Greece is poised to get its first female president after the country’s centre-right leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis took the unprecedented step of proposing a progressive female judge to assume the role of head of state.
In a move loaded with symbolism for a nation more used to the divisiveness of bipartisan politics, the prime minister nominated 62-year-old Katerina Sakellaropoulou.
“The time has come for Greece to open up to the future,” he said in an unexpected televised address, emphasising that the choice embodied unity and progress.
The news of a cosmopolitan jurist being catapulted to the head of the republic caught many off guard – not least in Mitsotakis’ own New Democracy party. Her views have often run counter to the establishment.
But less than 24 hours later, opposition parties, in a display of rare accord, also backed the proposal on Thursday. Former premier Alexis Tsipras, describing his decision as an “act of responsibility”, announced Syriza MPs will vote in favour in a parliamentary ballot on 22 January . The centre-left Kinal likewise expressed support, giving Sakellaropoulou’s election the blessing of at least 266 deputies in the 300-seat parliament. The five–round vote requires an overwhelming majority of 200 to pass initially.
In style and background Greece’s new leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis could not be more different to his predecessor Alexis Tsipras.
Born in 1968 into one of the country’s powerful political dynasties, his father Konstantinos Mitsotakis also held the office of prime minister. As Mitsotakis’ only son, Kyriakos seemed destined to go into politics too. After being educated at Greece’s elite Athens College, he was sent to Harvard University where he graduated with a degree in social studies in 1990.
But after continuing his studies – earning an MA in international relations at Standford University and an MBA from Harvard's Business School - he took a different path. He went to London to work as a financial analyst with Chase Investment Bank, and then as a consultant with the business company McKinsey. It wasn’t until 2004, seven years after returning to Greece to continue his financial career, that he ventured into politics and ran for parliament.
Like his father, Mitsotakis saw himself as a liberal centrist who cared about green issues and human rights. From 2013 to 2015 he served as minister for administrative reform in the coalition government headed by Antonis Samaras. During his tenure thousands of civil servants were laid off, igniting fierce criticism from political opponents.
In January 2016, when the New Democracy party had been riven by Greece’s economic crisis, he decided to run for the leadership, but had little support and soon discovered his name was more of a hindrance than a help. He eventually won the post, but only after running what aides describe as a tough campaign. Once he assumed the leadership, his overhaul of New Democracy began, culminating with the party returning to power in 2019.
The historic step would, analysts said, go some way to redressing Mitsotakis’ poor record of appointing women. Just five were given cabinet positions when his New Democracy party ousted Syriza in July, a decision for which the leader was broadly chastised both at home and abroad.
“It’s inspired because he’s not only been heavily criticised for not having enough women in his cabinet but she is also very progressive,” said the prominent political commentator Pavlos Tzimas. “She belongs to a minority of judges in Greece who have always taken a courageous stance on civil rights whether that be voting against sexual discrimination, or in favour of refugee children or civil unions for same sex couples. There are many in his own party who will not be happy with this choice.”
The French-educated judge broke the mould when she was elevated as the first woman to the helm of the country’s highest court in October 2018.
Sakellaropoulou’s sensitivity to civil liberties, ecological issues and minority rights, prompted the then leftwing administration to propel her to the post. At a time when the climate emergency is becoming ever more apparent, aides close to Mitsotakis said her track record in protecting the environment, while also endorsing policies of growth, would be crucial as the country emerges from a period of political and economic crisis following its near brush with bankruptcy.
Reacting to her nomination for the country’s highest office, Sakellaropoulou, who is divorced and has one child, described it as “honouring both justice and the modern Greek woman. I accept the proposal and, if elected, will devote all my efforts to serving this high duty, as set out by the constitution”.
Previously Tsipras had said he would support the re-appointment of incumbent president Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a professor of constitutional law, whose current five-year term expires in March.
A veteran conservative, Pavlopoulos’ re-election would have been endorsed by many in New Democracy, a party of deeply-held traditional views.
But signalling his determination to overhaul his own political group, Mitsotakis, 51, insisted that as an apolitical figure who was above party politics, Sakellaropoulou could reflect Greece’s “rebirth” as it gradually recovers from the debilitating drama of dealing solely with its debt.