Rena Dourou: 'I have never known privilege, and that is the difference between us and them.
' Photograph: Panayiotis Tzamaros/NurPhoto/Corbis
The prefect of Athens, the only member of the leftist party in high office, plans to lead by example – with hard work
When Rena Dourou assumed her duties as prefect of the Attica region (which includes Athens), staff collectively held their breath. As the only member of Greece’s radical left Syriza party to be elected to high public office, the politician had promised a root and branch cleanup following her victory in local polls last May. Where would the combative 40-year-old begin? With the corruption that was endemic in the state sector, or with the cronyism that for 40 years had oiled its wheels?
“By example,” she says, reclining into a sofa at the end of a 12-hour day. “The first thing I wanted to show is my belief in the value of hard work. I didn’t get here because I thought all this should come to me. I have never known privilege, and that is the difference between us and them.”
In a country as starkly polarised as Greece – and becoming ever more so as it heads towards elections that could make or break its relationship with Europe – Dourou is being closely watched. Ambassadors and EU commission officials linked to the creditors that have provided €240bn (£187bn) in bailout funds for the insolvent Greek economy have all passed through the portals of her seventh-floor office.
An alliance of former socialist trade unionists, ex-communists, Maoists, Trotskyists and Greens, on the fringes of political life barely three years ago, Syriza has seen its popularity soar on the back of its opposition to the austerity Greece has applied in exchange for financial assistance. With the leftists now tipped to emerge as victors in the 25 January poll, the newly installed governor, who emerged from the anti-globalisation movement, provides invaluable insight into how the anti-austerity party might comport itself in power.
“They come here spouting all this stuff about Syriza being the harbinger of chaos, and I ask, what chaos? For the past five years there haven’t been any structural reforms, all we’ve had are policies that have led to chaos.”
If Syriza wins, it will be a historic day not only for Greece, but for Europe too, says the former advertising employee. “Not since the foundation of the modern Greek state in 1821 has the left been in power,” she smiles. “The left can, and will, bring a breath of fresh air.”
After enduring Europe’s longest austerity-driven recession, Greece, she maintains, needs wholesale change if it is to repair its “humanitarian crisis” and navigate itself back into the civilised world. “The country is at war,” Dourou says, listing the afflictions that have plagued it since its economic meltdown in late 2009.
“All my friends are economic migrants. They have left to escape poverty and record unemployment. Those of us who have remained face a twofold war: to solve immediate problems, but also to restore the credibility and reliability of a political system that has been destroyed. In Syriza we are ready to seize the moment and deal with the challenges to bring about change.”
Dourou with Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, at the pre-election rally last month before the dissolution of parliament.
Photograph: Orestis Panagiotou/EPA
In many ways, Dourou embodies that change. The daughter of a policeman “who went to school barefoot”, she was born in the working-class suburb of Aigalio in western Athens, where she still lives. She proudly shows visitors a picture depicting her, with her mother, on the day of her investiture – the only photograph to grace her desk.
“My parents were conservative, but they were also very open-minded people and did everything to give me the best education,” says Dourou, who studied political science at Essex University in England.
Precisely because the advantages accorded to those who would fill the ranks of New Democracy and Pasok – the parties that have alternated in power for the past 40 years – were never available to her, Dourou says she has no problem dispensing with them now. “Look at this place,” she says, referring to the Orwellian building that houses the prefecture in central Athens. “It’s ridiculous. As soon as we can, we will move.” A workplace for about 100 of the 2,200 employees now under her control, the office block costs the state an exorbitant €80,000 a month in rent.
Dourou, who like many in Syriza was elected to parliament for the first time in 2012, is in charge of an annual budget of about €575m. Her first priority was to increase social welfare spending from €1.9m to €13.5m. With the extra money, food banks have been set up in collaboration with the Greek Orthodox church, healthcare provided for the uninsured, and support given to women who have suffered abuse – a growing problem since the start of the crisis.
More controversially, Dourou has also reconnected Greeks without supplies to the electricity grid (38,000 have been cut off in the greater Athens area) and cancelled the contracts of “vested interests” handling waste treatment.
In a taste of the radical left’s pledge to tackle the measures attached to international aid, she has confronted the government on the issue of evaluating employees, a central demand of the EU and IMF.
“I am not against evaluation per se, but when they stipulate that 15% automatically be skimmed off, that is an excuse for job cuts, which we are not prepared to accept.”
But she insists that staff who have won posts on fake credentials will be rooted out and sent to disciplinary tribunals. “I am a doer and I choose my battles, but when I wage them I want to win,” she says.
Critics accuse Dourou of being wilfully obstreperous at an especially sensitive time for Greece. Syriza’s confrontational policies have revived fears that, unless a compromise is reached, Athens may be forced to exit the eurozone and re-embrace the drachma.
As the election campaign intensifies, Alexis Tsipras, the party leader, has stepped up a charm offensive to convince Europe Syriza will not make any unilateral move that could risk ejection.
Dourou gives a hint of the real battle the party may face when she says that for too long the left has refused to make the compromises that come with power.
“The Communist party, for example, has always preferred the comfort of being in opposition, and I know people [on the far left] are accusing me of being a moderate,” she says. “As they say, you can’t make an omelette if you don’t break eggs. We will implement our policies and the people will judge us from the results.”
Rena Dourou was born in Athens in 1974. She graduated from Athens University before continuing her studies in England where she earned a master’s degree in political science. She speaks four languages, including Turkish.
She helped found the youth wing of Synaspismos, the Euro communist party that would form the central plank of the coalition party, Syriza, in 1995. Holding jobs in the private sector – in both advertising and publishing – she became active in the anti-globalisation movement.
With Greeks turning increasingly away from mainstream politics after the debt crisis exploded, Dourou, who is famous for her composure - barely flinching when she was assaulted on live TV by a senior neo-Nazi Golden Dawn cadre – ran for parliament, becoming an MP in 2012. In May last year Syriza made her its candidate for the job of governor of Athens, the country’s most important regional post. Running an old-style door-to-door campaign on the motto “if you like the way your life is, don’t vote for me”, she won with 50.8% to become the first far leftist to wield administrative power in Greece.