ATHENS – With his party slipping in the polls as elections loom to find a new leader for Greece, New Democracy Conservative leader Antonis Samaras kicked off his campaign trying to explain why he did an about-face by agreeing with austerity measures that have put the country in a deep recession. He also said he would not accept a coalition with his fierce rival Evangelos Venizelos, the new head of the PASOK Socialist party.
In his opening speech before supporters, Samaras promised to reduce taxes by 15 percent, although he earlier said he would support the pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and firing of 150,000 state workers as conditions of international rescue loans. He also said that he would get rid of illegal immigrants, unmask anarchists, fight crime, restore the country’s battered economy, and restore justice, although he made no mention of tax evaders owing the country more than $72 billion. He believes it’s unfair, however, for the government to keep taxing the same people over and over, a reference to Venizelos’ imposition of taxes on the working class when the PASOK leader was Finance Minister until recently.
Samaras plans to investigate PASOK leaders that he says brought about the need for Greece to sign a memorandum to get a first bailout of $152 billion and a second for $173 billion from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB.) Samaras opposed austerity when former PASOK leader George Papandreou was Prime Minister, but supported them to be part of a current coalition government. He then opposed it again, but said he would still carry them out if he wins. He made no mention of former New Democracy leader and Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, whose administration the EU said lied about the country’s economy and helped create the crisis and recession that has brought 21 percent unemployment, closed more than 111,000 businesses and left 500,000 people without any income.
New Democracy is hovering around the 20 percent mark in the polls ahead of the election, expected to be April 29 or May 6, while PASOK, under Venizelos, the former Finance Minister who taxed the poor and doubled income and property taxes, has about 15 percent. That means even with a 50-seat bonus in the 300-member Parliament given to the winning party, neither would have enough to rule outright, and Venizelos and Samaras have asked for Greeks to give them an outright majority.
With anti-bailout parties rising in the polls, and public anger against austerity soaring in the wake of the suicide of a pensioner who shot himself in the head near the Parliament after blaming the government, Samaras said he will not work with PASOK and tried to distance himself from the unpopular measures. He said he would try to “untie” Greece from the difficult position it had been placed in by PASOK. “We got rid of George Papandreou, now we will get rid of PASOK,” Samaras told party supporters. “Three elements want a coalition: Firstly, PASOK itself. Secondly, all those interests that don’t want anything in Greece to change and thirdly, all those within the country and abroad who want tomorrow’s government to be weak and easily controlled. We are asking for a clear mandate from the Greek people so we can change it all.” He added: “Greece can make it, we can do things differently,” without explaining how.
Samaras pledged to boost low pensions although he supported pension cuts, create jobs and compensate retail bondholders who have lost money due to the country’s debt restructuring plan, even though Greece’s Eurozone partners have already indicated that they would block such an attempt. Venizelos imposed losses of 74 percent on investors, including small bondholders he said he would exempt, to get a $134 billion debt write-down for Greece.
Samaras said PASOK wants to delay elections. He insists they be held May 6 so that a new government can replace the current shaky PASOK-New Democracy hybrid being overseen by interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former ECB Vice-President.
“Elections will be held even if some people don’t want them. We’re not afraid of the people, it’s other people who are hiding,” he said. He added that PASOK, interest groups who want the status quo and those who live inside and outside Greece “and want the government weak and controllable,” were Greece’s enemies. “We’re asking for a clear mandate from the Greek people in order to change everything,” he said.
Samaras said even though he ultimately came to support the memorandum, he warned it would be wrong and bring disaster to Greece and he wants to know who’s responsible for it. “From the beginning, we warned that the recipe was wrong and it proved wrong. We had warned that it would make the crisis deeper and make the debt bigger and this was confirmed and came true.” He told EU leaders he didn’t have a problem with the targets of the program, but in his words, “that I can’t come every so often with my hand out for the next loan.” Trying to explain his change-of-heart and his pledge to try to renegotiate the measures he supports, he said he did so because PASOK leaders assured the EU that the program was working.
He also said that Papandreou, who resigned on Nov. 11, 2011 after incessant protests, riots and strikes against the austerity measures he put on the people during his two years in office on the orders of the Troika, made a fatal mistake of recommending a referendum to let Greeks decide their own fate. That was withdrawn and Papandreou quit, leading to formation of the current coalition that engineered the second bailout, but Samaras said the referendum proposal “completed the disaster because Greece was totally isolated from Europe.”
“PASOK tied our hands and feet. I’m trying to set us free,” explains Samaras. But he went along with the austerity measures and attacked critics who said he’s flipping and flopping and reacting like a populist trying to gauge public opinion. “The people who accuse us because we signed the contract did not suggest anything,” he said. He asked voters to trust him despite his shifting positions. “We are going to rebuild Greece,” he emphasized, but he didn’t explain how. He saved most of his criticism for Venizelos. “He was the basic ingredient of the memorandum. He predicted that there was a bottom in the barrel, and (then) everything was dissolved.”