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Vangelis Meimarakis: Grey-haired ‘new’ face for Greece’s old guard

Michalis Karagiannis, AFP | Vangelis Meimarakis has brought his unloved New Democracy party to the brink of a remarkable election victory

New Democracy leader Vangelis Meimarakis has rejuvenated Greece’s main conservative party, taking it to the brink of a remarkable election victory. Except he’s as old guard as it gets.

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When the mustachioed 61-year-old was appointed interim leader in July, the party was in disarray. Its long-time leader Antonis Samaras had campaigned for a “Yes” vote in a referendum on austerity called by the then prime minister Alexis Tsipras – only to see the “No” triumph and promptly resign.

Leaderless, torn by internal divisions, and reviled by many voters who blame it for the country’s plight, Greece’s main conservative party looked like a spent force.

And yet only three months later, a resurgent New Democracy has closed the gap with Tsipras’s Syriza party, and some polls say it may even come first in a snap election on September 20.

Commentators have credited Meimarakis for engineering the remarkable turnaround, describing him as the steady “father figure” many Greeks yearn for after Syriza’s rollercoaster seven months in power.

Others have stressed the irony of Meimarakis’s sudden surge, noting he embodies the very system Greeks had so emphatically rejected in January, when they gave Tsipras’s radical left a mandate to change the corrupt politics long associated with mainstream parties.

A life in politics

A founding member of New Democracy’s youth wing, Meimarakis has spent 41 of his 61 years in party politics.

He was first elected as an MP in 1989, and became the party’s chief whip in 1991. As defence minister between 2006 and 2009, he was part of the government that infamously “cooked the books” to conceal the country’s public debt and join the euro, thereby laying the foundations for Greece’s current misery.

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In 2012 a corruption probe forced him to resign as parliament speaker, though he has strenuously denied any wrongdoing.

“Meimarakis is obviously not new – he’s been with New Democracy for decades”, said Vassilis Monastiriotis, an associate professor at the London School of Economics’ European Institute.

“But his ability to appear non-partisan and keep a certain distance from the main political currents in his party has given him a semblance of novelty he otherwise would not enjoy.”

Monastiriotis said the conservative leader’s plain talking had struck a chord with many voters, “making him sound like he isn’t a career politician, even though he obviously is one”.

Commentators have described him as “natural” and “spontaneous”, noting that he had been spotted on the campaign trail without a tie – normally a prerogative of his famously tie-less rival.

“Meimarakis appeals to common, working-class people. He doesn’t come across as elitist and speaks like the average guy at the bar,” Monastiriotis said.

Safer pair of hands?

Most of this plain talking has been aimed at Tsipras, whom he has referred to as “kiddo” and "a little liar", accusing him of mismanaging the economy and the migrant crisis on Greece’s shores.

He has branded Tsipras’s July referendum “useless” and described his decision to trigger a snap election as “disastrous” – tapping into widespread election fatigue after five polls in just over three years.

Meimarakis has offered little in terms of policy proposals, other than encouraging private investment and calling for a harsher stance on immigration.

But his ability to reunite his party along centrist lines has contrasted sharply with Syriza’s break-up after Tsipras agreed to more punitive austerity measures in July as part of a new bailout deal with Greece’s EU creditors.

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Polling institutes say the conservative leader’s readiness to form a coalition government has gone down well with voters, whereas Tsipras has steadfastly refused any alliance with “establishment” parties.

Some surveys suggest voters also see Meimarakis as a safer pair of hands on the economy, though that may have more to with Syriza’s failings than with New Democracy’s policy proposals.

“One cannot underestimate the extent of disappointment that followed Syriza’s U-turn on austerity,” said Petros Linardos, an economist and one-time associate of the Syriza-led government.

“But let’s not forget who sunk the Greek economy in the first place.”

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