Reporting from Athens — With their economy slumping and the streets seething, Greeks are watching former Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, heir to one of this country's most powerful political dynasties. Bakoyannis was the only lawmaker in the opposition New Democracy Party to vote in favor of austerity measures, and she was unceremoniously kicked out of her center-right party in retribution. Speculation is flying that Bakoyannis, a prime minister's daughter and widow of an assassinated lawmaker, will form a new party. She spoke to The Times in her Athens office, with windows opening onto a view of the Acropolis.
You are now being described as the first political casualty of the financial crisis.
The changes taking place in Greece are changing a lot the political figures themselves. For me it was very important that, at this moment, the only priority for a politician who has my history is Greece and how Greece can get out of this crisis as soon as possible. So I did what I believed. I have always supported the need for reform in Greece. It would be a contradiction for somebody who has fought all her life for these kinds of ideas to go against them during this crisis just to gain votes.
Did you realize that it would mean expulsion from the party?
Yes, the message was quite clear from the party leadership. I tried to persuade them that the center-right party of Greece, with the history of this party — it's always the party of big decisions, the party that brought Greece into the European Union. [To vote against austerity] would be inconsistent with our main beliefs. It was extremely important that we kept whatever credibility we had. If in those big moments, these very important moments for Greece, you lose the little bit of credibility you have left — it's the wrong message.
The government today is blaming the crisis on New Democracy, the former government. We aren't hearing much defense from New Democracy. Why?
The truth is, and I strongly believe this, that after dictatorship, after the return to democracy in 1974, the Greek political system worked in a way that was wrong. There were party politics, a lot of populism. We learned to live beyond our means. Whenever somebody said, "We don't have this money to spend," he was immediately the bad guy. So this was a whole system. We had all these problems. It was not the five years of New Democracy. We are to blame because we were elected on a platform which said that we would change that, and we didn't. So that is our main responsibility. But the problem goes much deeper into Greek politics.
Are you concerned that Greece will still default?
I think one should not underestimate Greece. I read a lot of reports about speculators who are speculating on the default of Greece. They will be proven wrong. They don't know the character of Greece and the strength of this country.
How would you describe the atmosphere on the streets of Greece today?
A lot of anger. A lot of pain. Frustration. And shame. This is probably the most difficult feeling to deal with. It is shameful that we arrived here. We must not arrive at a moment where we see each other as enemies. These frustrations must be changed into a creative anger, a reaction that says, "No, we will not stay here, we will do everything possible to bring back Greece and to regain respect."
There is a lot of talk of Greeks looking for a new direction. Many people expect you to form a new party. How do you plan to move forward politically in this atmosphere?
I don't think this is a moment to talk about a new party. For the moment my plans are very clear: I will try to work as hard as I can inside Greece and outside Greece, trying to help my country. I will try to persuade the political opposition to help people with their problems. I am in the opposition, which means I will try to push and work so that the government changes its rhythm. We don't have time to waste and, unfortunately, the government is not very clear in their messages.
Do you expect that Greeks can regain trust in politicians after feeling that they were misled?
Politicians can come and go. Nobody is irreplaceable. Personalities can always change, but the attack against the whole body politic is the wrong approach. There are bad politicians. Maybe you can change all 300 and bring somebody else in. But the idea of a democracy, and the idea of keeping our country under a clear democratic system, is extremely important.
What do you see as the biggest points of vulnerability facing Greece now?
What's important is that the people in Greece understand that this is an extraordinary crisis, but we can get out of it. It's very important that we produce jobs in the private sector, and that Greece gets back the investment which we should have. Don't forget that Greece is still the biggest [merchant] maritime force in the world. Greece can be the crossroads of investment in this whole region. What we need today is development. The least fair thing happening today is the fate of the poorest people, the pensioners. For somebody like me, it is so difficult to look at them and tell them that at the end of their lives, their pension is becoming less. And there I honestly believe that the government should have come up with another agreement. We have other parts of the public sector. We could have cut money without bringing these pensioners to their knees.