Greek opposition leader's U-turn opens path to power

ATHENS Fri Nov 4, 2011 2:41pm EDT

Leader of the conservative New Democracy party Antonis Samaras delivers a speech during a parliament session in Athens November 3, 2011. REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis

Leader of the conservative New Democracy party Antonis Samaras delivers a speech during a parliament session in Athens November 3, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's crisis may catapult opposition leader Antonis Samaras into the nation's leadership after a 30-year climb to the top marked by one fall from grace, at least two political U-turns and much fiery oratory.

Samaras, head of the New Democracy party he once vowed never to lead, has opened the way to a possible bid for power by dropping his opposition to Greece's latest financial bailout -- in return for early elections which opinion polls indicate he could win, albeit without a majority.

The Harvard-educated economist, once a college roommate of Prime Minister George Papandreou, has long been known for his refusal to budge on major issues, along with his sometimes theatrical speeches.

Twice he voted against earlier EU/IMF bailouts as Greece ran into deep financial trouble, defying pressure from European leaders worried a Greek default could wreck the euro zone.

But on Thursday, the 60-year-old executed a volte-face by announcing his conservative party would vote for the latest 130 billion euro lifeline for Greece on one condition.

Samaras demanded his socialist rival make way for a short-lived government of national unity with the sole purpose of forcing the bailout through parliament, securing the latest sixth installment of international aid, and then calling the snap election which offers his opportunity to take power.

"Papandreou has put the country in the center of a global storm ... a government in such a state of panic is dangerous and must leave as soon as possible," Samaras said during a parliamentary debate on Thursday.

A POLARISING FIGURE

"I have asked for a government of a few weeks, under the premiership of someone approved by consensus, in order for the country to go to polls once the 'thorn' that is the bailout agreement and the sixth tranche is removed," Samaras said.

Hoping to ride a wave of public anger with austerity to power, Samaras wants the transitional government to ratify the bailout so that Greece can get funding it needs to avoid default in December, and proceed to elections in as little as six weeks.

Samaras was the first New Democracy leader elected by the party base, winning a race prompted by the resignation of prime minister Costas Karamanlis in 2009.

But his rise to the head of the party has not been without controversy and he has been seen as a polarizing figure throughout his political career.

His unwavering stance at the height of a dispute over the name of neighboring Macedonia in the 1990s is what cost him his job as foreign minister in 1992, analysts say.

The then-government of Constantine Mitsotakis dropped him from his post, saying his hardline approach fractured the government's position and undermined the country's negotiating capacity.

When Samaras left New Democracy in 1992 to form his own party a year later, he convinced New Democracy MPs loyal to him to defect -- a move said to have led to the collapse of Mitsotakis's government in 1993, and to subsequent elections. Samaras denies the allegations.

In a 1993 interview with Greek daily Kathimerini, Samaras declared he would not return to New Democracy even if he were invited to become its leader. In fact, he claimed not to want to lead any major party, citing the current prime minister's father, who became Greece's first socialist leader in the 1980s.

"I do not aspire to someday play the role of Mr. Constantine Mitsotakis or Mr. Andreas Papandreou," he said at the time.

But after almost 10 years on the sidelines with his center-right party, Samaras performed another volte-face by announcing the break up of Political Spring and declaring his support for New Democracy.

In 2004 he rejoined New Democracy, served as culture minister and eventually took over as leader after its 2009 election defeat to the Socialists.

Opinion polls in October, before Papandreou's controversial and short-lived plan to put the bailout to a referendum sparked a rebellion in his party, put New Democracy out in front, but without enough support to form a government on its own.

The latest events have left many Greeks thoroughly disillusioned. Efi Peroyannaki, a 50-year-old saleswoman in a shop selling fine Italian suits was fed up with politicians of all stripes. "I want them out. All of them," she said.

(Writing by Karolina Tagaris; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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