Zoi Konstantopoulou, Greece's Madame Speaker And Syriza Secret Weapon
Ambitious and unafraid to anger foe or friend, the 38-year-old Speaker of Parliament may be Greece's most powerful woman. And fighting corruption is at the top of her agenda.
ATHENS — Night has fallen on Athens, and everything's quiet in the empty corridors of the Vouli, the Hellenic Parliament. Except in the anteroom of Speaker Zoi Konstantopoulou's office. It's past 11 p.m., and several people are still waiting to see the young woman.
"It's been like that every day since she took office," explains an employee who arrives to drop off some files for the next day. "During the day, she takes appointments one after the other, leads the debates in the parliament and again sees people in the evening until 2 or 3 a.m. I've been working here for more than 30 years and I've never seen anybody with such a work ethic."
Konstantopoulou, a radical-left Syriza party lawmaker, was elected with a record 235 votes (of the 298 legislators who were present that day). At 38, she's also the country's youngest-ever speaker and only the second woman to occupy the position.
"She's an alibi for Syriza," a lawmaker from the ex-governing New Democracy party says with irony. "They didn't appoint any women in their government, and they were quick to adjust their tactics by putting Mrs. Konstantopoulou's name forward to be the speaker. But she'll have to learn that you can't lead a parliament by getting on the wrong side of lawmakers."
The criticism doesn't surprise Konstantopoulou. "There's a real generational and sexism problem among those who have governed Greece until now, but they'll have to get used to it," she says. "I intend to change this parliament, turn it into a model of democracy and freedom but also responsibility."
At 5-feet-10, her powerful figure often dominates the room. She wears only black suits, and that coupled with her 3-inch-high heels and her long black hair are a stark contrast in the Lower House of Parliament, the Vouli, still largely dominated by men.
"The fact that there are only 69 women out of 300 lawmakers shows that parity is still a long way away," she says, sitting in her vast office decorated with baroque mosaics on the walls. "Me, I had two exceptional grandmothers, Zoi and Vasso. Self-taught women who taught me to choose my life, not to suffer anything. So whatever some people say, I'm not just here for parity reasons."
Manolis K. Hatziyakoumis, one of her former teachers, was the private instructor of a whole generation of Greeks who now occupy key positions, such as the Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis or the former law university superintendent and conservative legislator Theodoros Fortsakis. "Zoi has always had a fire, a curiosity, and most of all a comprehensive sense of common interest," Hatziyakoumis says. "What always mattered to me was to turn my pupils into humanists. Justice is the mother of all virtues, the ancient Greeks used to say. I believe in that, and that's what I taught Zoi, together with concepts of measurement and ethics. I think that for her, the law is everything."
Coming from a family of lawyers, she chose to keep the tradition alive very early on and studied law at the University of Athens, before earning a Masters degree at the Sorbonne in Paris and studying human rights and criminal law at the Columbia University in New York.
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Konstantopoulou being interviewed on Jan. 26 — Photo: Ggia
While she was in Paris, she also taught English to convicts in a prison. "It's important to give back a little of what you receive," she says. "I think that students, especially law students, can quickly become useful to society."
Rise to power
As a lawyer, she represented the family of Alexis Grigoropoulos, an Athens teenager killed by a police officer in December 2008 and whose death started three weeks of urban rioting. "He was just a 15-year-old kid who'd gone out to drink a lemonade with his friends," she says. "When I heard the news, I felt this injustice in my guts. We got the murderer a life sentence and 10 years for his accomplice.".
Her father, Nikos Konstantopoulos, a lawyer himself, was president of the radical-left party Synaspismos between 1993 and 2004. It has since become the main component of Syriza. Her mother, journalist Lina Alexiou, would often denounce social injustice in her reports. So Konstantopoulou was surrounded by militant politics from a young age. "She's her father's daughter," says another lawmaker from the New Democracy party. "She's very ambitious and always wanted to give herself the means to one day rise up in Syriza."
Konstantopoulou explains that she was always interested in politics but believed she would stay away from it. "I know how demanding it is, and I love my work as a lawyer," she says. And yet, in 2009, she enlisted with Syriza for the European elections. "But it's only after the crisis that I decided to throw myself into it. It had become a duty."
She was elected a parliament member in June 2012, starting a tortuous path that would lead her to public recognition. The fight against corruption and tax fraud became her primary issues. She wrote the Black Book of Shame, which lists what Syriza considered political and financial scandals. Most importantly, she launched a crusade on the "Lagarde List," which contained the names of Greek tax evaders in Switzerland, "a perfect X-ray of Greek-style corruption and collusion," she says.
Given to Greek authorities in 2010 by the then-French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, the list wasn't examined until a parliamentary commission was launched to investigate the matter. The leader of the effort was none other than Zoi Konstantopoulou, and she proved to be the toughest member during witness hearings. The young woman stopped at nothing and asked the awkward questions, provoking unprecedented ire that could be heard from outside the room.
"Her rants were legendary," says Meliza Meya, a childhood friend and her bridesmaid during her 2014 wedding to sailor Apostolis Mantis. "The passionate Zoi that people have discovered is the one I've known all my life. Even in primary school, she was very sensitive to injustice and would fight for her rights or that of her classmates. As kids, we were fans of the TV show Matlock, the story of a lawyer who won every trial." Meya describes a "simple" and "joyful" woman in private, but one who "must show seriousness and inflexibility in the face of this political world that is afraid of losing its privileges and that is very violent towards her."
Since becoming a parliament member, Konstantopoulou has made more enemies than friends. "We call her Robespierre because she likes to make heads roll and because she poses as a moralizing incorruptible like the French revolutionary," says a lawmaker from the center-left party To Potami (The River).
Manolis Kefalogiannis, a New Democracy legislator, has had many disagreements with Konstantopoulou. "She doesn't behave normally, with the concern for balance and compromise that should characterize a parliament Speaker," he says. "She a little bit populist. She's always giving her two cents on everything." Stavros Theodorakis, the To Potami leader, says "she proves to us every day that she can't collaborate, and I think that even Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras regrets having placed her there."
This is a direct reference to Konstantopoulou's refusal to vote in favor of the agreement between the Greek government and its international creditors, which planned to extend the bailout program for another four months. "It was a party consultation, but I think it's essential that everyone speak their mind freely during important procedures," she says bluntly. Her wild, independent spirit irritates even those inside her own party. "Zoi is her own woman, and her ambition is certainly to also position herself as a potential heir in Syriza," one senior party member says.
On March 4, Konstantopoulou presented a series of reforms she wants to introduce in parliament. Among those are ending several member privileges and fighting against parliamentary absenteeism by threatening to cut one-fifth of salaries for lawmakers who don't show up more than five times per month. Some of these ideas have ruffled feathers inside an institution that isn't used to such accountability.
More importantly, the speaker has pledged to create an audit committee of Greece's debt in the coming weeks. "The goal is to determine the potential despicability, illegality or illegitimacy of the public debt contracted by the Greek government," she explains, referencing several corruption scandals and the opaque nature of Greek weapon purchasing. "The people have a right to demand that the part of the debt that is illegal — if that's what the commission rules — be written off." It's an explosive statement even as Syriza, which has long expressed its wish to cancel some of the debt, seems to have yielded to its creditors' arguments and now only speaks of debt rescheduling.
"The negotiations have only just begun," Konstantopoulou insists. "We mustn't accept that Greece speaks only to the Eurogroup because mankind is not only made of economic relations." Reinforcing democracy, putting the people and their rights back at the core of political projects, in Greece as well as in Europe, "are not romantic goals but indispensable if we don't want Europe to explode," she says.
This sounds like a real declaration of faith, we observe. "You know, my office here used to be the king's daughter's chapel when the parliament was still the Royal Palace," she replies. So a declaration of faith it is, "but a republican and democratic one."