ATHENS — His poll numbers may have dropped, but when Antonis Samaras entered the colonnaded portico of a cavernous exhibition
center, conservatives received him like a rock star.
Men and women squeezed through crowds to get a glimpse of him. Some groped him by the collar, stroking his graying hair; others lurched to kiss him on both cheeks.
Loudspeakers unleashed the sounds of furious symphonic thunders from the soundtrack of “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” and baffled wine and health-food connoisseurs meeting in an adjacent hall peered out in amazement, watching throngs of supporters push the Greek conservative leader to a blue-carpeted stage.
When he jumped up to the lectern, winked and smiled at the audience, rapturous rounds of “Hellas, Hellas, Antonis Samaras” rattled the marble circular atrium. But when he quickly began to speak, a deafening silence took hold.
Had it not been for the picturesque Greek setting before me, I would have thought I was listening to Mitt Romney.
As in the United States, economic concerns dominate political campaigns, and what happens to the economy in the next few months will be critical.
Greek elections will be held on May 6, and our current crisis won’t exactly help the incumbents. So as I sat behind a Corinthian column and watched Samaras, the presumptive winner of the upcoming polls, jab the air with his forefinger, I listened to a tirade of negative superlatives on the state of the Greek economy flow freely, one after the other.
“This is the worst financial crisis in contemporary history,” The Socialists “brought us to the verge of an unruly default with the most catastrophic consequences,” and “Unemployment is our society’s worst plague.”
Then came the patriotic banter of making Greeks proud again, of “regaining national confidence,” of seeing “this blessed nation of wealth stand on its two feet again,” of “writing the wrongs of the past and changing E-VER-Y-THING!”
Throughout his 60 minute speech, Samaras, a tall, athletic-looking man of 60, mixed patriotic paeans with bitter bites and slights against PASOK — the Socialist party with which he begrudgingly teamed up in November to push through a landmark loan and debt restructuring deal that brought Greece back from the brink of default.
Still, as he spoke of hard-nosed, business-minded economics, such as slashing corporate tax from 23 percent to 15 percent, spurring economic recovery and handing management of money losing monopolies to private executives to cut public waste, he struck a chord with voters on his Greek rendition of compassionate conservatism.
“We believe and we are determined to [reach] the fiscal targets required to turn around the economy,” he said. “But we have to preserve social cohesion,” he added presenting a grab bag of pledges to repeal cuts in low-income pension earners, child-card benefits and certain tax measures that affect farmers.
The nearly $700 million in reductions would be replaced by “equivalent spending cuts” in other fields, such as gambling.
It’s unclear whether international creditors representing the European Union and the International Monetary Fund will sign off on such policies. Some market experts already fear that Samaras’s watered-down version of the austerity program prescribed by foreign lenders may lead to another relapse in the Greek economy, reigniting Europe’s debt crisis.
Any changes to the existing bailout plan, creditors have said, would need the agreement of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Samaras, though, has always been a bit of a renegade, from his college years at Amherst University — where he dropped his pre-med studies to join the ranks of economics after a motivating speech by John Kenneth Galbraith — to his erratic career in politics.
Infused by the abrasive rants of radical thought that gripped the 1970s, great groundswells of popular movements influenced his thinking, pushing him to break out of his sheltered aristocratic upbringing and alter his values and even his looks.
At one point, he ditched his usual blue-blazer and gray slacks, sported jeans and a scruffy Van Dyke to show his defiance to the Greek military junta, which, among other things, banned beards during its 1967-1974 rule of the country. He was also detained after joining hundreds of other students in blocking traffic at Westover Air Force Base, to protest new Vietnam War policies in 1972.
Years later, after graduating from Harvard Business School, Samaras ventured back to Greece, becoming the country’s youngest lawmaker. The grandson of a much-lauded Greek writer who committed suicide when Nazi forces hoisted a swastika over the Acropolis, he took an unyielding stance as foreign minister in the early 1990s, and resisted Macedonia calling itself that.
His blustering nationalism, though, riled the West, scarred Greek foreign policy for years, eventually pushing him out of the conservative party — and politics — for 11 years.
“I spent a decade staring at the walls of my house,” he recently told me. “I know what it is to have been burned.”
Two years ago and after sporting a tamer politic motif, Samaras made a stunning comeback, taking the helm of the conservative New Democracy Party after it suffered one of its worst defeats.
With two weeks left before the elections, opinion polls show Samaras’s anti-austerity rhetoric and compassionate conservatism set to win over Greek voters.
But it will be a bittersweet victory if he falls short of forming winning a parliamentary majority, leaving him no choice but to team up again with his Socialist foes.