ATHENS: Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras moved to defuse a political crisis over the government’s abrupt closure of state broadcaster ERT that prompted a nationwide strike Thursday and brought thousands into the streets in protest. Samaras, who has branded defenders of ERT hypocrites, invited two left-wing junior coalition parties opposed to the shutdown to talks next Monday, his office said, seeking to avert political instability in the bailed-out eurozone country.
A senior government official said the conservative prime minister was open to discussing their proposals and a compromise was likely, though he did not intend to back down from closing ERT and relaunching a smaller, more efficient entity.
“I believe there is scope for compromise and we will not go to new elections,” the official told Reuters.
The partners, who want ERT switched back on immediately, welcomed the meeting but kept up a critical broadside that has pushed Greece into its most serious political crisis since the uneasy right-left coalition came to power a year ago.
“The country doesn’t need elections, they would be a colossal mistake, but PASOK is not afraid of them,” said Socialist PASOK chief Evangelos Venizelos. “We support a radical restructuring of ERT, but not with blacked-out screens.”
A senior official from the Democratic Left party, Dimitris Hatzisokratis, said: “Finally! But it should have taken place today. Four days could create irreversible developments.”
An uneasy alliance of parties that have little in common apart from the desire to keep Greece in the eurozone and hooked to an international bailout, the coalition has regularly bickered over austerity policies and immigration issues.
But the ferocity of the public clash between Samaras, who has vowed to transform Greece from “a real Jurassic Park” to a modern economy, and his allies has raised doubts about whether a face-saving formula can be found.
“The country is on a knife’s edge,” a coalition source said.
“Either there’s a solution in a week or it’s elections,” conservative newspaper Kathimerini said on its front page.
Opinion polls show both PASOK and Democratic Left would struggle to keep their share of parliamentary seats if elections were held now. Samaras’ New Democracy has widened its lead over the hard-left Syriza, but would fall well short of the majority needed to govern alone without smaller allies.
The ERT crisis erupted just a day after the government failed to privatize natural gas firm DEPA and was cut to emerging market status by equity index provider MSCI, sending Greek bond yields back above 10 percent.
Athens has described the 75-year-old broadcaster’s shutdown as a temporary measure pending the relaunch of a slimmed-down station. About 2,600 employees are to lose their jobs, though the government has promised to compensate them.
A senior government official said Athens was under pressure to show visiting EU and IMF inspectors that it had a plan to fire 2,000 state workers as required, and the ERT shutdown was the only option available to meet the goal.
Senior eurozone officials were to meet later Thursday to discuss unlocking the next 3.3 billion euros ($4.4 billion) of loans.
City buses did not run in Athens and train services halted across the country after Greece’s two biggest labor unions staged a 24-hour strike.
More than 13,000 protesters – including unemployed youth and leftists – gathered outside ERT’s headquarters waving flags and holding banners reading “Fire Samaras, not ERT workers!” ERT workers formed a human chain at the building’s entrance.
“Samaras can’t tell us what to watch or not. This isn’t about ERT or about its workers any more, it’s about democracy and freedom of speech,” said Thanos Lykourias, 30, an office worker, who earns 800 euros a month and lives with his mother.
An indefinite strike by a journalists’ union prevented some newspapers appearing and forcing private broadcasters to air reruns of sitcoms and soap operas instead of the news.
But there was little sign of private sector workers joining the stoppage. City streets were full of car traffic, supermarkets were open and cafes were bustling.
“The lowest ERT employee makes in a day what I make in a week, so why should I strike for them?” said vegetable vendor Yannis Papailias.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. Who protested for them?” asked waitress Maria Skylakou as she served coffee to customers.
Data released Thursday showed unemployment climbed to an all-time high of 27.4 percent in the first quarter of 2013 after more than 850,000 jobs, most in the private sector, were wiped out since the beginning of Greece’s six-year recession.
Representing about 2.5 million workers, the unions have held strikes repeatedly since Europe’s debt crisis erupted in 2010, although recent action has been less frequent and more muted than last year when marches frequently turned violent.
The Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation ERT has shed viewers with the rise of commercial television, and its three statewide TV channels had a combined audience share of only 13 percent.
In this far-flung nation, ERT is the sole broadcasting lifeline for residents of remote islands.
It is financed with about 300 million euros of mandatory fees raised through electricity bills, regardless of whether the household has a television set or not.
The average household pays about 50 euros a year, but the fee will be suspended while ERT is shut. Athens estimates annual savings from the downsizing at about 100 million euros.
Many Greeks regard it as a wasteful source of patronage jobs for political parties. But the abruptness with which the government pulled the plug – blacking out screens with newscasters cut off in mid-sentence – was a shock.
“Greece has never been so fast in anything,” said Matoula Papadimitriou, 36, a public sector worker. “Shutting state TV was symbolic, they wanted to tell us that they will finish us.”
The hard-left opposition has seized on the issue to attack the government. Leftist leader Alexis Tsipras appeared at the rally outside the ERT and called on Greeks to defend democracy.
“The government’s mission to silence freedom of speech and the public television will be its swan song,” he told Reuters.