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.
The swearing-in ceremony for Ekaterini Sakellaropoulou, 63, 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, theatres, 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 reported 117 confirmed cases and one death. The ceremony was being covered live on state television.
After the swearing-in, Sakellaropoulou lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the square outside parliament, before a presidential honour 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, 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 towards “a future of prosperity that will have room for us all”, she said.
In a clear reference to neighbouring Turkey, 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, Sakellaropoulou said, must “secure the integrity of our borders while also defending and fulfilling our humanitarian duty toward defenceless 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.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis nominated Sakellaropoulou as a non-partisan candidate who would enjoy broad support from across the political spectrum. All big parties voted in favour, with Sakellaropoulou being elected to the largely ceremonial post in a 261-33 vote in January, well above the 200 votes required. Six legislators were absent.
Greece has a low number of women in senior positions in politics, and Mitsotakis had been criticised 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,” Sakellaropoulou said.
“It is time for the women of this country to realise that they can attain their dreams, on their own merits, without facing obstacles simply because they were born women.”