If all goes as expected, this week will see a great moment for equality in Greece, when the country gets its first female Prime Minister. But before we pop the cork on the pink champagne, let’s pause for a moment to savour the real significance of this event.
First of all, the first woman Prime Minister will be appointed, not elected. Last week, the elected Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras submitted his resignation after losing his parliamentary majority in a recent key vote. If the existing parliamentary parties fail to put together a new governing coalition (the most likely scenario, despite their insistence to go through the motions), elections will be declared and a caretaker government will take over during the pre-election period. According to the Greek constitution, the acting Prime Minister is likely to be the President of the Supreme Court, who at this moment happens to be one Vassiliki Thanou-Christofilou.
The likelihood of seeing a woman Prime Minister in Greece elected on merit still seems fairly remote. At the last count (which predates the present parliament) the proportion of women MPs was a little below the global average at 21%. However, women in leadership and key cabinet positions made up a much smaller percentage (5%, or 1 out of 19 cabinet appointments). And it is hard to point to examples of senior female politicians who, however able, did not ride in on daddy’s coat tails.
You might say that Vassiliki Thanou is an accomplished woman in her own right, being only the second woman ever to reach the top of the judicial ladder in Greece. But aside from sporting that spectacular species of bouffant flick rarely sighted since the days when Margaret Thatcher and Nancy Reagan exchanged pleasantries at Cold War era summits, why don’t we get such a sisterly vibe from Prosecutor Thanou? Vassiliki Thanou is a career prosecutor but only a recent appointee to the head of the Greek Supreme Court (Άρειος Πάγος: Areios Pagos) and the circumstances of her appointment raised some eyebrows. Sceptics pointed to a number factors in her appointment that suggest that politics may have been at play: the timing (3am on the 29th of June, barely 48 hours after the controversial snap referendum was called by Tsipras on the European bailout deal); the fact that she was not the most senior in line for the appointment (though order of seniority is dictated by custom rather than by law); and her own highly politicised career. As President of the Supreme Court, Thanou would also preside over the Electoral Court, which would have the task of resolving any challenges to the referendum, hence the added suspicion around her appointment. If you are familiar with the level of political and media scrutiny that surrounds the appointment of Supreme Court justices in the United States, you will be shocked at the ease with which this appointment was ushered in.
Still, if you come from a country with robust institutions, you might think that a judge is a “safe pair of hands” to see the country through a brief transitional period – and no doubt this is what the Greek constitution also envisioned. But in present-day Greece, the judiciary as a whole have lost any kind of reputation for rectitude and impartiality that they may have once commanded. As public trust in all government institutions has taken a nosedive since the start of the crisis, the judiciary has tumbled with them. Local experts and international observers have been pointing out for some time that the colossal inefficiencies, perverse incentives and political entanglements of the Greek judicial system stand as a roadblock in the way of creating the climate of trust and stability required for a healthy economy, not to mention urgently needed reform of Greece’s ailing public institutions. A recent comparative global study of legal quality found that Greece is a world-beater by quite a margin in unfairness, inefficiency and injustice, even compared to developing and Third World countries.
Thanou is seen by her critics to exemplify many of these pathologies of the judicial status quo: a prosecutor with a strong activist streak, she has come to particular prominence during the ongoing crisis. As a Supreme Court judge, she argued against to constitutionality of one of the more unpopular and onerous tax collection measures linked to the bailout, the property tax collected via electricity bills (the so-called χαράτσι – harátsi – named emotively after the Ottoman tax imposed on members of non-Muslim faiths). As president of the judges’ union (Ενωση Δικαστών και Εισαγγελέων Ελλάδας) she took a vocal stand against the Samaras government and its economic policies, calling it “totalitarian” on at least one occasion. As a unionist she also held out against cuts in judges’ pay long after the rest of the senior civil service had shared the pain. She also took the initiative of writing to European Commission President Juncker to ask him to intervene on behalf of Greece in the ongoing bailout negotiations, a move disowned by several senior fellow judges as overreaching.
Now, she may well get to steer a caretaker government through what would already be, even without the elections, a critical period in which several reforms must be implemented in line with Greece’s latest bailout agreement. Among these is the reform of the civil procedure. Any Greek who has struggled through the 800+ business days it takes on average for a simple court case to be concluded would see this as a move in the right direction. However, those opposed, including the incumbents within the judicial system, and the populist media, have succeeded in presenting it as a creditor diktat designed to speed up bank foreclosures on primary residences. Another is the opening up to competition of the legal profession with the aim of reducing legal costs. Whether the acting Prime Minister will be “sober as a judge” in allowing such reforms to proceed remains to be seen.
In any case, first woman Prime Minister, in by a technicality and under a bit of a cloud. Please don’t judge us too harshly for it.
Image: Photo from iefimerida.gr