministerial positions as part of a reshuffle.

"The situation for the country, the economy and its citizens is especially grave," said Venizelos late on Thursday.

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 the court rulings ordering it back on, though workers have continued broadcasting a 24-hour bootleg version on the Internet from their headquarters. [Reuters, Kathimerini]

ekathimerini.com , Friday June 21, 2013 (16:06)  
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