Rajoy makes surprise trip to Athens to support embattled Greek PM

The Spanish conservative leader is keen to quell rise of leftist election favorite Syriza

Carlos E. Cué
Rajoy (center) with Samaras (left) and British PM David Cameron during the march in Paris.
Rajoy (center) with Samaras (left) and British PM David Cameron during the march in Paris.Fernando Pérez (EFE)

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy made a surprise trip to Athens on Wednesday to lend support to his Greek counterpart, Antonis Samaras, who faces a crucial early election on January 25 that the leftwing, anti-bailout party Syriza is favored to win.

The Popular Party leader told reporters in the Greek capital that new leftwing political forces such as Syriza and Spain’s Podemos party promise “things that are impossible,” which “generates frustration and lots of problems.”

The prime minister’s office at Moncloa insisted that the trip was an official visit despite its hasty organization. It is apparent that Rajoy wants to give his backing to his conservative colleague, who has asked for international support to help his election campaign. Syriza and its leader Alex Tsipras hold the lead against Samaras and his New Democracy party in the polls.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with Samaras, Rajoy said that Greece, Spain and the rest of Europe were emerging from the crisis. “I came here to defend policies that have been tough but were necessary,” Rajoy said.

I came here to defend policies that have been tough but were necessary” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy

This was the Spanish prime minister’s first official visit to Greece since he came to office in 2011.

In the past, Rajoy, as well as his Socialist predecessor José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, has always tried to convince Spaniards that the troubles facing the Spanish and Greek economies were different. “Spain is not Greece,” both leaders have said in the past.

But now Rajoy fears that if Samaras is defeated, he could be placed in a similar situation when he makes his bid for re-election this fall. Members of the ruling Popular Party (PP) have said that Rajoy’s visit to Greece carries significant risks for his image.

The anti-austerity party Podemos, which has seen its own popularity rise in Spanish polls over the past months, is interested in what is occurring in Greece and trying to find links between the situations the two countries face. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias is scheduled to attend a rally in Athens with Tsipras on May 22.

Rajoy fears that if Samaras is defeated he could be placed in a similar situation during elections this fall

Moncloa officials believe that if Tsipras wins, it could affect Podemos at the polls because of the economic consequences and the instability that Syriza is expected to bring. The Greek party has said it will try to renegotiate the terms of Greece’s bailout and its debt with other countries, but there are also fears that it could lead the country out of the euro zone.

For his part Samaras praised Spain for helping Greece during its time of need.

“Spain loaned Greece €26 billion during a very difficult time. They also had problems, but we will never forget that. We will return the money. What can we tell Spain? What right do we have to change that? Those who say that the debt is not viable are inviting markets not to loan us any more money,” Samaras said in reference to Syriza’s proposal.

The economic situations in the two countries are different, but both have suffered a brutal economic crisis. Spain and Greece have the highest unemployment in Europe: the Greek jobless rate stands at 27 percent while 23 percent of Spaniards are out of work.

Now that we are emerging from the crisis, we need stability and certainty, not lurching”

But Rajoy wants to use improving economic growth figures, including projections that Greece is also expected to grow this year, to help Samaras convince Greeks that if they remain patient, they too will emerge from the crisis.

“Now that we are emerging from the crisis, we need stability and certainty, not lurching,” the Spanish prime minister said in backing Samaras’ re-election bid, though without directly mentioning Syriza or Podemos.

Rajoy and Samaras marched together in Paris on Sunday during the rally held to denounce the Charlie Hebdo attacks and terrorism. It was there where the Greek prime minister asked Rajoy to fly to Athens at this critical moment.

While Rajoy rejects the possibility that what could happen in Greece may be repeated in Spain, Moncloa officials are closely watching Syriza for its similarities and differences to Podemos. The Spanish government believes that Samaras can win the elections because there is still enough time for the conservatives to recover the gap in the polls.

Rajoy has told his ministers that Podemos will never be able to drum up the same support as Syriza has done in Greece because the Spanish Socialist Party is much more resistant than the Greek Socialists (Pasok), which were badly weakened by the rise of Syriza.

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