Radical Greek leftist taps into anti-austerity anger

ATHENS Fri May 23, 2014 12:15pm EDT

People walk past a pre-election kiosk of candidate Rena Dourou in Athens May 13, 2014. REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis

People walk past a pre-election kiosk of candidate Rena Dourou in Athens May 13, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Yorgos Karahalis

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek leftist Rena Dourou first shot to fame for having a glass of water thrown in her face on live television by a far-right Golden Dawn lawmaker.

Two years later, the 39-year-old has a more impressive claim to fame - becoming the first radical leftist to win the first round vote to be governor of the greater Athens region, giving the opposition, anti-austerity Syriza party, a sharp boost in momentum ahead of European elections this weekend.

No radical left candidate has won an election for decades.

"I was worried my public life would start and end with a glass of water," Dourou said in an interview. "But thankfully people no longer know of Rena Dourou because of that incident."

Dourou's style - she often bangs her hand on the table to emphasize a point and is known for using slang - and her pledge to end a "humanitarian crisis" in debt-ridden Greece have helped Syriza breakthrough in a region that has so far been a bastion of support for the coalition centre-right and Socialist parties.

"Ours is no longer a vote of frustration and anger. Two years later, this vote has crystallized because of a clear plan and because our predictions came true: unfortunately, Greek national debt is not sustainable," she told Reuters this week.

"It's no longer a vote cast blindly in the dark."

Indeed, her strong electoral performance in local elections last Sunday highlights the danger facing Greece's fragile coalition in the upcoming EU vote, which has turned into a referendum of sorts for a government that has imposed harsh cutbacks to meet the requirements of its EU/IMF bailout.

Most polls show Syriza - led by firebrand Alexis Tsipras - with a small lead over conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's New Democracy party.

A decisive Syriza victory by a margin of more than a few points could threaten a government hanging on to a two-seat parliamentary majority, especially if Syriza took a bigger share of the vote than New Democracy and Socialist coalition partner PASOK put together, analysts say.

Much of Tsipras's appeal has come from promising voters a return to the good times enjoyed before Greece's debt crisis hit in 2009 - his campaign pledges include reversing wage and pension cuts and renegotiating the bailout.

WRINKLES AND SEXISM

Analysts expect PASOK-backed independent incumbent Yannis Sgouros to win the second round in Athens on Sunday but, Dourou said, "...at least on a symbolic level something has changed when a woman, a leftist, is this close to taking such a post."

She took 23.8 percent of the vote in the first round for prefect of the Attica region, 1.7 points more than Sgouros.

She says her top priorities for a region that counts a third of the country's population are simple, including fixing the sewage system and giving 300,000 euros ($410,000) to 16,000 families without power in a poverty-stricken town.

The daughter of a policeman who grew up in the working-class Athens suburb of Egaleo, she dismisses the focus on her looks. "I don't worry about my wrinkles adding up", she said.

But she gets animated when sexism and being a woman in the male-dominated world of Greek politics comes up: "When I'm asked what I like to cook, I ask if they asked my male rival or predecessor this."

This month, former deputy prime minister Theodore Pangalos mocked Dourou saying he was fed up of her face on campaign posters all over Athens, and wanted "the rest to be added in where her face is now - a full-body shot in a bikini". Dourou said she is not surprised or upset by comments like that.

"It's not that I just discovered sexism in my country," she said. "The problem is that the situation only worsens instead of improving. A debt crisis is always followed by a crisis of democracy, and when this happens women always suffer."

(Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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