The Incorruptible at the Vouli: a major figure of SYRIZA

27 March 2015 by Adéa Guillot

Zoe Konstantopoulou

It is far into the night in Athens, on Wednesday 4 March 2015. All is quiet in the deserted corridors of the Vouli, the Greek Parliament, except in the lobby of Zoe Konstantopoulou’s office. It is well past 11 p.m., yet several people are still waiting to meet the young woman who was elected President of the Greek Parliament. “It has been like this ever since she took office on 6 February 2015,” says the employee who came to drop a handful of files to be processed on the next day. “During the day she keeps appointments, runs parliamentary debates, and in the evening she meets people up to 2 or 3 a.m. I have been working here for over thirty years, but have never seen such a powerhouse of a woman”, marvels the civil servant, though she has worked for ten or so successive Presidents of Parliament.

Zoe Konstantopoulou, a member of the radical left party SYRIZA, which won the general elections on 25 January 2015, was overwhelmingly elected President of Parliament on 6 February 2015 with a record 235 votes out of 298 members present. At thirty-eight, she is also the youngest President of the Vouli, and only the second woman in this seat. “She is an alibi for SYRIZA which had not appointed any woman minister in its government but quickly corrected this by crowning Zoe Konstantopoulou as head of parliament,” quips a member of the opposition party New Democracy. “Since then she has been running the show in the Parliament with the full force of her near six-foot stature, but she has to learn that a parliament cannot be run by alienating MPs.”

Such harsh words hardly surprise her, “prejudices towards younger people and women are an issue with the old men who have been ruling Greece so far, but they will have to get used to it. I intend to change this parliament by making it a model not only of democracy and freedom but also of responsibility.

Her powerful and tall, really tall, silhouette often towers above the assembly. Always in strict black suits, perched all day long on 7-centimetre-high-heels and adorned only with her long brown hair, the young woman stands apart in a still largely masculine Vouli. “That we have only 69 women out of 300 MPs shows that gender equality is still a long way ahead,” she says, sitting in her spacious office with Baroque murals. “I have had two exceptional grandmothers, Zoe and Vasso. They were strong self-taught women who taught me to be my own master and not put up with anything. So, whatever some people might think, I’m not here just for the sake of gender equality.

According to Manolis Hatziyakoumis, one of her former teachers, “she always had a fire, a curiosity and above all a developed sense of the general interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. .” This dignified old gentleman has taught a whole generation of Greeks who are now in key positions such as the current mayor of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis, or the former dean of the Faculty of Law and Conservative MP Theodore Fortsakis, as well as several lawyers. “For me, what always mattered was to transform my students into humanists. Justice is the mother of all virtues, said the ancient Greeks. I believe in it absolutely, this is what I taught Zoe along with the concepts of moderation and ethics. I think, the law means everything to her.

A born activist

Born in a family of lawyers, she made an early decision to follow that tradition and studied law at the University of Athens, rounding up with a Postgraduate degree in European criminal law from the Sorbonne (Paris) in 2000, then a degree in human rights and national and international criminal law at Columbia University (New York).

At the same time, she was involved with student unions, provided free legal advice and lessons in English to inmates in the Fresnes prison, in Val de Marne, during her stay in France. “It is very important to return a little of what you receive. I think students, especially the law students, can soon be socially useful”, she says. As a lawyer she represented, in particular, the family of Alexis Grigoropoulos, the teenager killed in December 2008 by a Greek policeman in Athens and whose death had caused three weeks of urban riots. “He was just a 15-year-old kid, out drinking lemonade with his friends. When I heard the news, I had a gut feeling about this injustice. We got a life sentence for the killer and ten years for his accomplice”, she grimly comments.

Her father, Nikos Konstantopoulos, himself a lawyer, was the president (1993-2004) of Synaspismos, a radical left party which has since become SYRIZA’s main component. Her mother, journalist Lina Alexiou, has often exposed social injustices in her reports. Thus the young Zoe was brought up in an atmosphere of activism since her childhood.

She is her father’s daughter. She is very ambitious and has always been determined to achieve a key position in SYRIZA”, observes a New Democracy MP.

Of course I have always been interested in politics,” Zoe Konstantopoulou says, “but I had planned to stay out of it, because I know how demanding this field is and I love my job as a lawyer.” Yet in 2009 the young woman enlisted with SYRIZA for the European elections. “Actually I decided to get fully involved only after the crisis. Then it became a duty”, she comments.

In June 2012 she was elected MP. It was the beginning of a turbulent period that brought her into the limelight. Fighting corruption and tax evasion became her focal points. She wrote the Black Book of Shame that compiles the political and financial affairs considered scandalous by her party. She was fierce in her crusade against the “Lagarde list” which contains the names of Greek tax evaders in Switzerland, “a perfect X-Ray of Greek-style corruption and collusion”, in her own words.

In 2010 Christine Lagarde, then French Finance Minister, handed over the list to her Greek counterpart George Papaconstantinou. However, the list was not investigated until a parliamentary enquiry commission was formed. Zoe Konstantopoulou was appointed rapporteur and went all out during the preliminary hearings of testimony. The young woman would not flinch from asking provocative and infuriating questions that could be heard even beyond the closed doors of the room where the hearings took place.

Her rants are something of a legend”, jokes one of her closest friends. For Méliza Méya, her childhood friend and witness to her marriage in 2014 with seaman Apostolis Mantis, “the passionate Zoe that people have now discovered is the one I have always known. Since primary school she was highly sensitive to injustice and fought for the rights of her comrades. As children we were fans of the American TV series Matlock, the story of a lawyer who would win any trial whatsoever.” Méliza Méya describes her as a woman who is “simple and joyful in private life, but who dons a cloak of seriousness and severity when confronting this political world that is afraid of losing its privileges and is very aggressive towards her.

Since her appointment as head of Parliamentary, Zoe Konstantopoulou has not made many friends. “She has been nicknamed Robespierre because, like the ‘incorruptible’ French revolutionary, she likes to ruffle feathers and take the moral high ground,“says an MP from the Centre Left party To Potami.”She does not behave normally with the sense of balance Balance End of year statement of a company’s assets (what the company possesses) and liabilities (what it owes). In other words, the assets provide information about how the funds collected by the company have been used; and the liabilities, about the origins of those funds. and adjustment that should characterize the President of Parliament,“complains Manolis Kéfaloyiannis, MP of New Democracy with whom Zoe Konstantopoulou has crossed swords time and again.”She is something of a populist. She gives her opinion on everything.“Stavros Theodorakis, President of To Potami says,”every day she proves that she does not know how to act as a team. I think even the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, regrets having given her the post."

A fierce spirit of independence

The previous comment is a direct reference to a vote at a Parliamentary Group meeting held on 25 February 2015 when Zoe Konstantopoulou refused to sanction the agreement finalized five days earlier between the Greek government and its creditors, stipulating a four-month extension of the current bailout programme. “It was an internal meeting of the party, but I find it essential to have everyone speaking their mind during important discussions,” is the young woman’s straightforward answer. This fierce independent spirit annoys even members of her own party. “She is her own person and clearly tries to position herself as Tsipras’ potential heir,” declares a member of SYRIZA’s Central Committee.

On 4 March 2015 Zoe Konstantopoulou presented a list of reforms that she wanted to introduce in the parliament. These included putting an end to several privileges enjoyed by MPs, countering absenteeism in parliament by threatening to cut 1/5th of the salaries of those officials who do not show up for more than five sessions per month. Some of the proposals will definitely lead to intense resentment in an institution unaccustomed to such spunk.

More importantly, the President has promised to form a committee to audit the Greek debt in the forthcoming weeks. “The objective is to determine the potentially odious, illegal or illegitimate nature of the public debts contracted by the Greek government,” she said, alluding to several cases of corruption surrounding Greece’s murky weapon purchases. “The people have the right to demand that the illegal portion of the debt be written off – if is what comes out of the auditing committee’s work.” An explosive statement at a time when the Greek government, which had been demanding a partial cancellation of its debt, lately seems to have given in to the creditors’ arguments and has been talking only about debt rescheduling Debt rescheduling Modification of the terms of a debt, for example by modifying the due-dates or by postponing repayments of the principal and/or the interest. The aim is usually to give a little breathing space to a country in difficulty by extending the period of repayment and reducing the amount of each instalment or by granting a period of grace during which no repayments will be made. .

We have just started the negotiations with our creditors,” insists Zoe Konstantopoulou. “The Euro-group must not be considered as Greece’s only partner because humanity is not built on economic relations alone.” Strengthening democracy, putting people and their rights in the centre of political programmes both in Greece and other parts of Europe, “these are not romantic but essential objectives unless we want Europe to explode,” says the young woman. We cannot but point out to her that this truly sounds like a profession of faith, and Zoe Konstantopoulou responds impishly, “You know that my office here was the chapel of the king’s daughter when parliament was still the royal palace. All right for a profession of faith, but then make it ‘republican and democratic’.

Translated by Suchandra De Sarkar in collaboration with Christine Pagnoulle

September 12, 2013, vote at the Greek Parliament, meeting of the Justice Commission.

In the presence of only three members of Parliament, the president K. Virvidakis, [MP New Democracy], simply ignores the objections of Konstandopoulos Zoi [MP SYRIZA] and announces that each resolution is passed by a majority vote, while nobody has voted.

Adéa Guillot

Correspondant for Le Monde in Athens




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