Samaras's path to power marked by U-turns
By Matt Robinson
First he voted against an international bailout, then for it, and now he says he wants to change it.
Greece’s eurozone partners could be forgiven for wondering what to expect next from Antonis Samaras, the new prime minister of a near-bankrupt nation whose critics accuse him of naked opportunism.
Samaras was sworn in on Wednesday, the culmination of a 30-year climb for the conservative leader that has included one fall from grace, at least two political U-turns and much fiery oratory from a scion of one of Greece’s most prominent families.
The 61-year-old Harvard-educated economist became prime minister in a coalition deal with his socialist arch rivals PASOK, pledging immediately to renegotiate the punishing terms of a 130-billion-euro ($165 billion) bailout that is keeping Greece from bankruptcy.
He must walk a fine line between angry voters who despise the austerity conditions that have driven the country deeper into a grinding recession, and lenders in the European Union and International Monetary Fund who say the document can be tweaked but not rewritten.
Family history weighs heavily on Samaras as he battles to keep Greece part of the eurozone project, the pinnacle of the continent’s drive to unite after World War Two.
His great-grandmother Penelope Delta, a celebrated author of patriotic children’s books, committed suicide in 1941, unable to stand the sight of German tanks on the streets of Athens.
That background has sometimes propelled Samaras towards the most right-wing, nationalist corner of the conservative New Democracy party he has led since 2009.
He initially resisted the cuts in wages and pensions, tax rises and economic liberalization imposed from abroad on Greece as the price of international bailouts to stave off bankruptcy.
He voted against the first bailout of 110 billion euros in 2010, expelling party members who broke ranks to vote for it. He reluctantly backed a second bailout this year in exchange for a national unity government and a quick general election.
His push for that vote proved a miscalculation when Greeks harshly punished both his party and PASOK in May, blaming them for years of corruption and the suffering caused by the harsh terms of the bailouts.
The election left Greece ungovernable and forced a second poll last Sunday, which Samaras narrowly won after vigorously defending the bailout against a dangerous challenge from the radical leftist SYRIZA bloc which had vowed to tear up the deal.
Critics say he’s a classic opportunist, flip-flopping on the most crucial issues when he sees the chance for political gain.
He opposed the bailout to discredit PASOK, but supported it when he saw the way clear to take power.
”The Greek people voted today to stay on a European course and remain in the eurozone,” Samaras told supporters in his moment of victory. ”There will be no more adventures; Greece’s place in Europe will not be put in doubt. The sacrifices of the Greek people will bear fruit.”
Samaras, whose family includes politicians, authors and national benefactors, was once the room-mate of former Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou at Boston’s Amherst College.
Seen as a polarizing figure throughout his political career, his rise to the head of New Democracy has not been without controversy, and still scars his standing in the party today.
His inflexible stance at the height of a dispute over the name of neighboring Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in the 1990s when that country declared independence from the former Yugoslavia cost him his job as foreign minister in 1992, analysts say. Greece objects to the name «Macedonia,» which is the same as its northern province.
Samaras defected from New Democracy, leading to the party’s fall from power in 1993, and founded his own grouping, only to execute another volte-face and return to the fold in 2004. He took over as party leader in late 2009, when New Democracy suffered a crushing defeat at the onset of the debt crisis.
Celebrating victory on Sunday, he told Reuters: ”I am relieved. I am relieved for Greece and Europe.” That relief is clearly deeply personal, but it may be short lived, given the scale of the problems that await him in office. [Reuters]