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Greek coalition in last-ditch bid to keep alive

Nicholas Paphitis and Derek Gatopoulos, Associated Press

Socialist party leader Evangelos Venizelos, right, arrives the Prime minister's office for a meeting in Athens, on Monday, June 17, 2013. Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras meets with the leaders of two center-left parties in his year-old coalition. Both minority leaders have strongly opposed the prime minister’s decision last week to shut down the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp. or ERT.(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Exactly a year ago, Greece's conservative prime minister won the mandate to form a coalition government with a daunting brief: Restart punishing reforms, keep the debt-stifled country in the eurozone and end months of political chaos.

The latter has proved harder, and Antonis Samaras is now making a last-ditch bid to quell a revolt by key allies over his decision to close the country's state TV and radio broadcaster, axing nearly 2,700 jobs to meet austerity targets.

If talks launched late Monday with his two center-left minority partners fail, the country could be forced into its fourth election in less than four years, with grim effects: New reform delays could compromise Greece's vital bailout program, while the vote would probably produce a hung parliament — with a quasi-neo-Nazi party polling third.

Hellenic Broadcasting Corp., or ERT, employees have continued unauthorized live programming since the June 11 closure, backed by the European Broadcasting Union, which represents public TV and radio stations across the continent.

Although widely perceived as an overstaffed haunt of favoritism prone to toeing the line of any party in power, ERT is also seen as a bastion of quality among a mire of private channels whose most popular programs are foreign soap operas. Its abrupt demise shocked most Greeks and prompted daily protests outside the corporation's Athens headquarters.

European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly urged coalition parties to assume their responsibilities.

"We have clear positions on Greece and the political stability required for the implementation of reform and the economic rebalancing of the country," he said. "And we would like that stability to be maintained."

Greek analysts argue that a compromise is still possible as elections would suit none of the three coalition partners — although Socialist PASOK and the Democratic Left insist ERT must stay open pending a necessary streamlining.

Democratic Left lawmaker Maria Repoussi said Monday the coalition cannot continue functioning.

"We are not willing to follow the coups and other actions of Mr. Samaras," she said. "He totally ignored the three party nature of this government — which this government is founded on. There must be a new agreement of how the government should function."

But Janis A. Emmanouilidis, a senior analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre, argued that Samaras — who has invested strongly with conservative voters with his tough line on ERT — could emerge stronger if a compromise is reached.

"There's strong interest from the outside that there is continuity in Greece and stability for some time to come ... So I think the pressure is there," Emmanouilidis said by telephone from Brussels.

"I think for the coalition — for the smaller coalition partners — I think there is the realization that elections are not in their interest either."

A potential solution could be provided by Greece's highest administrative court, which is hearing an appeal by ERT employees against the company's closure. A preliminary ruling is expected late Monday or early Tuesday.

Samaras, 62, has been credited with rescuing Greece's membership in the euro currency by sticking to harsh austerity measures imposed by rescue lenders. The country has depended on rescue loans from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund since May 2010. In exchange, it imposed deeply resented income cuts and tax hikes, which has dragged the country deeper into recession, with more than a quarter of the workforce now jobless — excluding civil servants who have been protected from layoffs.

Samaras' government has committed to lay off 15,000 public sector workers by 2015. But promises to start with people found guilty of severe disciplinary offences have been ignored, and firing ERT's 2,656 staff would help reach that target.

The dispute has rekindled anti-austerity protests, and even led to warnings from within Samaras' own conservative party that the dispute was putting sacrifices made by Greek taxpayers at risk.

In a show of strength, the head of the main opposition anti-bailout Syriza party is holding an Athens rally on the anniversary of last year's election that propelled the party into second position. Hundreds were gathering late Monday in central Syntagma Square to hear Alexis Tsipras, chanting "The hour of the Left has come."

Samaras has a four-year mandate, and his center-right New Democracy party enjoys a very slender lead in opinion polls over Syriza. The extreme far-right Golden Dawn party, which rose out of the margins last year on a wave of anti-austerity and anti-immigrant sentiment, would get up to 14 percent of the vote.

In Berlin, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble praised the accomplishments made by the coalition government, adding that he had accepted an invitation to visit Athens, without a date being immediately set.

"Slowly, the shape of a stable economic future is taking shape," Schaeuble said.

Over the weekend, Samaras described major protests against ERT's closure as "an excuse to halt reforms" insisting he would not take back his decision to close the broadcaster and replace it with a new state TV and radio organization with fewer staff and a new charter.