EGIO, Greece (Reuters) - Few took notice when Greek lawyer Fotis Kouvelis gathered supporters at an Athens hotel to set up his own leftist party two years ago.
Today, the grey-haired leftist is much harder to ignore.
With a pro-euro and anti-austerity message, Kouvelis’s small Democratic Left party has quickly snapped up disgruntled Socialist voters to become one of four groups battling for third place when Greece votes in a general election on Sunday.
Promising Greeks a future in the euro zone without the pain of spending and wage cuts imposed at the behest of international lenders, the 63-year-old says he is confident Greece can renegotiate the terms of its latest rescue package by focusing on structural reforms rather than layoffs.
“What the Democratic Left is proposing that is different from the other parties is our pledge to carry out deep reforms inside the country,” Kouvelis told Reuters in the seaside town of Egio, one of several stops as he criss-crosses the country on a final campaign swing before the vote.
“There is wasteful spending in the public sector - and I’m not referring to salaries. There are parts of the public sector that are overstaffed and others that are understaffed.”
Kouvelis’s proposal is scorned as unworkable by many analysts and is unlikely to impress foreign lenders exasperated with Greece’s inability so far to pass deep reforms.
But it is enough to pull in the crowds in crisis-hit towns like Egio, where Kouvelis’s message and low-key style strike a chord among many Greeks tired of austerity and Greece’s flashy political class.
In many ways, Kouvelis’s appeal lies more in all the things that he is not, marking him out from traditional politicians who love the sound of their own rhetoric.
Not one to bang on tables or launch into fiery tirades, the understated politician has emerged as a vote for dignity in a political landscape awash with corruption.
“Greeks have this need to trust someone - not just to be convinced rationally - and he fulfills this need,” said Dimitris Mavros of the MRB polling group.
“He is very amiable and this is reflected in his popularity. He is helped by the way he carries himself in the media, his speeches, his oratory, and by the fact that he seems to have few skeletons in the closet.”
A poetry and jazz fan, Kouvelis says he has nurtured leftist ideals since he was a teenager. Briefly justice minister in 1989, he formed his party in 2010 after breaking away from the Left Coalition led by Alexis Tsipras.
The last polls published before a pre-election cutoff showed Kouvelis taking between 5.4 and 9.5 percent of the vote, pitting him against his former comrade Tsipras, the Communist KKE and conservative rebel Panos Kammenos for third place.
Still, the Democratic Left has lost some of its momentum since jumping to No.2 in opinion polls in February with 13 percent, and pollsters suggest it may slip further.
Much of the party’s rise has been at the expense of the precipitous decline in support for the once-dominant Socialist PASOK because of its backing for the international bailout. But that party has enjoyed a slight rebound over the past month which may reduce support for the Democratic Left.
PASOK currently supports a technocrat government in coalition with the conservative New Democracy party, and is likely to be the second biggest group after Sunday’s vote, despite greatly diminished support.
PASOK and New Democracy are still favorites to forge a pro-bailout coalition after the election that ensures Greece stays on the austerity-and-reform track essential to getting aid and staying in the euro zone, although it is far from certain they will win a workable majority.
Even if they do succeed in forming a coalition, it is expected to be weak. Kouvelis’s credentials as corruption-free and reform-oriented could mean he will be courted aggressively after the election to boost support for a new government.
Kouvelis says he is in favor of a leftist alliance, but only one that ditches austerity without exiting the common currency-effectively ruling out a deal with the anti-euro Communists.
An alliance with conservatives or right-wing parties is out of the question, he says. Asked if supporting PASOK would be an option if it were to water down austerity proposals, Kouvelis smiles: “Depends on how much water they add,” he says.
A favorite pre-election stomping ground for PASOK leaders in the past, Egio is a natural campaign stop for Kouvelis as he tries to rally disappointed Socialist voters into backing him.
Like many other towns across Greece, unemployment is rising rapidly and the specter of more factory closures looms large. Greece’s economy is now in its fifth year of recession, with one out of five Greeks out of work.
In previous elections, PASOK and New Democracy split much of the vote between them in this town lined with lemon, olive and orange trees. But this time around relative newcomers like Kouvelis are gaining ground quickly.
In the town’s main square, dotted with cafes and banks, the mood is grim as retired farmer Andreas Rodopoulos and his friends gather to discuss the deepening crisis.
Rodopoulos has heard Kouvelis speak, and fears he might not be aggressive enough to force the change needed to reshape Greece. But for his 59-year-old friend Nikolaos Spathis, the leftist’s probity is a big enough change in Greek politics.
“Kouvelis is different - he is honest,” said Spathis. “He is not corrupt, he is a serious politician.”
Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou; editing by Barry Moody