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Conservative leader front runner in Greek election

New Democracy (ND) party leader Antonis Samaras delivers a speech during the main pre-election rally of the party in Athens, Greece, 3 May.

By Dina Kyriakidou

Family history weighs heavily on conservative leader Antonis Samaras as he battles to lead Greece after Sunday’s general election.

His great-grandmother, Penelope Delta, a celebrated author of patriotic children’s books, committed suicide in 1941, unable to stand the sight of German tanks rolling down the streets of Athens during World War Two.

Such heritage has sometimes propelled Samaras towards the most right-wing corner of the conservative New Democracy party he has led since 2009.

Seeing a splinter group and a far right party come out of nowhere to sharply reduce his chances of the outright victory he craves in Sunday’s poll has not helped moderate his position.

Critics say his uncompromising character and wooing of the right was a strategic mistake that will not only cost him centrist votes but possibly also the premiership.

”He has made a mistake by rallying his core voters instead of broadening his message to woo the undecided,” said a conservative party candidate who declined to be named.

”His TV ads use nationalist images,” he added, referring to images of Alexander the Great and the Byzantine church of Saint Sophia in Istanbul. ”This doesn’t make him the most attractive candidate for the undecided.” Running on a campaign ticket of tax cuts and growth boosting measures while sticking to the deficit and debt reducing targets imposed under Greece’s second bailout, Samaras, 60, is leading opinion polls with about 20-26 percent of the vote.

He seems certain to come first, but is likely to be robbed of a clear win by the Independent Greeks splinter group and the far right Golden Dawn party, pushing him into an uncomfortable coalition with Socialist PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos.

The two are currently in a government led by technocrat Prime Minister Lucas Papademos which paved the way for the election after concluding a bond swap with creditors slicing over 100 billion euros off Greece’s debt.

The last published polls showed PASOK coming second with about 14-19 percent of the vote while four smaller parties, all of them opposed to the bailout, are vying for third place with about 10 percent each.

However, an unprecedented number of undecided voters make the result impossible to predict.

Some analysts say Samaras could refuse alliances and seek another election if he polls strongly.

Samaras angered international lenders by voting against Greece’s first bailout deal and only reluctantly backing the second, worth 130 billion euros, that is now keeping the country afloat. He argues that fiscal tightening will only plunge Greece into a deeper recession.

”Greece needs a strong medicine but the one administered was the wrong one because it did not allow for any recovery,” he told Reuters in an interview earlier this year. ”What we need to do now is reduce tax rates and implement structural changes so as to speed up deficit cutting and recovery.” Some analysts say he may be falling into the same trap as the Socialists, who made generous handout pledges before the 2009 election only to be forced to take them back and make tough cuts when they realised the enormity of the debt crisis.

The scion of one of Greece’s most prestigious families, including politicians, authors and national benefactors, Samaras was once the room mate of former Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou at Boston’s Amherst College.

”He is a patriot, has been since his youth. In all things, his main yardstick is what is good for Greece, not for himself or his party,” said Dinos Arkoumakis, deputy vice chancellor of City University of London and a long-time Samaras friend.

Critics even within his own party say that although Samaras is outgoing and has good communication skills, he is politically secretive and works with a tiny cabal of trusted aides.

During the campaign, which uses music from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, he has refused interviews with the foreign press and rejected a call for a TV debate from Venizelos.

He has limited his appearances to carefully staged speeches or pre-recorded chats with ordinary people, hoping to avoid errors that would cut his lead in the last leg of the race.

An American-trained economist, Samaras has held several government portfolios, including foreign affairs, since 1989. He defected from New Democracy leading to the party’s fall from power in 1993, to found his own party, Political Spring.

But he returned to the fold in 2004 when Costas Karamanlis won elections for the conservatives. He took over as party leader in late 2009, when New Democracy suffered a crushing defeat at the onset of the debt crisis.

Aides reject criticism that he is driven by personal ambition and say he believes only a single-party government can implement the deep reforms Greece needs.

”If we win outright or come close it will be a big victory and I believe we can do it,” one senior party official said. ”In any case, Samaras is the only possible prime minister. Period.” [Reuters]

ekathimerini.com , Friday May 4, 2012 (18:04)  
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