Antonis Samaras: a conservative hawk bent on Greek growth

Agence France-Presse
Antonis Samaras, who leads the conservative party that won crucial elections in Greece, is a hawkish former foreign minister who has vowed to banish recession and rid the country of undocumented migrants.

NEW GREEK LEADER. New Democracy party leader, Antonis Samaras (R), waves at supporters as he leaves the new office of the New Democracy conservative party election campaign kiosk near the Greek Parliament, after his party came first in the national Greek's election, in central Athens, on June 17, 2012. Photo by AFP

ATHENS, Greece – Antonis Samaras, who leads the conservative party that won crucial elections in Greece, is a hawkish former foreign minister who has vowed to banish recession and rid the country of undocumented migrants.

The 61-year-old politician, an economist by training, was tasked on Monday, June 18, by head of state Carolos Papoulias with forming a government after his New Democracy party came first in Sunday’s elections, although not by a wide enough margin for an outright majority.

As he began a round of coalition talks with a three-day deadline, Samaras called for “national understanding” and amendments to the conditions of an EU-IMF bailout deal “so the Greek people can escape from today’s torturous reality.”

Samaras has a track record of confrontation when he wants to get his point across.

Twenty years ago as a minister, Samaras did not hesitate to bring down an entire government over a foreign policy spat with the Greek prime minister.

Today, he plans to use his political affiliation with key European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, to secure an easier recovery transition for crisis-crippled Greece.

The pro-business conservatives want to cut top income tax thresholds and sales tax and mobilize European funds for construction projects to pull the economy out of a five-year trough that has left over a million jobless.

Samaras has famously pledged to “eat iron” to bring investment to Greece.

The conservative chief in 2010 refused to approve a first EU-IMF bailout deal worth 110 billion euros.

Following weeks of posturing, he gave his conditional consent last year to a second package of 130 billion euros after European leaders threatened Greece with bankruptcy.

He also insisted on holding early elections, ending the term of a six-month Conservative-Socialist coalition government under former European Central Bank Lucas Papademos that controlled an overwhelming parliamentary majority.

At only 26, Samaras was once one of the youngest politicians elected to Greece’s parliament and a rising conservative star who reached his peak as foreign minister in the early nineties.

But he fell spectacularly from grace during Greece’s bitter diplomatic crisis with neighboring Macedonia.

Samaras had favored adopting a strong stance against the newly-independent former Yugoslav republic, which was seen in Greece to have usurped the name of one of its northern territories after declaring independence in 1991.

But he clashed with then prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis over the issue and defected, bringing down the government.

Samaras formed his own nationalist party, Political Spring, and retreated into the political wilderness for nearly a decade.

But he would ironically return to the conservatives over a decade later and defeat Mitsotakis’s daughter for the party leadership in 2009.

Samaras now intends to take a stronger stance on illegal immigration by toughening residency and naturaliZation requirements that had been relaxed by the previous socialist administration.

“There is a mass of immigrants, a million of them without work,” Samaras told AFP last week on the sidelines of a party meeting.

“We will stop this invasion,” he said.

Samaras has promised to abolish a law passed by the Socialist government that opened the way for second-generation immigrants to be granted Greek citizenship, as well as a series of reforms to boost security.

Ironically, critics say Samaras himself is not entirely blameless on undocumented migration.

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.

A father of two, Samaras is descended from one of Greece’s top families and holds economics and business management degrees from Amherst College and Harvard.

His forebears were wealthy ethnic Greek merchants from Alexandria who 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. – Agence France-Presse