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Greek feud: 2 rival leaders share common bond

November 27, 2011

In an old black-and-white photograph, one wore long hair and a rakish mustache, the other thick-rimmed glasses.

Children of pedigree, they shared an undergraduate dorm at an American university. Forty years later, as political rivals at the height of the Greek crisis, George Papandreou — until recently prime minister — and Antonis Samaras symbolize the split personality of a nation with roots in left and right, chaos and greatness.

The sparring between the leaders of Greece’s two main political parties is over for now. But the forces they represent will clash in elections as early as February, shaping the next chapter of a society on Europe’s edge whose strife has an outsized impact on continental union, as well as the global economy.

The left-leaning Papandreou and the conservative Samaras are the yin and yang of modern Greece, heirs to historical divisions and symbols of interlocking currents of reform and tradition.

An acquaintance from their college days suggests that even amid public animosities, the two remain bound together by shared private history.

“Let’s face it, power is a delirium. It’s something that can make you turn on your friends,” said Philip Tsiaras, who knew Papandreou and Samaras at Amherst College in Massachusetts in the early 1970s.

“In close quarters, with no one in the room and just the two of them, with no microphones or taping, I think you would hear a very different conversation.”

The old photograph of the two adversaries, taken by Tsiaras’ brother Alexander in 1973 at the Tsiaras home in New Hampshire, hints at the forces that shape Greece even today, and the way that history and family shadow the individual efforts of those at the nation’s helm.

Papandreou sits with hands clasped, hair unruly. Samaras stands, clean-shaven, in a turtleneck sweater. Tsiaras, now an artist based in New York City, and Stefanos Manouilidis, now an insurance broker, are also in the photo. No one smiles. The poses are formal, the lighting is studio-quality.

At the time, Greece was under military rule, and the elite united in opposition and exile, despite ideological differences that are playing out today. Tsiaras said Papandreou and Samaras were not “bosom buddies,” but they were thrown together in a tight-knit expatriate group. Papandreou, at home in the freewheeling spirit of the time, was “more American” and less politically ambitious than the straight-laced Samaras.

Yet Papandreou did not resist the dynastic pull. His grandfather had been prime minister; his father would become prime minister at the head of PASOK, a party with socialist roots. The young Papandreou’s rise was steady and seemingly inevitable. He held various Cabinet posts in the 1980s and 1990s, became leader of PASOK in 2004 and led the party to victory in general elections in 2009.

Samaras’ father, by contrast, was a heart surgeon. He did have relatives in politics, but none at the highest levels of goverment. His great-grandmother, writer Penelope Delta, killed herself when German troops entered Athens in World War II.

He later joined the conservative New Democracy party, which came to power after the junta’s fall. Early in the current crisis, Samaras took a nationalist stand, but his agreement to join a coalition government signaled support for the bailout path, or what might be called a “pro-Europe” position.

That recent shift in direction reflects Samaras’ delicate efforts to cater to all constituencies while retaining the loyalties of his camp. It is a more nuanced approach than in the past. In the early 1990s, Samaras formed his own party, hastening the collapse of the government he once supported. But he spent many years on the political fringes and eventually returned to the New Democracy fold.

“If you’re in a Greek party, you are locked for life in that party. You have a stamp on your head, you might as well wear it,” said Tsiaras, who recalled how Samaras mused in sophomore year about who would be in his Cabinet if he became prime minister.

New Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former central banker and deputy head of the European Central Bank, is seen as departing from this partisan script.

Surveys indicate he is popular, but an early test comes Dec. 1 when Greek unions stage a 24-hour general strike to protest salary cuts and tax hikes required in exchange for international rescue loans.

Greece has a storied history of factionalism. The Western-backed government fought a civil war with communists after World War II. Foreign aid helped feuding groups in the 1820s war for independence from Ottoman rule. Theodoros Kolokotronis, a brigand whose military exploits at the time made him a national hero, had the measure of his countrymen in this passage from his memoirs:

“If Wellington had given me an army of forty thousand, I could have governed it; but if five hundred Greeks had been given to him to lead, he could not have governed them for an hour. Every Greek had his caprices and his hobby, and to get any service out of them, one had to be menaced and another to be cajoled, according to the nature of the man.”

Bickering in the Greek parliament has vexed international lenders who want unity of purpose from Greece, where many chafe at foreign directives and doubt the benefits of harsh bailout terms. Papandreou’s declaration that he would put Greece’s new debt deal to a referendum triggered a domestic backlash that led to his Nov. 11 resignation. A caretaker administration took over.

On Wednesday, Samaras, a possible candidate for the prime minister’s post, reversed course and told European leaders in writing that he would back the debt deal. The pledge underscored Samaras’ awkward position: He has sought to distance himself from the unpopular austerity measures that helped oust Papandreou, but recognizes that Greece has little option but to accept the harsh terms of its creditors.

The coalition government, a compromise reached by the two men, must present a compelling “narrative” that convinces Greeks that their leaders are acting in their best interests, not those of their power blocs, and that long-term sacrifice will indeed reap dividends, said Louka Katseli, a former Cabinet minister in Papandreou’s government.

“The simplistic view that a coalition government will solve everything is an illusion,” Katseli said. “If we simply rest with the idea that, ‘OK, the two largest parties are working together is the end of the story,’ I think it will prove a worse outcome than what we had before.”

The idea that Greeks, masters of Mediterranean-style expressiveness, must communicate better finds proof in the utterances of its politicians, who veer between soaring, and it must be said, long-winded, appeals to patriotism, snide digs at opponents and occasional rebukes aimed at the outside world.

In the uproar over the referendum proposal, Papandreou delivered this brain-teaser.

“I heard that yesterday our partners expressed surprise,” he said in reference to European shock at his plan. “I do not understand why they were surprised. I simply do not understand why there was any surprise at all. I was surprised that there was any surprise.”

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