By NIKI KITSANTONIS
ATHENS — The leaders of Greece's increasingly fragile coalition are to meet Monday in an effort to mend a deepening rift over the closing of the country's state broadcaster that could force early elections if no compromise is found.
The surprise decision last week by the conservative prime minister, Antonis Samaras, to close the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, known as ERT, was vehemently opposed by his two coalition partners and by labor unions, and was unpopular with many Greeks. Speculation has been rife that the dispute could fracture the coalition.
The dispute intensified over the weekend when Mr. Samaras gave a speech defending his decision to close ERT — which he called "sinful" because of its spending — and to crack down on "the privileged" as part of a cost-cutting drive demanded by Greece's international creditors.
It was a year ago that Greeks went to the polls amid political upheaval and the specter of a messy debt default that shook the countries that use the euro. The elections were inconclusive, leading to the cobbling together of the governing coalition. Mr. Samaras is supposed to serve a four-year term, but few expect it to last that long.
"Some believe that they will trap us in an election dilemma," Mr. Samaras said Sunday, speaking to members of his New Democracy party in the southern town of Nafplio. "The dilemma is not over who will provoke elections, because nobody wants them. The dilemma is who will be responsible for blocking reforms."
The socialist party known as Pasok, the second member of the coalition, condemned the prime minister for his "precocious pre-election tone."
"This is not the appropriate way to address his government partners," Pasok said in a statement, adding that a three-way coalition "can only operate on the basis of mutual respect." The smallest partner, the Democratic Left, sounded a similar note. "If in actions and in words — as in today's incendiary speech by Mr. Samaras — the government partners are sidestepped, then the government's cohesion is at risk," the party said in a statement.
Early elections would derail economic reforms and would almost certainly lead foreign rescue loans to be frozen. With so much at stake, most political analysts say, the coalition's leaders are under great pressure to thrash out a compromise.
Although the junior coalition partners have insisted that they do not want early elections — and it would be a huge gamble for Mr. Samaras to call them himself — there are doubts about whether the socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos and Fotis Kouvelis of the Democratic Left will be able to muster the political will to keep the government running and settle their differences with Mr. Samaras over the closing of ERT.
The prime minister also faces the opposition of unions representing about 650,000 civil servants who have been relatively untouched by the deepening recession, which has crippled the private sector as a succession of Greek governments have avoided politically contentious layoffs among public employees.
The possibility of early elections dominated the front pages of Greek newspapers on Sunday that went to press after several news media organizations decided to break a rolling strike that was called by the Greek journalists' union in solidarity with the dismissed ERT employees. An open-ended strike by television station workers continued Sunday.
Some Greek blogs and Web sites interpreted the debate as political theater, aimed at getting Greeks to accept the closing of ERT as a far better alternative than early elections.
Two opinion polls published over the weekend suggested that up to 65 percent of Greeks disagreed with the sudden closing of ERT — although it is widely condemned as wasteful and overstaffed — with the remainder of those polled supporting the shutdown. Mr. Samaras has pledged to replace ERT with a leaner operation this summer.
Polls also indicated that 6 out of 10 Greeks do not want early elections. And there remained a chance that the deadlock would be solved, at least temporarily, by the Greek judiciary. A top court weighing an appeal by more than 2,600 ERT employees against the shutdown is expected to rule on Tuesday, Greek news media reported.
A decision in favor of the workers, who have been producing underground news broadcasts via satellite streams since ERT was pulled off the air on Tuesday night, could lead to the broadcaster's signal being restored temporarily until the decision is reviewed in a hearing scheduled for September.
More significantly, such a ruling would relieve the government of the challenge of seeking a difficult compromise on ERT, allowing the coalition government to remain intact, at least for now.
The main leftist opposition party, Syriza, said Sunday that ERT's closing had put the government in jeopardy. "The prime minister is trying, with threats and lies, to justify the culmination of his despotic policies, the closure of the state broadcaster," the party's leader, Alexis Tsipras, said. "He knows, though, that he is isolated."
A version of this article appeared in print on June 17, 2013, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Greek Leaders to Meet in Effort to Save Government.
Photo: A control room at the headquarters of the Greek state broadcaster ERT. The prime minister's decision last week to close ERT has put the governing coalition at risk.
Source: The New York Times, 16 June 2013