Last Sunday, former culture minister Antonis Samaras won the New Democracy party leadership with a surprising majority against former foreign minister Dora Bakoyannis. His 50.2 percent of 770,000 ballots cast nationwide by anyone who cared to vote was especially stunning in view of the fact that until a month ago Bakoyannis, who reaped 39.5 percent, had been the presumed favourite. Samaras trounced her in some of the first opinion polls, but by last week the gap between them had narrowed beyond worthwhile scrutiny. Within a year, Samaras has gone from a seat in parliament to leader of the opposition.
Samaras' rises and falls have generally been precipitous. Konstantine Mitsotakis plucked him out of the parliamentary ranks at age 37 to be finance and then foreign minister in 1989. His disagreement with the government over the Macedonia issue forced him to resign that post barely 29 months later (though curiously, his curriculum vitae mistakenly gives February 1992, not April, as the end of his tenure).
He rocketed back into the limelight that year with a new party, Political Spring, touting social justice and an affinity to the common man. In October the following year Political Spring won a respectable ten seats on 4.88 percent of the vote. For a while it looked as though it might avoid the shooting star fate of breakaway parties, but then failed to win re-election three years later. Samaras spent the next eight years in political exile, as Konstantine Mitsotakis, whose government he had fatally undermined, did his best to ensure that he never got a job in New Democracy again.
As prime minister, Kostas Karamanlis, whose uncle founded the party, gradually began to rehabilitate Samaras. He secured him a place on ND's Europarliament ballot in 2004, and on the national ballot for his native Messinia three years later. Try as it might to ensure a smooth succession for former foreign minister Dora Bakoyannis, the Mitsotakis family was unable to prevent the appointment of Samaras to the cabinet in the January reshuffle this year. As far as the media were concerned, the two-horse race for the leadership was on.
Why did Samaras win, and why did Bakoyannis lose? A Public Issue poll taken last month found that a majority of Greeks felt Bakoyannis struck more of a leadership profile and came across better on television, but was dependent on special interests. Samaras, in contrast, came across as more genuine, a politician who was closer to the common man and who put people at their ease.
Many voters were put off by Bakoyannis' support for America's ill-considered missile defence shield in eastern Europe last year. Samaras, in contrast, has made his name on standing up for Greek interests, not kowtowing to the interests of powerful allies.
There is another issue here. Bakoyannis is a second-generation politician. New Democracy went down in flames under Karamanlis, who essentially inherited the party from his uncle. After the spectacular, ten-point election loss to Yiorgos Papandreou in October, conservatives evidently decided that renewal rather than royal succession conduced to survival.
The historic newspaper of the right, Estia, put it diplomatically in a front-page editorial on Monday: “This party is emerging from an unprecedented electoral defeat. The 33.5% result was a huge shock for New Democracy voters... It was to be expected that ND folk would turn towards the candidate who had not identified himself so much with five and a half years of government policy.”
Bakoyannis probably had little choice but to run as the continuity candidate. She spoke up noticeably against corruption in her party only once, in January 2008. The occasion was low key – a book presentation – and the remark - that the political profession was in crisis largely because ministers refuse to tell hard truths - more than warranted given a recent sex scandal at the culture ministry. Yet the media widely interpreted it as a lance in the ribs of then prime minister Kostas Karamanlis.
Before such highly tuned expectations there were no options for Bakoyannis between co-operation and outright rebellion. Rebellion is how Pasok's Kostas Simitis won the prime ministership in 1996, and how Samaras made his mark on political history in 1992. But rebellion sits next door to betrayal; Bakoyannis' father branded himself a traitor in 1965 when he agreed to form a government without his party leader. Bakoyannis evidently felt that one apostasy in the family was enough. Unfortunately for her, not only did the consensual approach fail; it also stifled much of her creativity during four years as foreign minister. Not wanting to bear the political cost of any foreign policy strategy, she instituted none.
How will Samaras' tenor as opposition leader affect foreign policy as Papandreou seeks to make a deal with Skopje and revivify the UN process on Cyprus? Observers will be nervously listening to his language on the Macedonian issue. Back in 1992 he rode a wave of nationalist fervour that helped scuttled Mitsotakis' moderate line in favour of Nova Macedonia, which Skopje was willing to accept. Seventeen years later, Greece has reverted to the same position (inserting Northern in place of New), while Skopje plays the nationalist card. Were the Makedonski leader, Nikola Gruevski, to agree to a composite name containing the M-word, it would be a disservice to both countries and to the EU for Samaras again to upset an agreement.
Samaras says he is sailing the party for a refit in its right-wing ideological drydock. Whatever that now means remains to be defined. He gave a hint in his first policy speech as leader to the Hellenic-American Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. It was a call not to penalise private enterprise for the crisis, but to unburden it of the costs of an inefficient state, and lower its social security contributions and taxes. In calling for the state to take on the burden of cost-cutting and monitoring a fair market, Samaras has picked up the pulse of small and medium enterprise owners.
What will the return to conservative values mean socially? Samaras will surely bid to wrest back that 5.6 percent of his voters who've bled to LAOS. His most powerful ally, former health minister Dimitris Avramopoulos, is a social conservative who rejected the political centre as meaningless in an opinion/editorial on November 29. Specifics are pending.
But Samaras cannot win a general election without swing voters, and that means sailing his refitted ship back to the centre at some point. Party moderates like former education minister Aris Spiliotopoulos and former development minister Kostis Hatzidakis chose to back his rival. Together with Bakoyannis they are too big a group to ignore. Samaras says he will embrace the ND moderates, but what level of pluralism will he allow? Will he support a national line in foreign policy?
They are the big questions that remain. Newspaper editorials have been encouraging Samaras to strike a new tone of responsible opposition and to confer privately with Papandreou. After their first meeting on Monday, Samaras offered only one sly indication of his opposition style: that he would ride shotgun with the prime minister on some issues but hold up the stage wagon on others.