ATHENS (Reuters) - In barely two years, Fotis Kouvelis has gone from obscure leftist rebel to the man who could hold the key to Greece's next government, after winning over many voters with his low-key, avuncular style.
With a pro-euro and anti-austerity message, the 63-year-old's Democratic Left party has tapped into voter anger over the terms of an international bailout to emerge as one of four parties battling for third place when Greeks vote in a general election on Sunday.
A soft-spoken lawyer, Kouvelis gets around town in a small Ford and refuses fees for sitting on parliamentary committees, boosting his image as an upright, respectable figure among a political class widely viewed as corrupt and flashy.
Avoiding the fiery rhetoric and bombastic speeches popular with Greek politicians, Kouvelis speaks in a measured tone and is seen as a figure who can restore the country's dignity.
"Political intensity and the power of a stance or a proposal cannot be found in yelling, but in the content of what you have to say," Kouvelis told Reuters.
Pledging to ditch austerity policies without jeopardizing Greece's membership of the euro zone, Kouvelis has successfully lured away former PASOK voters disillusioned with the Socialist party's support for unpopular wage, spending and pension cuts.
A veteran politician, Kouvelis says he was drawn to leftist ideals from the time he was a teenager.
"I've belonged to the Left - the European Left - since my youth," he said in an interview with Reuters this week.
A long-distance runner who held a regional record in the 3000 meter steeplechase during his high school days, Kouvelis gave up athletics at the age of 18 to devote himself to opposing the military junta that ruled from 1967-1974.
At university - where he studied law, politics and economics - he joined the biggest anti-dictatorship organization of the time, the leftist Rigas Feraios.
As a young lawyer, Kouvelis became head of the Athens Bar Association and served briefly as justice minister in a coalition government in 1989. In 2010, he broke away from the Left Coalition party to set up the Democratic Left.
He is married with two daughters.
Despite losing some of the early anti-bailout momentum he enjoyed in February when Greece adopted an austerity bill, Kouvelis is expected to take between 5.4 and 9.5 percent of the vote - making it likely he will be courted by the two bigger parties when they try to form a coalition.
Kouvelis has laid down two red lines in any such alliance - it must be against the harsh terms of the international bailout that is keeping Greece afloat but also support membership of the single currency bloc - a combination many analysts say is impossible.
His plan to save Greece is multi-pronged: renegotiating the bailout with Greece's lenders, transferring some debt back to the European Central Bank and commissioning big public works projects to kickstart growth.
Analysts say the proposals are unlikely to win any support among Greece's lenders and at any rate, come far too late in the game to make a difference.
But Kouvelis says he is confident of tapping into a changing European mood against austerity and in favor of growth and is satisfied at how far his party has come in just two years.
"The Democratic Left has been around as a political party for 23 months and in that time it has shaken the political system," he told Reuters. "It now plays a decisive role in the country's politics."
Editing by Barry Moody