The rise, fall and rise again of Antonis Samaras

Tue, Jun 19, 2012, 01:00

DAMIAN Mac CON ULADHin Athens profiles the man who is likely to be the next prime minister of Greece

IT HAS been a long and at times lonely battle to the top, but Antonis Samaras, the conservative almost certain to become Greek prime minister this week, has only himself to blame for the many years he spent in the political wilderness.

Samaras was born in Athens in 1951, the scion of a family that could be described as the nearest thing Greece has had to aristocracy. His father was a cardiologist and his mother a granddaughter of Penelope Delta, the prominent children’s author who took her own life the day the Nazis marched into Athens in 1941.

He was educated at Athens College, the cadre school of the Greek elite, and in the early 1970s studied economics at Amherst College, where he shared a room with George Papandreou, until last November the country’s socialist Pasok prime minister.

The two could agree on politics – they both denounced the Greek junta – but differences remained. Papandreou embraced the hippy look, while Samaras never strayed far from his conservative roots or ditched the blue blazers with gold buttons.

On his return to Greece, Samaras was spotted by conservative leader Konstantinos Karamanlis and promoted through the New Democracy ranks. He was elected to parliament in 1977 on his first attempt, when he was only 26.

He was appointed finance minister in a short-lived national unity government in 1989, but his big break came in 1990 when he was elevated to foreign minister by Konstantinos Mitsotakis, who saw him as his protege and potential successor to the New Democracy leadership.

But the disintegration of Yugoslavia saw Samaras adopt an uncompromising approach in the naming dispute with the new independent state of Macedonia, whose name, Greece charged, implied territorial claims over its northern province of the same name.

After he clashed with his mentor – the young minister tried to ride the nationalist wave against Skopje, accusing Mitsotakis of willingness to compromise – Samaras was expelled from New Democracy in 1992 and went on to found the breakaway Political Spring party.

The defection of more New Democracy MPs to the right-wing splinter party led to the collapse of Mitsotakis’s government the following year and the return of Pasok to power.

Political Spring floundered after a few elections, casting Samaras into relative oblivion. Most wrote him off. “I spent 11 years staring at the walls of my house,” is how Samaras now describes this period, claiming he paid a high price for his principles.

But after a slow repentance, New Democracy, now under the leadership of Kostas Karamanlis, welcomed the apostate back into the fold. He identified himself with the right-wing nationalist platform within the party and his closest advisers came from the same block.

In early 2009, Samaras was appointed culture minister. Following New Democracy’s crushing defeat later that year, he won the party leadership contest, defeating Dora Bakoyannis, Mitsotakis’s daughter.

Twenty years after his dogmatic and stubborn character led to his downfall, it remains to be seen how Samaras will perform on the European stage.