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Antonis Samaras: embattled Greek PM seeing red over leftist peril

23 january 2015, 14:17

 Antonis Samaras, prime minister during one of the toughest periods in modern Greek history, is a late convert to austerity whose penchant for risky politics could now cost him his job, AFP reports.

The Harvard-educated 63-year-old says salvation is in sight for Greece after six painful years of recession.

But to reap the rewards, Samaras warns Greeks must shut their ears to the "gibberish" and "third-world fantasies" of the far-left Syriza party, which is leading the race with promises to end austerity.

That Samaras now finds himself pleading with voters to stick the course of tough economic reforms he himself once opposed is a situation of his own making after his latest political gamble backfired.

In a bold move, he pushed forward a presidential election by two months, hoping to gain time to complete a pending EU-IMF fiscal audit that has frozen Greece's bailout loan payments.

But when parliament failed to elect a president in December, a general election became inevitable.

It is not the first time Samaras has put his career on the line by going down a risky path.

Two decades ago, as foreign minister, he did not hesitate to bring down an entire government over a fight about the official name of neighbouring Macedonia.

And in 2012, as opposition leader, Samaras insisted on terminating a six-month caretaker government under former European Central Bank vice-president Lucas Papademos.

It took back-to-back ballots in May and June 2012 to form a shaky coalition government, stalling Greece's fiscal reforms and sparking speculation that the country was about to be ejected from the eurozone.

Apart from resulting in a Pyrrhic victory for Samaras' own New Democracy party, the 2012 elections also gave a huge boost to anti-austerity groups such as radical leftists Syriza -- which now seek to replace him -- and put neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn in parliament.

Samaras at the time promised to do everything to keep Greece in the euro, but also argued for an easing of the terms of the EU-IMF bailout.

Foreign creditors and EU capitals geared up for a fight -- but once in power, Samaras jumped on the austerity bandwagon.

   Meteoric rise and fall 

 Elected member of parliament at the age of 26 after an elite education, Samaras had a meteoric rise to power which was cut short during the crisis with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia in the 1990s.

He then formed his own party, Political Spring, but its early success fizzled out and he disappeared from the political scene for almost a decade.

In 2004, Samaras was allowed back into New Democracy and five years later he beat the daughter of the prime minister he toppled, Dora Bakoyannis, to become party leader.

A descendant of a prominent family, Samaras holds economics and business degrees from top American schools Amherst College and Harvard University.

While at Amherst, he was friends with former Greek prime minister and socialist party Pasok leader George Papandreou, who was later to become his political rival, a source of amusement for the Greek media.

Samaras took a strong stance on immigration, pledging to "take back" Greek cities from "illegal invaders" -- a reference to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants, which he placed in detention centres and deported back home.

Ironically, critics say Samaras himself is partly to blame for Greece's immigration problem.

As foreign minister some two decades ago, he is said to have contributed to the first wave of illegal migration by opening the border to ethnic Greeks from neighbouring Albania when its communist regime imploded.

Samaras also famously pledged to "eat iron" to bring investment to Greece, although results were mixed on his watch.

A number of major corporations including Hewlett-Packard and Philip Morris set up logistics hubs in Greece, but some prominent companies such as dairy giant Fage and Coca-Cola Hellenic also moved out.

A father of two, Samaras's ancestors were wealthy ethnic Greek merchants from Alexandria, Egypt, who founded the Benaki Museum, one of Greece's leading cultural establishments.

His great-grandmother Penelope Delta was one of the country's best-loved novelists.

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