Court re-opens Greek broadcaster, saving fragile coalition
A Greek court yesterday (17 June) ordered state broadcaster ERT back on air while it is restructured, allowing squabbling coalition leaders to move towards a compromise that avoids early elections.
The ruling came six days after Prime Minister Antonis Samaras suddenly switched ERT off to save money and please foreign lenders, sparking an outcry from unions, journalists and exposing a rift with his allies.
The highest Greek administrative court appeared to vindicate Samaras's stance that a leaner, cheaper public broadcaster must be set up but also allowed for ERT's immediate reopening as his two coalition partners had demanded, offering all three a way out of an impasse that had raised the spectre of a snap election.
All parties claimed victory from the ruling, which failed to specify whether ERT must restart with programming as before or only partially resume operations until its relaunch.
"The court decision is essentially in line with what we've said: no one has the right to shut down national radio and television and turn screens black," said Fotis Kouvelis, head of the small Democratic Left party in the coalition.
All major parties claim victory from court ruling
Evangelos Venizelos, head of the Socialist PASOK party, also said the ruling vindicated his party's line and reiterated that he was against going to early elections.
An official from Samaras's New Democracy party - which has already scored a minor victory by securing the latest tranche of bailout funds partly due to ERT's shutdown - said the ruling affirmed the government's position that ERT had been scrapped.
"ERT is shut, ERT is finished," said the official.
A live feed of ERT - whose journalists have continued broadcasting over the Internet in defiance of orders - showed workers breaking into applause after the court ruling. ERT's Symphony Orchestra began a concert outside its headquarters, playing an old news jingle to cheering supporters.
"I've been here seven nights and this is the first time I've seen people smile," said Eleni Hrona, an ERT reporter.
During talks with his allies, Samaras offered to reopen a pared-down version of ERT under temporary management, reshuffle the cabinet and update the coalition's agreement to improve cooperation among parties, a government official said.
National broadcaster had become a “Jurassic Park” of inefficiency
PASOK's Venizelos said Samaras had appeared to accept the option of a cabinet reshuffle and better coordination, and that the three political leaders would meet again on Wednesday to agree on how to implement the court ruling.
"ERT is not the only or the main issue," he said. "The main issue is that this government must operate as a government of real cooperation and not as a one-party government."
The threat of early elections that had shaken financial markets appeared to recede as talk shifted to the reshuffle.
"No political leader said we must go to elections," another official said. "Elections weren't even discussed."
The coalition parties over the past week had fed fears of a hugely disruptive snap poll by refusing to compromise over an entity widely unloved until its shock overnight closure.
Aware his allies stand to lose heavily in any election, the conservative Samaras had refused to turn the "sinful" ERT back on, vowing to fight to modernise a country he says had become a "Jurassic Park" of inefficiency and corruption.
Fears that Greece is sliding towards “crisis and drama”
His coalition partners had previously rejected Samaras's offer of a limited restart of broadcasts.
Ratings agency Moody's said the fraying political consensus on ERT's closure and slippage on a troubled privatisation programme after Athens failed to sell off state natural gas firm DEPA were negative for Greece's lowly C credit rating.
"Without a compromise among coalition partners, the risk of new elections will increase," the agency said.
A senior eurozone official voiced concern that Greece was hurtling back to its days of crisis and drama, given the slow pace of public sector reforms and privatisations.
"It's kind of deja vu with Greece," the official said.
Opinion polls over the weekend showed a majority of Greeks opposed the shutdown, due rather to its abruptness - screens went black a few hours after the announcement, cutting off newscasters mid-sentence - than to the decision itself.
In Syntagma square outside parliament, thousands gathered to listen to radical left opposition leader Alexis Tsipras protest against the ERT shutdown and attack Samaras as a "great Napoleon of bailouts".
"But he didn't see, nor did he predict, the Waterloo that ERT workers and the great majority of people prepared for him," Tsipras told crowds of flag-waving supporters.
Greece's international lenders agreed in November on a package of measures to reduce Greek debt by €40 billion, cutting it to 124% of gross domestic product by 2020.
Greece will receive up to €43.7 billion in stages as it fulfills the conditions imposed by the troika of international creditors - the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
>> Read: Eurozone clinches Greek debt deal
Five years after the debt crisis started, people in Greece concede that the government's austerity plans do not aim merely to fix the economy, but to fundamentally alter the country's political system.
Unemployment in 2009 was estimated at 9.6%. Today, the country has the highest rate of unemployment in the EU, with an official figure of 27%. That means 1.5 million people are out of work. Three and a half million people live below the official poverty line and 35% of all workers are unable to clear their mortgages and bank loans.