Greece works throughout weekend to avoid bankruptcy

Greece continued to struggle economically and politically over the weekend.  Prime Minister Papandreou is prepared to step down as soon as an interim government has been chosen. 

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    Greece's Prime Minister George Papandreou leads a cabinet meeting in Athens, Sunday. Papandreou has asked Greek president Karolos Papoulias to host talks between himself and opposition leader Antonis Samaras after a Sunday cabinet meeting, a source at the prime minister's office quoted the premier as telling his cabinet.
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Greek leaders struggled for a second day Sunday to end an ongoing political crisis, under intense pressure to ensure the country doesn't go bankrupt in the next few weeks and that it remains in the eurozone.

Embattled Prime Minister George Papandreou, who narrowly survived a parliamentary confidence vote Saturday, has said he is prepared to step down once political leaders agree on an interim government to lead the country through the next four critical months.

The new government would secure a new European debt deal agreed on little more than a week ago, and ensure the country receives a critical installment of bailout loans. Then elections could be held in late February.

But Antonis Samaras, the leader of the main conservative opposition New Democracy party, said Sunday no talks between the two parties were taking place and he reiterated his stance that Papandreou must resign before any coalition discussions can take place.

That has been the main sticking point in forming an interim government.

Papandreou, who chaired an emergency Cabinet meeting Sunday evening, said in a statement he had contacted the country's president, asking him to chair a meeting with him and Samaras in order to find a solution "soon."

Arriving for the Cabinet meeting, Civil Protection Minister Christos Papoutsis said Papandreou's proposal was "a clear, honest ... proposal in today's situation."

Greek politicians were hoping to arrive at a solution by Sunday night, so the country can attend a meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Brussels Monday with a semblance of stability.

"It is evident ... that the entire government can and will resign once the national cooperation and discussions result in a new government," said Interior Minister Haris Kastanidis as he arrived for the Cabinet meeting.

"There is a eurogroup tomorrow. If the government resigns today without there being a new government, who will hold talks at the eurogroup?" Kastanidis said.

Greece has been surviving since May 2010 on a first €110 billion ($152 billion) bailout. But its financial crisis was so severe that a second rescue was needed as the country remained locked out of international bond markets by sky-high interest rates and facing an unsustainable national debt increase.

The new European deal, agreed on by the 27-nation bloc on Oct. 27 after marathon negotiations, would give Greece an additional €130 billion ($179 billion) in rescue loans and bank support. It would also see banks write off 50 percent of Greek debt, worth some €100 billion ($138 billion). The goal is to reduce Greece's debts to the point where the country is able to handle its finances without relying on constant bailouts.

Greece's lawmakers must now approve the new rescue deal, putting intense pressure on the country's leaders to swiftly end the political crisis so parliament can convene and put the debt agreement to a vote.

"In these critical moments, the two (main) parties are merely wasting time," said lawmaker Giorgos Kontoyannis, a former New Democracy member of parliament who has joined the splinter group Democratic Alliance. "I want to say to my former New Democracy colleagues that our responsibility to our country is individual and not bound by party allegiance."

In return for bailout money, Greece was forced to embark on a punishing program of tax increases and cuts in pensions and salaries that sent Papandreou's popularity plummeting and his majority in parliament whittled down from a comfortable 10 seats to just two.

Papandreou's government came under renewed threat after his disastrous bid this past week to hold a public referendum on the new €130 billion ($179 billion) deal. The idea was swiftly scrapped Thursday after an angry response from markets and European leaders who said any popular vote in Greece would determine whether the country would keep its cherished membership in the eurozone. They also vowed to withhold a critical €8 billion ($11 billion) installment of loans from an existing bailout deal that Greece needs urgently to stave off an imminent and catastrophic default.

After the aborted referendum idea, Papandreou's government survived the confidence vote. Now, European Union partners and creditors are pressing Papandreou and other political leaders to form a coalition government as a condition to receive any further rescue funds.

Government spokesman Elias Mossialos told state television Sunday that talks have begun and the name of the new prime minister should be known by Monday, in which case Papandreou would resign. Mossialos later told The Associated Press that his remarks regarding a new premier expressed "a personal wish" and were not an official announcement.

Samaras' party denied any talks were taking place "either in the open or behind the scenes."

The socialists and New Democracy differ on the duration of such a caretaker government, with the opposition demanding elections within a few weeks and the government saying the coalition Cabinet should last through the end of February.

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