ATHENS – Antonis Samaras finally has the job he always wanted: Prime Minister of Greece, but may find he should have been careful about what he asked for because he’s going to get it– from all directions. As he ascends to what seems the impossible task of governing a country that is broke and bereft of hope, Samaras may be well-known to Greeks, but not to Europe and the rest of the world, to which he must make his case that Greece needs more time to implement more of the austerity measures he backed at the insistence of international lenders.
Greece is surviving on a first bailout of $152 billion from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) and awaiting a second for $173 billion that was held up until the results of the critical June 17 elections that Samaras’ New Democracy party won by a hair, and still with barely 30 percent ahead, little more than two points ahead of the hard-charging Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras, the 37-year-old firebrand who vehemently opposed the pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions the Troika ordered.
Tsipras kept putting the 61-year-old Samaras’ feet in the fire and made him change his stance during the campaign. The Conservative leader opposed austerity when his old roommate at Amherst College in Massachusetts, George Papandreou was Prime Minister and head of the PASOK Socialists who are the seemingly ideological opposites of New Democracy. Then Samaras supported austerity so he could join a brief, shaky hybrid government with PASOK.
But after a stalemated May 6 elections in which New Democracy finished first, but with under 19 percent of the vote and couldn’t form a government, Samaras changed track again and said while he supported the austerity measures and signed the deal with the Troika for the second bailout, that he wanted to renegotiate some of the terms.
The Troika, however, has said while it may be willing to listen, that the reforms are set in stone and that the new government (i.e. Samaras)has to make another $15 billion in cuts. With his minority coalition that includes PASOK and the Democratic Left, the government controls the Parliament but has less than 50 percent of the popular vote and Samaras could find himself feeling the Papandreou Effect, the ceaseless protests, strike and riots against austerity that brought down the Socialist government last year.
Tsipras, who said his party would remain in fierce opposition, noted wryly that Samaras, in his first victory speech, spoke only of honoring the deal with the Troika and not trying to hold the line on more austerity. This is the face of Samaras that his critics see, one of a shameless opportunist who changes his mind to suit the agenda of the day.
A RICH LIFE
His supporters say he is a principled pragmatist who sticks to his guns. As case in point they give the incident when Samaras’ fresh party brought down the New Democracy government of Konstantinos Mitsotakis nearly 20 years ago when Samaras, then a young gun at 26 and Foreign Minister, opposed allowing Greece’s northern neighbor to call itself the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and, after he was sacked, left to form his own party. History, at least to the Greeks, has shown him right in taking a hard line because the two countries have been battling over a name for FYROM ever since with no resolution in sight. He set up his own small party, Political Spring, causing political disaster for Mitsotakis.
Locked in a feud with his former political boss, he stayed outside New Democracy for more than a decade, until he was allowed to return in 2004. As Greek Reporter wrote in another profile of Samaras on the occasion of his taking over the party that had rejected him, it was a “famous vendetta … full of passion, hate and revenge.” Samaras wasn’t done with the Mitsotakis family though. In 2009, he beat Mitsotakis’ daughter, Dora Bakoyianni for the party leadership and she slinked away to form her own party. But with New Democracy on the ropes after the May 6 elections, he lured her back. But his mishandling of the elections – he called for them, believing he had an easy win in his grasp – showed that he was out of touch with the people. But he adapted. “Samaras has learned from his mistakes, and he has opened up to opinions from more people; he listens,” an unnamed New Democracy figure, who has been critical of Samaras in the past, told Reuters news agency.
Samaras has known only privilege and is worlds apart from the workers, pensioners and poor who are being crushed by the worsening of a deep recession exacerbated by the austerity measures he supported before he opposed them and then supported and opposed again. Descended from a wealthy family of ethnic Greek merchants from Alexandria, Samaras was born on May 23, 1951 in Athens, where he received an elite education at Athens College. His forebears founded the Benaki Museum, one of Greece’s leading cultural establishments, while his great-grandmother Penelope Delta was one of the country’s best-loved novelists.
He grew up among the capital’s well-connected families, playing tennis and going to parties at private clubs, Lia Daniolou, a New Democracy party official who has known him since their childhood days, told Bloomberg. At the age of 17, he won the Greek Teen Tennis Championship. He pursued his studies in the US, first economics at Amherst, then Harvard Business School.
In an article for the LA Times, college mates recalled how Samaras and Papandreou were united by their opposition to the military junta that ruled Greece while they were at a prestigious college far from the trouble. Both grew beards after the junta famously banned them. “One (Papandreou) was like a loyal and friendly Labrador; the other (Samaras,) an Afghan wolfhound,” said Philip Tsiaras, a New York-based artist who boarded at the college at the same time. “They were temperamental opposites, but somehow complemented each other. It was their forced isolation . . . that brought them together.”
Jim Warren, a former Chicago Tribune bureau chief in Washington, was at Amherst with Samaras and wrote recently in The Daily Beast that Samaras and Papandreou were known as two very handsome “mythical characters,” with gorgeous women from nearby Smith and Mt. Holyoke Colleges amid a “clique of aristocratic jet-setting friends.” Gordon Wiltsie, a renowned adventure photographer who lives in Bozeman, Montana, was Samaras’s sophomore roommate and remembered him as very conservative, a rule-follower who liked women and that Papandreou – unlike his whispery-voiced persona as Prime Minister, partied hard.
TENDER, BUT TOUGH
Samaras has positioned himself as a caring conservative, but wants to throw immigrants out of the country and has taken a hard line on crime, two issues that catapulted the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party into Parliament with him, although as back benchers with no real power. “There is a mass of immigrants, a million of them without work,” Samaras told Agence-France-Presse week on the sidelines of a party meeting. “We will stop this invasion,” he said. In another irony, as Foreign Minister, Samaras is said to have contributed to the first wave of illegal migration by opening the border to ethnic Greeks from neighboring Albania as its Communist regime imploded.
On most issues Samaras is ambivalent and tries to take both sides of each position. He promised to help business by cutting the sales tax, although by signing the Troika deal he implicitly supported a rise in the Value Added Tax (VAT) to 23 percent in most categories. He also said he wants to reverse cuts to pensions for the needy, protect private sector wages and space out austerity reforms – although he supported cuts in pensions, reductions in wages and the tough austerity measures that have Greeks cranked to get at him if he changes his mind again.
At the top of his agenda are job protection and job creation, he said. “The entire foundation of our whole strategy is new jobs – first of all to protect the old ones and add new jobs,” he told Reuters ahead of the June 17th vote. He portrays himself as a man who will negotiate with Greece’s creditors to get the country back on track as a responsible member of the Eurozone, instead of picking a fight with them, but Greeks are waiting to see which Samaras will show up for that one.
(With information from: Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse)