Street-smart conservative aims for Greek election upset

Street-smart conservative aims for Greek election upset

A blunt-talking lawyer who took over Greece's second largest party almost by accident could become the country's next prime minister, if polls ahead of the September 20 ballot prove true.

Vangelis Meimarakis, 61, temporary leader of the New Democracy conservatives and a former defence minister, has seen the party pull even with leftists SYRIZA, less then seven months after losing the last election with an 8.5-percent margin.

Though the gains are largely due to an internal SYRIZA revolt over the new unpopular European Union bailout brought by former prime minister Alexis Tsipras, Meimarakis has been praised as a unifying force by fellow conservatives.

A self-styled man of the people, Meimarakis became leader of the conservative New Democracy party when former chair Antonis Samaras abruptly resigned in July.

The party was supposed to pick a successor through a congress but with snap elections called for September 20, it was decided to leave him in temporary control.

A trained lawyer and the son of a right-wing lawmaker, Meimarakis – who calls himself a "left-wing conservative" – has been elected to parliament without fail since 1989 and served as New Democracy's influential party secretary for five years.

He is also considered one of Greece's toughest politicians and a wily, in-your-face speaker who enjoys needling his opponents by frequently stepping outside political decorum.

He has called 41-year-old Tsipras a "little liar" who "destroyed" the country by wasting months in fractious talks with EU-IMF creditors, imposing capital controls and nearly taking the country out of the eurozone.

"I never want you to be prime minister again," he told Tsipras during a one-on-one televised debate on Monday. "You brought destruction to the country… we never had so many ills in such a small period of time".

Nevertheless, Meimarakis says he will invite Tsipras to form a unity government and a multi-party team to negotiate with Greeces creditors on how to lift the country out of crisis.

Years earlier, when a newspaper linked him to a money laundering case, Meimarakis reportedly threatened to "take off his pants" to deal with its editor, and to "screw over" a rival lawmaker investigating another case involving submarine purchases.

A father of two daughters, Meimarakis says his style strikes a chord with people who want to see "normal" politicians.

"This is who I am, and people don't have to vote for me if they don't want to," Meimarakis said in a recent televised interview.

"I'm not going to change, I will remain impulsive, because I believe I must deal with problems with a human touch," he told Mega channel, adding that as defence minister, he continued to ride a motorcycle despite the advice of his security detail.

Also known by the moniker 'Vangelas' (big Vangelis), the tall, thickly mustachioed Meimarakis held parliament in line for nearly three years as speaker of the chamber under the 2012-2015 New Democracy administration when unpopular austerity measures had to be adopted.

On the Greek political scene, he is also remembered for heading New Democracy's youth wing ONNED in the mid 1980s, a combustible period when brawls between rival party members were common.

On Meimarakis' orders, New Democracy in July and August backed the new EU bailout in successive parliamentary votes, helping Tsipras weather the opposition of around a fifth of his own lawmakers.

But the conservative chief has signalled he will oppose an upcoming overhaul of tax privileges for farmers – a core group of conservative voters – that Greece must approve in October in return for bailout funds.

"The farmers have given what they can to the national effort… It is unthinkable to accept even tougher measures," he told an audience in Velestino, near the agricultural hub of Volos on September 5.

Meimarakis has also indicated his party wants to see heightened border vigilance to stem the influx of migrants not entitled to asylum protection.

"As regards migrants, the borders must be better protected and Greece should not send the message that 'it's good over here, come over'," he told Star channel.


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