ATHENS Conservative rebel Panos Kammenos has stormed out of nowhere to torpedo his old party's chances of winning outright victory in Sunday's Greek election and put himself in a strong position to be a power broker after the vote.
Kammenos splintered from the main conservative party New Democracy in February when he launched the Independent Greeks movement. It is riding a wave of popular discontent against austerity policies demanded by international lenders.
The Independent Greeks have soared to 11 percent in opinion polls, upsetting the traditional balance of Greek politics and probably forcing conservative New Democracy to seek coalition partners even if it wins the largest slice of Sunday's vote, as expected.
A rotund, outspoken and short-tempered career politician who will turn 47 next week, Kammenos is a formidable campaigner known for his fiery anti-German rhetoric and take-no-prisoners approach to opponents.
He studied business management and psychology in France and Switzerland and has been a lawmaker since 1993, representing Athens' second electoral constituency where his father ran an auto dealership. He gave up the family business to dedicate himself to politics.
Kammenos quit New Democracy in November last year, when its leader Antonis Samaras stopped opposing the country's EU/IMF bailout and joined the ruling Socialists in a coalition government under technocrat Prime Minister Lucas Papademos.
"I had supported Samaras, I know him since our party youth days in the 1980s. We had a political as well as a personal connection ... but he made a U-turn that is politically and morally unjustifiable," Kammenos told Reuters in an interview last week.
He says the bailout is destroying Greece's sovereignty, condemning it to become a powerless province in a "federalist" Europe he describes as a "Fourth Reich" dominated by Germany.
To drive the point home, he launched his party from the remote village of Distomo, where German occupation forces killed more than 200 civilians in the Second World War.
Critics say that although Kammenos has stayed true to his conservative populist beliefs, he is too thin on substance to remain a pivotal player after Sunday's election.
"I don't think he will last, his rhetoric is just too simplistic," said John Loulis, a political analyst. "He benefits at the moment from voters' deep-seated anger".
Kammenos wants Greece to repudiate part of its debt and rely instead on help from non-EU countries such as Russia, China and Israel to develop its shipping, tourism and oil industries.
Shipping is close to Kammenos's heart and an icon of St. Nicholas, protector of sailors, hangs on his office wall.
As a deputy minister for merchant marine in 2007-2009 he helped negotiate a landmark deal awarding a state-owned container port near Athens to China's Cosco, one of the world's biggest port operators. He said Greece needs more deals like that to revive its economy without the bailout.
Attacking Greece's neighbor and traditional rival Turkey is another favorite Kammenos pastime. He said Athens should unilaterally set sea boundaries with Turkey - a move that Ankara has said it could view as a cause for war.
Kammenos says he was blacklisted in the 1990s by the Turkish government for co-drafting an international report criticizing Ankara for military attacks on Kurdish villages.
He also held several positions at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) between 2002 and 2008.
A social-media addict with five children from two marriages, he is also deeply religious. At his desk in Athens, he is framed by a Greek flag on his right and a church flag on his left. Miniature models of Greek fighter jets adorn his bookshelf.
(Editing by Barry Moody)