The Hitch in Greece: The Nationalist Who Delayed the Transition

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Kostas Tsironis / AP

Greece's Prime Minister George Papandreou, left, Greek President Karolos Papoulias, center and opposition leader Antonis Samaras sit at the Presidential Palace in Athens on November 6 2011.

On Tuesday, everyone expected economist Lucas Papademos to become the interim prime minister of a unity government, one that would keep Greece from defaulting on its massive sovereign debt, as a result, upending the eurozone. But the day didn't end as expected. The former European Central Bank vice president had to wait to replace beleaguered premier George Papandreou, whose PASOK government has absorbed public anger at austerity measures imposed on the country in exchange for international bailout loans. Instead, Tuesday ended in stalemate — one that was embodied in Antonis Samaras, the leader of the conservative New Democracy party and one of Papandreou's most vocal critics. Observers and insiders instead said Wednesday would be the day all would come to pass.

The sticking point appeared to be a request by Jean-Claude Juncker, chief of the Eurogroup that's comprised of the European Union finance ministers, for Greek leaders to agree in writing to the terms of the latest bailout deal that eurozone leaders negotiated last month. Five Greek official had to co-sign, including Papandreou and Samaras. But hours after that list was announced, Samaras balked. He insisted that he supports the Oct. 26 bailout deal "to protect the Greek economy and the euro." He just did not want to commit to the plan in writing. (Actually, he and his New Democracy deputies have voted against all bailout measures in parliament.)

Some analysts say Samaras is trying to position himself for life after the coalition government, when Greece holds new elections in February. With the ruling PASOK party in tatters, Samaras, a Harvard-educated economist from an aristocratic family, hopes voters will see him and his center-right New Democracy party as the saviors of Greece in a post-Papandreou world. Samaras has been bitterly critical of Papandreou, his former roommate at Amherst College, often calling him a liar and accusing him of blackmailing the Greek public. He blames Papandreou's government for creating "a climate of fear" during the debt crisis and killing the economy through the budget cuts and tax hikes of austerity.

"It's political opportunism," says Yiannis Palaiologos, editor-in-chief of Free Sunday, a newsweekly in Athens. "New Democracy allowed PASOK to take the full political cost of all the difficult measures while standing on the sidelines and yelling 'austerity is terrible!' Austerity is obviously terrible. But the question is, can you have these loan agreements, and the money to stay alive at this moment fiscally without those measures?"

New Democracy says its leader's stance will not damage coalition talks. The Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported that Samaras is under pressure from New Democracy deputies who do not want the party to be part of the coalition government, lest it taint their chances in the next election. Samaras says he approves the agreements and fiscal targets in theory but wants to change the policies in the bailout.

Samaras, 60, has been a member of parliament since 1977, representing Messinia in the Peloponnese. In New Democracy governments, he has served as Finance Minister and Foreign Minister and has always cultivated deeply nationalistic stances. Two decades ago, his inflexibility over the name recognition of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia prompted New Democracy to remove him as foreign minister in 1992. (He went on to form a right-wing party, Politiki Anoixi, or Political Spring, which he dissolved in 2004, when he rejoined New Democracy). In his current role as New Democracy leader, he spoke against a Papandreou-favored law to give citizenship to Greek-born children of some legal immigrants.

Recent polls indicate that if elections were held now, no party would get a majority to rule parliament. Greeks are, in general, disgusted with their politicians. PASOK has plummeted in the polls, but New Democracy is still not a clear winner. It still suffers from the stigma of being accused of hiding the massive debts during its years in power. The revelation made by PASOK in late 2008 that the country had a sovereign debt of some $400 billion helped spark the eurozone crisis.

There is already talk about elections to be held in February but, on Tuesday, that seemed like distant planning for a nation that had yet to secure an emergency coalition government. Papandreou told his cabinet to have their resignations ready in case of a breakthrough, while Papademos reportedly wants to include members of both PASOK and New Democracy in the interim cabinet.

Meanwhile, the pressure on Greece is increasing. European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said Greece would not get its latest loan payment of $11 billion unless its politicians signed the documents. Greece needs the money by next month to pay its bills and avoid default. "It is essential that the entire political class is now restoring the confidence that had been lost in the Greek commitment to the EU-IMF program," he said, referring to the last week of chaos, which was set off when Papandreou proposed putting the bailout agreement to a referendum. The move panicked European leaders and even the Greeks themselves, who are now worried they will be forced to abandon the euro and revive their old currency, the drachma.

Many Greeks are wondering who will fill the political vacuum left by Papandreou, the scion of the country's most famous political dynasty. (A popular satirical TV program, Radio Arvyla, proposed Chuck Norris.) But the stalemate weighted heavily on many of them, even the most prominent commentators. "politicians should give up this idea of glory and just tell people the truth: that there isn't a magic solution" to the debt crisis, said Alexis Papachelas, managing director of Kathimerini, during an interview on SKAI, a Greek private television station. Maybe someone should "lock the political leaders into a room and tell them, 'Look, stop the childish games,'" he said. Now is the time to live up to historic responsibilities.

But Samaras wasn't apologizing Tuesday for his hardline refusal to show his commitment to the bailout in writing. "There is such a thing as national dignity," he told journalists. "I won't allow anyone to question the statements I have made."