The man who will lead Greece when it takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union’s Council of Ministers on 1 January 2014 is among his generation’s most exceptional political talents. Antonis Samaras, a Harvard-educated economist who became prime minister last year during the country’s worst crisis since the 1967 military coup, is an intensely political man, combative, ambitious and eloquent. At the same time, he is ideological and vindictive and has a history of making powerful enemies and of alienating the social and political elite from which he hails – his father was a surgeon. He spent a decade in the political wilderness and took another decade to climb to the top of Greek politics.
The very beginnings of his political career showed these character traits fully formed. In 1989, still in his thirties, Samaras became finance minister and then foreign minister in Greece’s first centre-right administration after a decade of socialist rule under Andreas Papandreou. But a couple of years later, in 1992, just two months after they jointly signed the European Union’s Maastricht treaty on behalf of their country, the Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis sacked Samaras for his unyielding stance on next-door Macedonia, which had declared independence from Yugoslavia. Samaras’s obduracy exacerbated an international dispute that continues to this day. The following year, in October 1993, Samaras broke away from the governing New Democracy party and took enough parliamentarians with him for the government to lose its majority. The government fell, an early election was called, Papandreou returned to power, and another decade of socialist rule followed. Mitsotakis’s clan never forgave Samaras, the prime minister’s erstwhile protégé, whose first date with his future wife, Georgia Kritikos, was at an ND election rally.
Samaras spent the decade of socialist rule, 1993-2004, as leader of Political Spring, a nationalist group that sought to chip away at New Democracy’s right wing without much success. “I spent 11 years staring at the walls of my house,” Samaras told the Wall Street Journal. But during the ND’s time in opposition, the seeds for Samaras’s political comeback were sown. The leadership of the party passed to Kostas Karamanlis, scion of a family that has vied with the Mitsotakis clan for control of the party since it was founded in 1974. Karamanlis, nephew of the party’s founder, returned it to power in 2004 and allowed Samaras to stand for the European Parliament. His three years there were a launch-pad for his national comeback. In 2007, he was elected to Greece’s national parliament, and two years later Karamanlis appointed him minister of culture.
Samaras’s nationalist credentials made this a fitting appointment. But the Karamanlis government, rattled by the economic crisis and accusations of mismanagement and corruption, fell that same year, 2009. In a snap election, ND suffered the worst result in its history, socialist George Papandreou – the late Andreas Papandreou’s son – became prime minister and in the subsequent shake-out of New Democracy, Samaras won the party leadership.
Underscoring his complex relationship with New Democracy and the powerful families that control it, Samaras launched an insurgent campaign against the heir-apparent to the defeated Karamanlis, Dora Bakoyannis, a liberal former foreign minister and mayor of Athens. Unlike Samaras, she found it difficult to relate to the party’s socially conservative and nationalist wing. At the same time, Bakoyannis was associated with the party’s old guard, for she also happened to be the daughter of Constantine Mitsotakis. Samaras, the man who had brought down her father’s government, had now deprived Bakoyannis of what she saw as rightfully hers – the leadership of New Democracy.
Winning the party leadership brought Samaras to the top of Greek politics within two and a half years, following the collapse of the Papandreou government amid fears of a sovereign default and an exit from the eurozone. Nick Malkoutzis, deputy editor of the English-language edition of the Kathimerini daily, called Samaras’s political comeback, two decades in the making, “the unlikeliest of stories”. In a reshuffle last June, Samaras appointed Kyriakos Mitsotakis – Constantine’s son and Dora Bakoyannis’s brother – to the crucial post of minister for administrative reform, a sign that he can be pragmatic when necessary.
But the last stretch of Samaras’s ascent to power was rocky and hinted at some of his less admirable character traits. He opposed Papandreou’s austerity measures, rejected the country’s international bailout, and leaked to reporters that the prime minister had approached him with the idea of forming a government of national unity – a breach of trust by Samaras or someone close to him that Papandreou took very personally and that further contributed to the image of Greece as leaderless.
It is ironic that the intense Samaras, a champion tennis player in his youth who enjoys the rough and tumble of Greek politics, should now lead the first-ever grand coalition of centre-right and centre-left in the country’s history. At least he did not have to accept a partnership with Papandreou, who resigned as socialist leader.
1951: Born, Athens
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1970-74: Student, Amherst College
1976: MBA, Harvard University
1977: Elected to Greek parliament
1989: Finance minister
1990: Foreign minister under Prime Minister Mitsotakis
1992: Sacked as foreign minister
1993: Launches ‘Political Spring’
2004: Rejoins New Democracy, elected MEP
2007: Elected to Greek parliament, re-elected 2009
2009: Minister of culture
2009: Leader of New Democracy in opposition
2012: Prime minister
Samaras and Papandreou, a year his junior, were friends and roommates at Amherst College, a small liberal-arts school in Massachusetts, where they enrolled in 1970. Jim Warren, the secretary of the class that graduated in ’74, described the two as “urbane fellows who lured attractive women without difficulty”. But Michael Rogawski, a classmate who now chairs the neurology department at the University of California in Davis, recalls Papandreou as “the more serious, whereas Samaras was more handsome, dashing and approachable”.
That the rarefied world in which Samaras has made his name is small is suggested by the curious links between the Samaras family and the Papandreous. Samaras’s older brother also attended Amherst and today is chairman of the foundation that owns Athens College, an elite prep school among whose founders was Samaras’s great-grandfather; Papandreou senior and junior and Samaras are all graduates. Another alumnus of both Athens and Amherst is Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU’s special envoy for human rights, a former MEP and George Papandreou’s foreign minister. Samaras’s daughter, Eleni, graduated from Athens College in 2008, together with Margarita Papandreou, Papandreou’s daughter. Samaras’s other child, son Kostas, is currently a student there.
By flip-flopping over economic austerity, Samaras has shown that he can be pragmatic. Whether this applies to foreign policy is an open question. There are persistent rumours that he plans to recognise Kosovo during Greece’s term in the Council presidency, which would be a major about-turn for Greece and for Samaras personally – he was a staunch ally of Serbia during the darkest days of Slobodan Miloševic?’s rule. Indeed, Samaras’ views on Macedonia and his support for Miloševic? were fairly mainstream in Greece at the time. One of his successors as foreign minister, socialist Karolos Papoulias, said in 2001 that the only reason for NATO’s presence in the Balkans was to “wipe Serbia off the map”. Papoulias is the current president of Greece.
The bigger question for the EU is whether this fiery politician can hold together the coalition with the socialists. His relationship with Evangelos Venizelos, the socialist leader who is now deputy prime minister and foreign minister, appears to lack the intimacy – and indeed the friction – that linked him to Papandreou. Samaras, together with several of his ministers including Venizelos, will be visiting the European Commission in Brussels next Wednesday (4 December).