In a stunning election result yesterday, a top judge has been elected Greece’s first female president. Katerina Sakellaropoulou won with the backing of a large majority of members of parliament – 261 of the 300-person body. Sakellaropoulou is not a member of any political party, but has received support from centre-right New Democracy party and left-wing opposition party Syriza.
The election is one that also successfully cements Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in his position. For decades, procedure dictated that if parliament failed to elect a president then snap elections would follow. Thanks to recent reform, the presidential selection process can now go through five voting rounds in parliament to avoid such a result, and this time, only one round of voting was needed.
Mitsotakis said the result offers “a window to the future“, adding that “Our country enters, with more optimism, into a new decade”.
Mitsotakis’ decision to nominate Sakellaropoulou for the position of President, rather than back a second term for incumbent President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, was seen as a challenge to the overwhelming majority male parliament – many of whom hold conservative attitudes towards women.
“I think it’s time the country had a distinguished woman in the highest state role,” Mitsotakis said ahead of her appointment. “Let’s not try to ignore it: Greek society still discriminates against women. This is going to change, starting from the top.”
Opposition Syriza party leader and former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also praised Sakellaropoulou, saying she was an “exceptional judge” and a defender of human rights.
The move is one that helps Mitsotakis in future polls too, who after he won a sweeping election victory last summer, faced criticism for the lack of women in his administration. Xenia Kounalaki, a senior editor at Kathimerini newspaper, said that with this appointment, “He’s made an effort to fix his record on gender equality with [Sakellaropoulou’s] appointment. And at the same time he has rewarded the centrist voters who backed him at the election. It was a move that showed increased confidence”.
A poll last week showed that 55 percent of respondents backed Sakellaropoulou’s nomination for the presidency, while only 23 percent were opposed.
Sakellaropoulou’s Ascent to the Presidency
Previously, Sakellaropoulou was the first woman to become head of the Council of State – Greece’s highest court – and was appointed to the position by Tsipras. She will formally take the oath of office in early March.
The President is not the only woman advancing, however, with female lawyers making major strides within Greece’s legal system over the past two decades. They currently account for more than 60 percent of the country’s judges, but still face a glass ceiling when it comes to career advancement: comparatively few senior positions in business or politics go to women.
In her new position, it is likely that Sakellaropoulou will be a symbolically important voice on environmental issues, climate change policies, and public education.
As chief of the state council, she earned a reputation for her progressive views on the environment. In one well known case, she blocked a 300 million euro project that was backed by successive Greek governments but strongly opposed by ecological groups, due to the harm diverting a river’s course would cause. Then, as a senior judge covering individual rights, Sakellaropoulou threw out a claim by nationalist groups that children of migrants and asylum-seekers should not be allowed to attend Greek schools, which would have blocked their integration into the country’s society.
Though the presidency is largely ceremonial and offers less power to directly affect Greek law, the position also offers new viability by which Sakellaropoulou can alter political and cultural discourse in the country. Aristides Hatzis, an Athens university professor and friend of the new President, notes that “The President, if she wants, can inflict serious damage on the government if she decides to criticise a policy or an approach”.
“I’d say she’s the first to break the glass ceiling in the Greek system and she’s going to become a role model for many young Greek women”, continued Hatzis. “She’s outward looking and in touch with society, dependable and empathetic and a longstanding member of a network of progressive Greek judges with contacts in western Europe.”
“She’s a great judge, an excellent consensus builder, she’s liberal in the broadest sense of the word, and she’s not partisan. This is very important for Greek politics. Most importantly, she’s a generous person, she’s empathetic, she very perceptive“, Hatzis added.
EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen believes that the new President is a positive step forward, noting that the country is “moving ahead into a new era of equality”.
Gender Equality in Greece
Greece is known for lagging behind other EU member states when it comes to gender equality, particularly with women staffing senior political appointments. The country clocks in well below the European average and lands at the very bottom of the 2017 gender equality index, issued by the European Institute for Gender Equality.
In 2017, Europe’s statistical office Eurostat found that the pay gap between men and women in Greece stood at more than 12 percent. More distressingly, data released by Greek police in November 2019 shows that registered incidents of domestic violence increased by 34.45 percent in a period spanning from 2014 to 2018.
However, last year’s elections – at both an EU and local level – shows that many are eager to return to mainstream politics and eschew extremism. Sakellaropoulou’s earning of such broad support is part of that trend, and showcases the strides Greece is making towards achieving greater gender equality.