Greece’s conservative leader of New Democracy Antonis Samaras waves to his supporters at the headquarters of his party in Athens, Sunday, May 6, 2012. Samaras called for a coalition government with two aims, for Greece to remain in the euro and to amend the terms of its international bailout. (AP Photo/Eurokinissi, Giannis Panagopoulos) GREECE OUT
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s parliamentary election Sunday confirmed opinion poll projections that the conservative New Democracy party would win the most votes, although the result was set to prove well below the conservatives’ expectations. [auth] The socialist PASOK party was pushed into third place for the first time since its inaugural showing in November 1974, behind the surprisingly strong Radical Left Coalition (Syriza) party.
Here are profiles of the leaders of the two front-running parties:
—Antonis Samaras, New Democracy
The 61-year-old, U.S.-educated economist may have emerged as the official winner of the election, but with projections giving it less than 20 percent of the vote, he has led Greece’s main conservative party to its worst performance by far since it was founded in 1974. The previous low of 33.47 percent was during the disastrous defeat of 2009.
Samaras’ gamble to push for an early election in order to gain a parliamentary majority backfired. He insisted Sunday night that his party remains “the only pillar” of the political system and that he will try to make it the pivot of a coalition government.
Forming a government will be an uphill task and Samaras, with his call to renegotiate the terms of the international bailout for Greece that he himself agreed to six months ago, will raise alarm among Greece’s creditors. They may wonder what concessions Samaras is prepared to make to gain the tacit or open approval of anti-bailout parties.
Samaras gave his crucial backing to Greece’s second bailout agreement and giant bond swap earlier this year. But he also has a legacy as a nationalist who gave Greece’s EU partners a headache in the early 1990s over his position in Greece’s name dispute with Macedonia.
A rapidly rising conservative star in the late 1980s, Samaras’ hardline stance on the dispute with Macedonia — Greece does not want the country to use that name on grounds it implies territorial claims to its northern province of the same name — led him out of government in the early 1990s.
He formed a splinter party and spent the best part of a decade in the political wilderness, but managed to make his way back into New Democracy and eventually became party leader after the party’s dismal showing in the 2009 election. He is a survivor, but far from emerging triumphant after Sunday’s election, Samaras has been wounded by the low percentage his party gained.
—Alexis Tsipras, Radical Left Coalition (Syriza)
The main beneficiary of the election, 38-year-old civil engineer Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s youngest party leader, saw his party jump from 4.60 percent of the vote and fifth place in 2009 to an unexpected second place and more than 16 percent on Sunday. Tsipras said this was the vindication for his call for a broad left anti-bailout government coalition.
A mainstay of the anti-austerity movement, Tsipras says he wants to scrap Greece’s bailout deals, cancel most of the country’s crippling debt load, nationalize banks and restore drastically reduced pensions and salaries. But the party itself is ambivalent about Greece’s position in the European Union and the eurozone. The official line is pro-European, but an important segment has called for Greece to leave the eurozone.
Tsipras first came to public attention in 2006, when he was hand-picked by then-party leader Alekos Alavanos as a candidate for mayor of Athens. In introducing him, his political mentor had pointed to his participation, as a teenage Communist youth activist, in a series of school and university sit-ins against the conservative government’s proposed education reforms.
Tsipras’ respectable showing in the mayoral election helped Alavanos decide to hand him the reins to the party leadership two years later. Tsipras soon broke with his patron and forced him out of the party, showing himself as a savvy infighter. While a certain youthful cockiness he still displays in debates often annoys his political detractors, it has likely helped him to attract a considerable segment of the youth vote.