Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, above, and conservative rival… (Petros Giannakouris / Associated…)
Reporting from Athens — Under pressure to solve Greece's financial crisis, beleaguered Prime Minister George Papandreou telephoned his political nemesis, conservative party leader Antonis Samaras.
"Antonis," he said, "things are looking tough. Let us form a national salvation government."
Samaras was taken aback at first by the June call. Still, within 20 minutes, the two men — once close friends and dormmates at Amherst College in Massachusetts — had come to an agreement.
To turn the cash-strapped country in the right direction, Papandreou would resign and a team of technocrats would help take charge of Greece's finances, including renegotiating controversial austerity measures imposed by Athens' international creditors.
But the agreement fell apart about as quickly as it had come together, as Papandreou's aides, including younger brother Nick, pulled him back from what they described as a show of "weak political retreat," said sources close to the prime minister, government and opposition officials.
Instead, Papandreou, the socialist leader controlling a four-seat majority in Parliament, kept his job and immediately negotiated $157 billion in loans from his European peers to help Greece pay its bills, on top of a nearly identical rescue package last year.
Samaras, seeing an increasingly angry electorate faced with rising unemployment and new belt-tightening measures, pressed for early elections. Polls show Samaras could become the next prime minister.
The two men have locked horns in a rash of recent debates, trading unprecedented personal jabs and polarizing Greece's already high-octane political climate even further.
As Greece grapples with its debt crisis, the interplay of these two men, who met as boys, remains at the center of the issue.
Papandreou, 59, is the scion of a political dynasty; Samaras, 60, comes from Greek aristocracy. They rubbed shoulders at Athens College, a prep school polishing Greece's elite, and bonded years later at Amherst, under the heavy timber trusses of Charles Pratt Dormitory.
There and elsewhere, as great groundswells of popular movements infused their minds, Papandreou and Samaras, beneficiaries of privileged and sheltered upbringings, refashioned their values, identities and even their looks.
At one point, college mates recall, Papandreou and Samaras sported scruffy Vandykes in shows of defiance to the Greek military junta, which, among other things, banned beards during its 1967-74 rule of their country.
"One [Papandreou] was like a loyal and friendly Labrador; the other [Samaras], an Afghan wolfhound," quipped Philip Tsiaras, a New York-based artist who also boarded at Pratt. "They were temperamental opposites, but somehow complemented each other. It was their forced isolation … that brought them together."
Samaras' passion for politics was never in doubt, friends said. The question was Papandreou, who later headed for Britain to study sociology at the London School of Economics as Samaras moved on to Harvard Business School.
"He told me many times that he did not want to become prime minister," Papandreou's brother Nick said in a recent interview.
The two men bonded in the back benches of Parliament in the 1980s, reminiscing about their college years in between heated political debates and crossfire. Papandreou and Samaras saw their political fortunes flourish, and flounder, in the years that followed.
By 2009, each held leadership positions at the country's darkest hour: the onset of a debt crisis threatening to destabilize Europe's single currency and global financial markets.
Though Samaras supports the budgetary and economic reforms, such as privatization of state enterprises, that are supposed to save Greece, he has repeatedly refused to sign on to a fresh batch of austerity measures as the country enters its fourth year of deep recession.
"What we need the most," he said in a phone interview, "is a change in policy mix so that we can regenerate recovery, reduce the deficit and service our debt."
"That the government moved to get a new and revised deal" with its creditors, Samaras said, "is an admission of what we've been saying all along: that the policy adopted until now has failed."
But the new bailout deal worked out by Papandreou, including easier terms to help Athens pay down its nearly $500-billion debt, has generated some hope in the country.
"Papandreou and PASOK [his political party] are far from over," said Dimitris Mavros, director of the MRB Hellas polling group.
Recent polls show Samaras' New Democracy party leading by as much as 4 percentage points. But with voter apathy reaching 38%, experts said, it was unclear whether any candidate could lead an effective government without a coalition partner.
"I am prepared to negotiate and take the responsibility of any policy that has a good chance of working," Samaras said. "Anything else will just serve to hide problems or prolong them. We need problem solving, not procrastination."
Carassava is a special correspondent.