Evangelos Meimarakis, the leader of Greece’s conservative New Democracy party, has emerged as an unlikely challenger for Alexis Tsipras in the race for the country’s leadership.
Fondly called in Greece Neymar-akis, in a reference to the Brazilian soccer star, the New Democracy leader has come from behind to close his much younger and more popular rival’s once commanding lead. As Greece’s election campaign is coming to an end ahead of Sunday’s vote, polls show that Meimarakis, 61, has a real chance of scoring victory against Tsipras’s SYRIZA, putting the two parties in a statistical tie.
Here’s a list of things you should know about the man who may become Greece’s seventh Prime Minister since the beginning of the debt crisis:
Where did he come from?
A relative unknown outside Greece, Meimarakis succeeded former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in July at the helm of conservative New Democracy party. Samaras stepped down after a failed campaign to convince Greeks to vote “Yes” in a referendum over the terms demanded by creditors in exchange for emergency loans.
A lawyer by training, Meimarakis is a founding member of New Democracy, and an insider respected by party barons and grassroots loyalists. He took the job of party president on an interim basis while party officials worked out the process for selecting a permanent leader.
As a rift within governing SYRIZA party widened and Meimarakis’s popularity grew after his successful performance in parliamentary debates, New Democracy decided not to hold a leadership contest ahead of the election.
Can he be trusted to carry out reforms?
In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this month, Meimarakis said that if elected, he will seek to build a coalition of all political parties which supported the bailout agreement, and govern in a way that will send a message to Europe that Greece “is putting its house in order.”
Even as he vowed to seek improvements and tweaks in measures included in the bailout agreement, Meimarakis, who has studied at the University of Athens and Panteion University, promised commitment to reforms, and no drama: “I don’t want to cause any turmoil, on the contrary, I want to build relations of trust,” he said.
Unlike Tsipras, who has repeatedly resisted calls for a grand coalition, Meimarakis has offered to step aside if he were to win Sunday’s vote in favor of a broadly accepted candidate to lead a joint government. If he loses, he has said that he will back a SYRIZA-led government, on the condition it commits to the policies that will keep the country in the euro. “That’s the only condition,” he has said.
“If he wins, markets should expect continuity from the recent New Democracy administration in the pace of implementation of the bailout agreements,” Dimitris Drakopoulos, head of emerging markets research for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Nomura International Plc, said in e-mailed comments.
What’s 'Neymar-akis' like?
Having served as speaker of the Greek parliament and minister of defense, the mustachioed politician is well known to friends and foes in Greece for his informal style and strong language, a trait he makes him more appealing to lower-middle- class voters than Samaras.
Several Greek media reported in 2012 that he had told then New Democracy lawmaker and now president of the republic, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, to come and “suck me,” in parliament. They both denied later that such conversation took place.
In his interview with Bloomberg, Meimarakis called Tsipras Europe’s “pampered kid.” He has also used other derogatory expressions for his opponent, during the election campaign, including “naughty little liar.” His tone has earned him fans, with a Greek soccer team giving him a shirt labeled “Neymar- akis” as a present.
His tendency to lose his temper may prove a liability. In a television debate this week, the 6-foot-1 (1.86 meters) politician complained that the much shorter Tsipras appeared to tower over him on the state-run ERT TV’s cameras. But it has also made him popular, with some surveys showing that voters see him as more authentic, and like him more than any other political leader.
“People don’t vote for us so that we can speak politely, hang out with each other, and go out for dinner,” Meimarakis said. “They vote for us to govern the country, and care little about our vocabulary.”
What does he believe in?
On several occasions since elections were called, Meimarakis has identified himself with the centrist faction of New Democracy party. He vows to form a “national negotiation” team for talks with creditors and improve aspects of the bailout deal, once confidence is restored through the implementation of key reforms envisaged in the agreement.
Meimarakis, a father of two, has said his priority after the election is to “submit a budget for next year which will be fiscally disciplined, and within the framework we have agreed.” Then, “we will implement all the reforms that we have agreed in our bailout, like the OECD toolkit. As you know, we are a reformist political force,” he said.
A reformer or a defender of the status quo?
A member of parliament since 1989, Meimarakis is not the kind of leader who can bring renewal to Greece’s political landscape. But he has proven that he can unite his party. By joining Tsipras in backing the country’s bailout, he has emerged as a uniting force for Greek politics in general.
Meimarakis has said that he wants to bring “smiles back to Greek faces,” while his indisputable control over his party increases the chances that a government under him will be more stable than those of his predecessors.
“He has improved the unity among the different factions of the New Democracy party,” Nomura’s Drakopoulos said. “There could be less internal strife going forward.”