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Greek leaders launch bid to break political deadlock

Greek leaders were poised today for a fresh round of talks to break the political deadlock over efforts to form a unity government and keep crisis-ravaged Greece in the eurozone.

world Updated: Nov 06, 2011 08:03 IST

Greek leaders were poised Sunday for a fresh round of talks to break the political deadlock over efforts to form a unity government and keep crisis-ravaged Greece in the eurozone.

Amid dire warnings that Athens is fast running out of time to implement a crucial EU bailout plan designed to save Greece from bankruptcy, Prime Minister George Papandreou has offered to step down in favour of a coalition government.

But Antonis Samaras, leader of the main conservative opposition party, has snubbed the proposal, calling instead for "immediate" elections.

Papandreou in turn has dismissed the idea of early polls as a "catastrophe" and said the bickering was giving the rest of Europe the impression that Greece did not want to stay in the 17-nation eurozone.

"The application of this deal is the precondition for us staying in the euro. It's as important as that," he told reporters on Saturday after visiting President Carolos Papoulias.

Papandreou was referring to a rescue package thrashed out in late October after tortuous negotiations in Brussels that would see banks write off half their holdings of Greek debt and offer massive loans to keep the country afloat.

Opposition leader Samaras was due to hold talks with the head of state Papoulias at 1 pm (1100 GMT) before Papandreou convenes an emergency cabinet meeting five hours later.

The cabinet meeting was due to prepare a meeting of eurozone finance ministers on Monday that would debate an eight-billion-euro ($11-billion) slice of bailout cash that Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos says is needed by December 15.

And ratcheting up the pressure on politicians to put aside their differences, a government spokesman announced late Saturday that Athens had only seven weeks to put the terms of the EU rescue package in place.

"According to the non-negotiable timetable... of the European Summit (where the plan was agreed), the new agreement needs to be ratified in parliament by the end of 2011," spokesman Ilias Mossialos said in a statement.

"Our European partners will not wait. We have only seven weeks and we cannot lose a single day," he added

With another hectic day of offer and counter-offer expected, Sunday will cap a week that has been tumultuous even by the recent standards of Greece, which finds itself trapped in the eye of the eurozone storm.

Papandreou himself got the ball rolling on Monday with a shock announcement that Greece would hold a referendum on the terms of the bailout deal, which calls for further fierce austerity measures.

The move stunned fellow European leaders, sent global markets into meltdown and earned the Greek prime minister a humiliating dressing-down by the leaders of France and Germany on Wednesday ahead of a G20 meeting.

Hastily retracting the proposal, Papandreou then turned disaster into triumph by winning a nail-biting vote of confidence early Saturday by offering to step down in favour of a consensus government, placating rebels among his own socialists.

But now Papandreou faces the challenge of forging consensus with an intransigent Samaras on a government to take Greece forward, with media speculating that Venizelos will be the man to ultimately take the helm.

The Greek people, meanwhile, battered by two years of stringent austerity measures that have crippled the economy and sent unemployment soaring, appeared to have had more than enough of their squabbling leaders.

"The people are suffering at the moment and they (politicians) are not budging," said Marianna, a shopkeeper.

"A unity government with whom? With the same people? We will have the same results," she said gloomily.

"Papandreou. Samaras. They are all the same," said Takis Karalambos, as he sipped coffee outside a central covered market in Athens.

First Published: Nov 06, 2011 07:51 IST