By Nick Squires, and Menelaos Tzafalias in Athens 22 January 2015
“Is it really right for thousands of people to commit suicide because of austerity policies?" asks Syriza's most senior politician ahead of Sunday's general election
Newly elected governor of the wider Athens region Rena Dourou, who was backed by leftist Syriza party, waves to supporters in front of the University of Athens Photo: REUTERS
After her mother’s pension was cut over 30 times, Rena Dourou knew that Greece could no longer cope with austerity.
Now, as Syriza, her political party, leads the polls ahead of the country’s general election on Sunday, she stands ready to reverse the five years of pain imposed by the European Union.
“Since the beginning of the implementation of the austerity policies, many people have had the experience of becoming second-class citizens, with no access to health care or education,” she said.
“We want to create a shield of protection for the most vulnerable.”
Ms Dourou, 40, is the only member of Syriza, a radical left-wing coalition, to hold high office. Since she was elected as governor of Attica, the vital region that surrounds Athens, last May she has increased the state’s budget for social welfare more than six-fold, from a mere Eu1.9 million (£1.46 million) to Eu13 million. It is a premonition of the huge spending splurge that Syriza has promised if it is elected nationally.
Under her leadership, the regional government, which has four million people under its administration, has also started restoring the electricity supply to impoverished families who could no longer pay their bills - as Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza has also promised to do on a national level should he be elected.
Syriza’s popularity is testament to the disillusion and anger felt by many Greeks towards the political establishment.
The two main parties, the socialist PASOK and the centre-right New Democracy, are regarded by many Greeks as having kept themselves in power for decades through corruption and cronyism.
Their time is now up, said Ms Dourou, who studied political science at the University of Essex and speaks five languages.
“Is it really right for thousands of people to commit suicide because of austerity policies? Is it really right that a whole people has to pay the heavy price for a completely wrong policy?” she asked, insisting that austerity had not managed to cure Greece of its debts.
But she added that Greece would pay its debts and described the prospect of a “Grexit” - a Greek exit from the euro zone and a return to the drachma - as “simple scaremongering” by the government. “It’s propaganda which is being used in order to scare the Greek people and prevent them from voting for Syriza. Syriza does not represent any kind of risk for the euro.”
Analysts believe Mr Tsipras may have to drastically tone down his demands for a debt write-off once he is in power, particularly if he fails to secure an absolute majority in the 300-seat parliament.
That would force him into an alliance with one of several smaller, more moderate parties that are jostling for votes.
But for now, Syriza’s message is defiant.
“The most dangerous thing for the euro and the European project is the policy of austerity, which kills growth and employment,” said Ms Dourou.
“We need policies which can bring about social justice and equality. That’s what the Greek people are about to vote for.”
A survey published over the weekend in To Vima, a newspaper, showed Syriza’s lead over the ruling New Democracy widening slightly to 3.1 percentage points from 2.5 percentage points a week earlier, the first time it has widened its lead since November.