'A hope for all women': Greece swears in first female president

Katerina Sakellaropoulou became the president of Greece on Friday. She is the first woman in the nation's 200-year history to occupy one of its highest political offices. 

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
Katerina Sakellaropoulou at the presidential swearing-in ceremony at the Greek Parliament in Athens on March 13, 2020. Ms. Sakellaropoulou received support across the political spectrum but the parliament was largely empty due to quarantine measures.

Greece's first female president, a former high court judge, was formally sworn in to office on Friday, nearly two months after the country's parliament voted overwhelmingly to elect her. 

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis nominated Katerina Sakellaropoulou as a non-partisan candidate who would enjoy broad support from across the political spectrum. All major parties voted in favor, with Ms. Sakellaropoulou being elected to the largely ceremonial post in a 261-33 vote in January, well above the 200 votes required. Six lawmakers were absent. 

The Guardian reported in January: 

Inaugurating a new era for one of Europe’s more traditional nations, MPs overwhelmingly endorsed the nomination of Katerina Sakellaropoulou as head of state. No woman has held the post in the nearly 200 years since Greece proclaimed independence. “Today a window to the future has opened,” said the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, after 261 deputies in the 300-seat House voted in favour of the French-educated jurist assuming the role. “Our country enters the third decade of the 21st century with more optimism.”

Greece has a low number of women in senior positions in politics, and Mr. Mitsotakis had been criticized for selecting a nearly all-male Cabinet after he won general elections in July 2019. In the current Greek Cabinet, all but one of the 18 senior positions are held by men. 

"I hope that the election of a woman for the first time to the highest position of the country will improve the position of all women in the country, both in the family and in society," Ms. Sakellaropoulou said.

"It is time for the women of this country to realize that they can attain their dreams, on their own merits, without facing obstacles simply because they were born women."

The swearing-in ceremony for Katerina Sakellaropoulou took place in an almost empty parliament, as part of measures to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Only a handful of officials and a limited number of journalists were present.

Greece has shut down schools, universities, cinemas, theaters, gyms, and nightclubs, and authorities have warned people to stay home and avoid large gatherings in an effort to contain the outbreak. The country so far has 117 confirmed cases and one death.

The ceremony was being covered live on state television.

After the swearing-in, Ms. Sakellaropoulou lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the square outside parliament, before a presidential honor guard. Despite the warnings about the virus, a small crowd gathered to watch, standing behind a security cordon across the street.

The new president headed the Council of State, the country's highest administrative court, since 2018. She takes over the five-year presidency from veteran conservative politician Prokopis Pavlopoulos.

In a brief speech at the presidential palace, Ms. Sakellaropoulou spoke of the battle against the coronavirus and the recent migration crisis as the country's two main challenges.

Greece must continue to adhere to its democratic principles and the state of law, moving toward "a future of prosperity that will have room for us all," she said.

In a clear reference to neighboring Turkey, Ms. Sakellaropoulou said Greece was being called on to "thwart the aggression of those who, using human pain, want to harm our national sovereignty."

Turkey recently declared its borders to Europe were open, and encouraged thousands of refugees and other migrants to try to push into Greece. Clashes with Greek border guards have frequently broken out, and Greece has come under criticism for occasionally using heavy-handed tactics in response.

Greece, Ms. Sakellaropoulou said, must "secure the integrity of our borders while also defending and fulfilling our humanitarian duty toward defenseless and desperate people, a difficult but not impossible equation."

She also called on all Greeks to strictly adhere to all guidance given by health authorities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Material from The Guardian was used in this report. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.