Katerina Sakellaropoulou, a senior Greek judge, has won the overwhelming backing of MPs to become the county’s first female president.
The 63-year-old head of the state council, Greece’s highest court, was supported in a vote by 261 deputies in the 300-seat parliament, after securing endorsements from the ruling centre-right New Democracy party of prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the leftwing opposition Syriza.
The prime minister’s decision to nominate Ms Sakellaropoulou, rather than backing a second term for president Prokopis Pavlopoulos, threw down a challenge to the overwhelmingly male members of Greece’s parliament, many of whom hold deeply conservative attitudes towards women.
“I think it’s time the country had a distinguished woman in the highest state role,” Mr 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.”
Ms Sakellaropoulou, the only contender for the largely ceremonial position, last year became the first woman to head the Greek judiciary after her appointment by the then prime minister and Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras.
Female lawyers have advanced rapidly in the Greek legal system over the past two decades and account for more than 60 per cent of the country’s judges, yet they hold comparatively few senior positions in business and politics.
“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,” said Aris Hatzis, an Athens university professor and friend of the new president.
“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,” Mr Hatzis added.
Mr Mitsotakis, who won a sweeping election victory last summer, has faced criticism for the lack of women in his administration. Asked in a BBC interview shortly after he took office why his cabinet included only two women, he seemed taken aback by the question and failed to give a substantive answer.
Xenia Kounalaki, a senior editor at Kathimerini newspaper, said: “He’s made an effort to fix his record on gender equality with [Ms 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 this week showed 55 per cent of respondents backed Ms Sakellaropoulou’s nomination for the presidency, while 23 per cent were opposed. Following the vote in parliament she will be sworn in as head of state in April.
Greece’s president has few formal powers but normally plays a significant consulting role behind the scenes. A senior government official said Ms Sakellaropoulou would probably offer a voice on environmental issues and climate change policy.
While at the state council she gained a reputation for her progressive views on the environment, including banning a €300m river diversion project backed by successive Greek governments but strongly opposed by ecological groups.
As a senior judge in the section covering individual rights, she threw out a claim by nationalist groups that children of migrants and asylum-seekers should not be allowed to attend Greek schools.