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Greek coalition in disarray as small party meets over threat to quit

Greece's Prime Minister Antonis Samaras addresses the nation from his office in Athens June 21, 2013. REUTERS/Greek Prime Minister's Office/
Greece's Prime Minister Antonis Samaras addresses the nation from his office in Athens June 21, 2013. REUTERS/Greek Prime Minister's Office/

By Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) - The Democratic Left party may pull out of Greece's ruling coalition on Friday after talks to resume state television broadcasts collapsed, plunging the nation into fresh turmoil.

Lawmakers from the small leftist party, angered by the abrupt shutdown of broadcaster ERT last week, will meet at 0730 GMT to decide whether to continue backing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who warned he was ready to press ahead without them.

"I want us to continue together as we started but I will move on either way," Samaras said in a televised statement, promising to implement public sector reforms demanded by Greece's international lenders.

"Our aim is to conclude our effort to save the country, always with a four-year term in our sights. We hope for the Democratic Left's support."

Splits emerged early on Friday among the party's 14 lawmakers, with one deputy saying it should stay in government and another that it should quit.

Samaras's conservative New Democracy party and its Socialist PASOK ally jointly have 153 deputies, a majority of three in the country's 300-member parliament. That means they could manage without the Democratic Left, but a departure of the party would be a major blow.

Officials from all three parties ruled out snap elections, which would derail Greece's bailout program.

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 a shortfall in the country's finances, lenders said on Thursday.

At least two independent lawmakers have suggested they would back Samaras's government, which came to power a year ago and has bickered ever since over austerity and immigration.

UNDER PRESSURE

The latest crisis began nine days ago when Samaras abruptly yanked ERT off air, calling it a hotbed of waste and privilege, sparking an outcry from his two allies, unions and journalists.

Samaras was acting under pressure to fire public sector employees to show Greece's EU and IMF lenders that it is sticking to promises to cut costs under its bailout program.

After initially refusing to restart ERT, Samaras on Thursday said he offered to re-hire at a new broadcaster about 2,000 out of 2,600 ERT workers who were fired, 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," Samaras said.

"At this point we had a serious disagreement over ERT. I undertook efforts to restore unity and to find a solution."

But Fotis Kouvelis, leader of the Democratic Left, insisted that all workers be rehired, saying the issue at stake was far bigger than state television broadcasts.

"This issue is ... fundamentally an issue of democracy," said Kouvelis "We are not responsible for the fact that no common ground was reached."

Evangelos Venizelos, leader of PASOK - which has heavily suffered from Greece's debt crisis and would lose further in a new election - also called on Kouvelis to stay in the coalition.

"The situation for the country, the economy and its citizens is especially grave," said Venizelos. "We want the government to continue as a three-party government."

PASOK would continue backing the government even without the Democratic Left, party spokesman Dimitris Karydis said.

'BEGINNING OF THE END'

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 Monday's court ruling ordering it back on. Much of the squabbling this week centered on Samaras wanting a transitional broadcaster run by only a few staff members while his two partners wanted ERT to reopen exactly as it was before until a newer version is launched.

ERT workers meanwhile have continued broadcasting a 24-hour bootleg version on the Internet from their headquarters, where workers and unions have been protesting since last Tuesday.

"This is the beginning of the end," independent lawmaker Nikos Nikolopoulos tweeted, referring to Samaras's government.

(Additional reporting by Harry Papachristou and Karolina Tagaris; Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Eric Walsh, John Stonestreet)

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