Veteran conservative politician Costis Stephanopoulos, who served two terms as president of Greece, died late Sunday at the Henry Dunant Hospital in Athens from “complications of pneumonia.” He had been admitted to hospital on Thursday with severe respiratory problems.
Stephanopoulos had turned 90 on August 15. Born in Patra in 1926, he was the son of lawyer and politician Dimitris Stephanopoulos and of Vrisiida Filopoulou (herself the daughter of journalist Constantinos Filopoulos).
Stephanopoulos studied law in Athens and, after returning to Patra, worked as a lawyer from 1954 to 1975. He got into politics in 1958 with the National Radical Union (ERE), a conservative right-wing political party founded by the late Constantine Karamanlis. He was first elected to Parliament in 1964.
After the end of Greece’s military dictatorship in 1974, Stephanopoulos became deputy trade minister in the national unity government under Karamanlis. He later served as minister of the interior and social services until 1977. In the same year, he was re-elected Patra MP.
Stephanopoulos took over as civil service minister. By that time, he was already considered as one of New Democracy’s leading cadres.
After Karamanlis was installed as Greek president and Georgios Rallis lost the 1981 elections, Stephanopoulos ran as a candidate for the New Democracy leadership, eventually losing the race to Evangelos Averoff. In 1984, he again sought the ND leadership as Averoff quit after the PASOK socialists won the European Parliament elections. Stephanopoulos was a runner-up to Constantine Mitsotakis, the father of the current conservative chief.
After ND lost a second national election to PASOK in 1985, Stephanopoulos went on to form the Democratic Renewal (DIANA) splinter party with another nine conservative deputies. It was then that Averoff famously said that “any sheep that leaves the fold ends up getting eaten by the wolf.”
Nevertheless, the party managed to enter Parliament in the three ballots that took place in the late 1980s (mainly thanks to a new electoral law passed by then PASOK minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos). In the last election however, only one DIANA deputy was elected – and that was not Stephanopoulos but Theodoros Katsikis. Stephanopoulos decided to work with his perennial rival, Mitsotakis, so that ND would gather the necessary 151 seats.
DIANA failed to elected a single MEP in the 1994 Euro elections, a result that prompted Stephanopoulos to dissolve the party. A year later, he was nominated president by Antonis Samaras, who was at the time leader of Political Spring, another ND splinter party. Stephanopoulos was elected with an overwhelming 181 votes (also with backing from PASOK), succeeding Karamanlis in March 1995. In 2000, he was re-elected with 269 votes (161 from PASOK, 101 from ND and seven independents) before passing the helm to Karolos Papoulias in 2005.
Stephanopoulos was widely regarded as one of Greece’s most popular politicians. Among the highlights of his career was his speech during US President Bill Clinton’s 1999 visit to Athens, where he made a case for Greece’s fair national claims. The speech was brought back to collective memory during the visit by outgoing US President Barack Obama last week.
In November 2000, Stephanopoulos received an honorary doctorate from the Law School of the University of Athens, and in February 2005, he was named an honorary member of the Academy of Athens. He received several honors and awards from foreign countries and he is an honorary citizen of many communities and municipalities. His funeral will take place at Aghios Dimitrios Church in Palaio Psychico at 2 p.m. Tuesday.