From outsider to leader in less than two months and from party outcast to party president in over a decade, Antonis Samaras’s unlikely rise to the top of New Democracy is proof that you can never say never in politics.
Contrary to what many people thought, the ND leadership contest will not go to a second round, as Samaras edged past the 50-percent mark on Sunday to dash the longstanding hopes that Dora Bakoyannis had of leading the conservative party.
So why did Samaras win?
Until the start of this year, it seemed the unlikeliest of stories. After falling out with Bakoyannis’s father, Constantine Mitsotakis in 1992, Samaras went on to form his own party the following year. His decision to cross the prime minister by adopting an approach on the Macedonia issue that was too strident, proved ill-fated as Samaras’s party, Poltical Spring, burnt brightly and then fizzled out during the course of the Nineties, never managing to gather more than 5 percent of the vote.
Samaras was brought back into the fold by Costas Karamanlis for the 2004 Euroelections and then stood for Parliament as an ND candidate in the 2007 general election. It was Karamanlis’s decision to make Samaras culture minister in his cabinet reshuffle in this January’s cabinet that gave the former finance and foreign minister the springboard to launch a bid for the party leadership.
Back in the cabinet, Samaras had regained the luster of power but being in charge of the culture portfolio meant that he could hardly be blamed for the conservative governments major mistakes. In fact, fate was on Samaras’s side as his time in office coincided with the opening of the new Acropolis Museum – putting him at the center of a story that had only positive aspects and was a great opportunity to raise his profile at home and abroad.
From this platform, Samaras used his campaign to appeal to New Democracy’s hardcore support: the older generation of right-wingers who were not interested in appeals to middle ground voters; the conservatives, of which there are many in Greece, who were totally dejected and angered by the capitulation of Costas Karamanlis’s government; the ND faithful who felt that Karamanlis decision to compromise the party’s ideology so it could return to power had not been a trade-off worth making.
Samaras tapped into this sense of frustration much better than Bakoyannis during the campaign. The latter’s call for ND to be a much broader church fell on many deaf ears. After the 10 percent defeat to PASOK in the October general election, too many conservatives saw this as more of the same.
Also Samaras’s appeal to conservative values, particularly their nationalist strain, rang true following 5.5 years in which many ND supporters felt that their party had conceded too much ground in foreign policy, on immigration, crime and so on.
However, the decision of Dimitris Avramopoulos to drop out of the race and back Samaras gave the latter’s campaign the real boost it needed going into the final stretch. For, although Samaras was convincing those on the right, by teaming up with the more moderate, populist Avramopoulos, he was sending a message to the more centrist ND voters that he would not close his door or mind to other interpretations of the conservative ideology.
Of course, a part of Samaras’s victory had nothing to do with anything he did. There was a section of the ND support that simply did not want Bakoyannis, under any circumstances, to be the party’s leader. This stemmed back to her father’s time in office but also to a section of the conservative electorate that, having seen the nephew of a former ND leader fail, did not want to continue the nepotism within the party.
So, from a position when the party leadership seemed a distant dream, Samaras now has his hands firmly on the party’s reins thanks to Sunday’s clear victory. What next? A tilt at the premiership? Never say never.