Correction appended: June 21, 2012
Antonis Samaras, a U.S.-educated economist who leads the conservative New Democracy party, was sworn in as Greece‘s new prime minister today, ending the country’s six weeks of political limbo. He will lead a three-party coalition government that’s tasked with uniting a fractious, debt-ridden nation in the middle of its worst recession in half a century. Speaking to reporters after a short-swearing-in ceremony led by gold-robed Orthodox priests, Samaras called for “patriotism, national unity and trust,” which, along with “the help of God” would “ensure that the Greek people emerge from the crisis as soon as possible.” He will need all the help he can get—and has to be sure he doesn’t get in his own way.
The detritus of failure is pretty evident in Greece, as Samaras knows. His two coalition partners are not in the best of political health themselves. PASOK, a once-mighty party that had run Greece for 21 of the last 30 years, absorbed public anger over implementing austerity measures the last time it was in power and finished a distant third on Sunday, with barely 13% of the vote. New Democracy and PASOK will secure a parliamentary majority with The Democratic Left, a small party that finished sixth, with about 6% of the votes. New Democracy and PASOK are part of Greece’s old guard: They have collectively ruled Greece for the last 38 years, and many Greeks blame them for bankrupting the country.
(PHOTOS: Protests in Athens)
Samaras talked on Wednesday about healing an injured nation but he is considered a divisive figure in Greek politics. He is certainly cut from elitist cloth–strange garb in these austere times. Samaras, 61, hails from a wealthy family of Greek merchants from Alexandria, Egypt, and attended the exclusive Athens College, where many of Greece’s powerbrokers have been educated. He won the Greek Teen Tennis Championship at 17 and attended university at Amherst College and studied at the Harvard Business School. He was first elected to parliament at age 26 on the New Democracy roster. Prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis appointed him finance minister in 1989 and foreign minister later that year.
But Samaras was deemed a disaster in the second post because of his strident nationalism. (It is something he may have inherited: his grandmother Penelope Delta wrote patriotic children’s books and committed suicide on April 27, 1941, the day tanks of Germany’s Third Reich rolled into Athens). As foreign minister, he is remembered for leading a quixotic and fiery public debate with the tiny former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, which he said should not use a Greek name. His intransigence on Macedonia isolated him in New Democracy, which he left in 1992. Samaras then formed a tiny party, Political Spring, that effectively brought down the Mitsotakis government. Samaras wasn’t welcomed into the party again until 2004. Five years later, he defeated Mitsotakis’ daughter, Dora Bakoyiannis, a former Athens mayor and ex-foreign minister, for the New Democracy leadership. Bakoyiannis left the party after voting for austerity measures but returned soon after the May election.
Between 2010 and 2011, Samaras angered European leaders with his strident opposition to austerity measures adopted by the PASOK government led by George Papandreou, the scion of a storied political family and Samaras’ roommate at Amherst College. After Prime Minister Lucas Papademos took over late last year, Samaras voted for the second bailout package, which included more austerity measures. So, European leaders were openly relieved when Samaras and New Democracy managed to eke out a first-place finish in Sunday’s inconclusive parliamentary elections. That’s because the alternative would most likely have been Syriza.
The leftist anti-austerity party rose out of obscurity last month when it came in a surprise second in the first round of parliamentary elections. Syriza, which finished less than three percentage points behind New Democracy, rejected the harsh terms of the billions in international bailout loans keeping Greece solvent. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, said austerity measures had so destroyed the Greek economy that the country could never pay back the loans. Indeed, though Tsipras may have lost the election, he has influenced the debate: some European leaders are now talking about renegotiating some of the bailout terms, though German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to insist that “there can be no loosening on the reform steps.
Syriza and Tsipra are likely to be formidable in opposition to Samaras. The leftist party refused to join the coalition government and promised to be a vocal opponent of austerity measures. That position could win them support with Greeks who have suffered as austerity measures have dragged the country into a fifth year of recession. Unemployment is at 22.6%, tens of thousands of businesses have closed, and household incomes have shrunk by as much as 50%. On Wednesday, hundreds of people lined up in a central Athens park for 10-kilo packages of free produce given away by farmers from Crete.
But Syriza also frightened many Greeks who see it as an untested party that includes unreconstructed Marxists among moderate euro-Socialists. “Mr. Tsipras just tells scared Greeks the fairy tales they want to hear — that he will give us public sector jobs, raise our salaries and make Europe forget about our debt,” says Amalia Minitsiou, 60, an Athenian who recently lost her job at a racetrack and has since been unable to find work. “I don’t believe in fairy tales,” says Minitsiou, who voted for New Democracy. She believes Samaras is a “safe choice” as prime minister.
Samaras won the election in part because he tapped into Greeks’ fear of a eurozone exit, wrote Alexis Papachelas, editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini, in a recent column. Samaras must now resist the old forces of patronage politics in his party and “recruit the most qualified people from across all sectors.” And though Samaras is a stridently right-wing, he must try to rebuild a political center in a country where nearly 426,000 people voted for the far-right extremist Golden Dawn party, which is best known for violently beating up immigrants and giving Nazi salutes. It will be a Herculean task, and history does not favor Samaras. Two coalition governments have run Greece since 1974. Neither lasted more than six months.
The original version of this story said New Democracy won fewer seats than Syriza before a constitutionally mandated bonus for popular vote victors. New Democracy won 79 seats to Syriza’s 71 before the bonus.