Life of the week: Constantine Karamanlis

After legalising the Greek Communist party, abolishing the monarchy and overseeing post-war economic growth, Constantine Karamanlis was involved in some of Greece’s most monumental political changes during the second half of the 20th century

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As 23 July marks the anniversary of when the former Greek prime minister was invited to return to government after the fall of military rule in 1974, we take a look back at Karamanlis’s life and his involvement in shaping Greece’s political landscape…

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Born: 23 February 1907, Proti, Serres, Greece

Died: 23 April 1998, Athens, Greece

Family: His parents were George Karamanli and Fotini Dologlou, and together they had seven children. His father was a schoolteacher and fought during the Macedonian Struggle between 1904 and 1908.

Constantine Karamanlis married Amalia Kanellopoulou in 1952. The couple did not have any children and divorced in the 1970s.

Remembered for: Being the four-time prime minister and twice-elected president of Greece, and for restoring democracy and a constitutional government after seven years of military rule.

His life: With the help of local benefactors, Karamanlis was able to attend secondary school and go on to study law at the University of Athens. In 1932 he completed his degree and began practising law in Serres.

Karamanlis’s political career began with his election to the Greek parliament to represent Serres on behalf of the Populist Party in 1935. He was re-elected to this position in 1936 – the same year the prime minister and minister of war, Ioannis Metaxas, declared his dictatorship of Greece. This was also the last election held in Greece before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Karamanlis became the minister of transportation in 1947, and was then appointed as minister of social welfare between 1948 and 1950. He decided to change parties and join the Greek Rally party in 1951.

When Prime Minister Papago died in 1955, the Greek Rally party was unable to elect a successor. Renowned for his efficiency and ambition in government, King Paul of Greece made the decision to elect Karamanlis as the next prime minister, despite having less experience in government than other members of parliament.

Karamanlis was re-elected as prime minister in 1956, and he decided to change the name of the party to the National Radical Union (ERE). The ERE won the next consecutive elections in 1958 and 1961, which allowed Karamanlis to remain as prime minister until 1963. During his tenure, with the help of the US, Karamanlis oversaw the great economic recovery of Greece following the devastation of the Second World War.

Karamanlis resigned from his position as prime minister in June 1963 following a clash with King Paul over plans to make the constitution of Greece more democratic, and disputes over the monarchy. Despite moving abroad for a number of months, Karamanlis returned to Greece in November 1963 to witness his party’s defeat to George Papandreou and the Centre Union party in the elections.

Greek prime minister Constantine Karamanlis mopping his brow at a press conference in Paris, France in 1975. (Credit: Keystone/Getty Images)

Following this loss, Karamanlis moved to Paris into voluntary exile while Greece came under the governance of the military. Led by Colonel Papadopoulos, Colonel Makarezos and Brigadier Pattakos, the military imposed strict authority over the justice system and the media. They also abandoned the reforms that had been put in place by the previous government, and they curbed any political opponents. King Constantine then fled into exile after facing great opposition and pressure from the military’s authority in 1967.

After seven years of military rule, the regime collapsed following tensions over Greece’s involvement in Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus. Karamanlis was invited to resume his position as prime minister in 1974. He was greeted by large crowds at Athens Airport, and there were reports of mass celebrations in the streets of Greece at the news of the return of democracy to the country.

After accepting the ministerial position, Karamanlis demanded the military step down from their leadership and called for a reinstatement of the Greek constitution. He created the New Democracy party, which successfully secured a majority in government following the November 1974 elections. Karamanlis’s party won 220 out of 300 seats. Just a month after the elections, Karamanlis’s government held a referendum that abolished the monarchy in Greece and created a presidential democracy.

During his time in government, Karamanlis legitimised the Greek Communist party (KKE) and confirmed the nationality of thousands of returning refugees as Greek citizens. He also freed political prisoners, and he pardoned all of those who had been found guilty of political crimes against the military dictatorship during the 1960s and 70s.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Greek counterpart Constantine Karamanlis, shaking hands at 10 Downing Street, London in 1979. (Credit: Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images)

In 1977 Karamanlis was again reelected as prime minister. However, after resigning as prime minister in 1980 he was elected as the Greek president of the Republic – a position he held until 1985. He was later reelected as president in 1990.

Karamanlis’s health declined following his retirement from politics in 1995. After suffering a heart attack in 1998, Karamanlis caught a viral infection. At the age of 91, he died of heart failure in a hospital in Athens.

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Many recognise Karamanlis as the person who returned democracy to Greece. He also established an expanding economy, so much so that Greece was able to establish an initial bid to enter the European Union in 1981.