Antonis Samaras, the leader of Greece’s victorious New Democracy party, has made a fast turnaround from Europe-bashing populist to the continental power brokers’ preferred choice to lead Greece.
Voters in Greece Sunday handed New Democracy the edge in a close race with no likely outright majority winner, according to early projections. But as the leader of the top-finishing party in the fractured poll, Mr. Samaras will get the first shot at attempting to form a government and is likely to be prime minister.
Few jobs in politics are as unforgiving as being Greece’s prime minister right now. But seizing the office would realize a long-held ambition for a man who was a conservative darling two decades ago before being exiled from the party, and then staging a remarkable comeback.
Now, the question for the American-educated politician from a prominent Greek family is whether he will fare better than the last American-educated politician from a prominent Greek family to sit in the chair: His old Amherst College roommate George Papandreou.
Mr. Papandreou won a resounding victory for the socialist Pasok party in the 2009 elections. As prime minister, however, he negotiated Greece’s first bailout deal with the euro zone in 2010. The harsh terms that he agreed to demolished his political support at home, and he left office in 2011.
In the early days after the bailout, being in opposition suited Mr. Samaras. He railed against the bailout’s terms—known in Greece as the “memorandum”—saying particularly that Greece should cut taxes in a bid to spur business hiring and growth. The memorandum called for them to be raised to bolster government revenue.
In Brussels and Berlin, Mr. Samaras was seen by some as an obstructionist. “Let’s just say he’s regarded—in diplomatic parlors—as an unconstructive interlocutor,” a diplomat from a large euro-zone country said.
But in November, he signed on to an interim government charged with seeking a new bailout. And in February, with Greece on the brink of financial collapse, Europe pressured Mr. Samaras to lend his support to it. He did, setting aside his reservations about the policies in the name of keeping the country in the European family.
Greece got a new slug of aid money, but Mr. Samaras’ popularity suffered greatly. In the May elections, New Democracy was only barely able to hold off a challenge from the upstart leftists of Syriza.
The battering Mr. Samaras’s party took in the first elections weighed heavy on him. Gaunt and visibly exhausted, he knows that “he’s a man playing his last card,” one New Democracy candidate said.
But the vast majority of Greeks want the country to stay in the euro zone, and Mr. Samaras’ decision to take an unpopular stance that allowed that to happen appears to have helped him.
“What Mr. Samaras did showed that he is responsible about Greece, because he thought that the national interest was above New Democracy’s interest,” said Margaritis Tzimas, a longtime New Democracy figure from northern Greece.
Mr. Tzimas, at the time in parliament, initially broke with Mr. Samaras over the February bailout, saying it was too harsh. Mr. Samaras expelled him from the party, then eventually welcomed him back.
Mr. Tzimas, officially a New Democracy candidate but unlikely to win a seat, says Mr. Samaras is now the right person to deal with Europe and try to fix Greece’s economy. “Mr. Samaras wants the people to find work,” he said.
Whether Mr. Samaras is able to control Greece’s fractious political right, and set them on a pro-Europe course, will be key to his success. It is not easy, and he has been a divisive figure himself.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Samaras took on a sensitive question of the day: The name of Macedonia, the country on Greece’s border that was formerly part of Yugoslavia, which shares the name of a region in northern Greece. He adopted a populist view, which remains policy to this day, to reject the use of “Macedonia” for Greece’s neighbor. That caused a break with New Democracy, and he was expelled—only to return as party leader two decades later.
That has left him with many rivals on the right, among them Dora Bakoyanni, who lost a party leadership fight to him in 2009, then quit the party and ran against him in the May elections. He wooed her back for the June elections.
He also successfully brought back into the fold some members who had defected to the small nationalist Laos party, which was badly beaten in May. He will need to do more coalition building.
“Samaras has engaged in frequent maneuvering to survive politically,” says Giorgios Kyrtsos, the publisher of the newspaper City Press and a Laos candidate. “He’s changed his position several times in the past and he may change it yet again.”