Member Of Greek Parliament Discusses Austerity Vote

Greece's Parliament approved tough austerity measures Wednesday, prompting more protests and clashes in the streets. For some members of Parliament, the move is politically risky. Robert Siegel speaks with Spyros Kouvelis, a member of Greece's Parliament who voted for the austerity measures, about the decision — and what it means to those Parliament members whose "yes" vote may have put their political careers on the line.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A Greek poll this spring found that only 11 percent of respondents were satisfied with the way the government of Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou was addressing the country's problems, but the government could take some solace from the poll. It showed only 6 percent satisfaction with the opposition. To put it mildly, this was an unpopular vote.

And joining us now is Spyros Kouvelis, who is a member of parliament and a member of Prime Minister Papandreou's Socialist Party.

Welcome.

Mr. SPYROS KOUVELIS (Socialist, Hellenic Parliament): Hello.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the difficulty of the vote you cast today?

Mr. KOUVELIS: Well, I can tell you that it was one of the most difficult days I've lived in my political career with the crashes and (unintelligible), but it's a matter of responsibility towards one's country to do it, and that's why we voted for the plan.

SIEGEL: Before today's vote, some people said a no vote would have been suicidal, meaning suicidal for the country, for Greece. Was a yes vote politically suicidal for some members of parliament who will not be re-elected because of this?

Mr. KOUVELIS: No. I don't think so. First of all, even if that was the case, these are the days when one, as a political person, has to decide whether what matters more is the salvation of the country or the political future of one person.

But having said that, I believe that today's vote will be seen in the future as a decisive step in which we took the precautionary measures to keep Greece afloat, to give the Greek economy a chance at some breathing space that it needs.

SIEGEL: Have you had conversations with constituents over the past few weeks that have been especially difficult for you and your defense of this vote that you knew you would have to take?

Mr. KOUVELIS: No. I would have to say that, well, I did have discussions, of course, with people that had a strong view on whether we need to go for that new plan or not, but not unpleasant, not specifically difficult because when you get to the bottom of the facts, we understand that the options are limited. We don't have like 100 different options.

SIEGEL: But just to pursue that point, you're describing a very reasoned dialogue with Greek constituents who saw the necessity for voting some kind of austerity plan, whatever was available to them. The images we see on television, obviously, of those protests, is a very unreasoned anger at what the Greek government is doing now and what it's done in the past. How do you square those two images?

Mr. KOUVELIS: Well, I'll tell you how to square those two images: this is not the majority of people. What happened today and what happened a few days back is that a small group of 100 or 200 people got in the way and started creating all of these troubles. This is not the representation of Greek people.

SIEGEL: One other point, I just want to put to you what one protester told a New York Times reporter just before the vote, this person said this vote is going to change Greeks' lives forever. If you belong to the middle class, he said, that doesn't exist anymore. There's only rich and poor.

Mr. KOUVELIS: I don't think so. I wouldn't agree to that. I think that the middle class does exist in Greece and it (unintelligible) very much too. To be honest, this middle class was the probably the part that was used to be very much beyond its capacities for the last - I don't know -10 years or so. I'm describing here a normal everyday family that would have a pretty big house, three or - two or three cars. That's not a normal living standard. So they were used to that. And maybe, if you compare to that kind of middle class, yes, that will have to change. But, to me, this is a healthy change.

SIEGEL: Mr. Kouvelis, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KOUVELIS: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Spyros Kouvelis, who is a member of the Greek Parliament. He, like nearly all the members of the governing Socialist Party of Prime Minister Papandreou, voted in favor today of the austerity program that now may bring new financing to Greece.

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