Ireland’s next prime minister is a conservative, gay 38-year-old
IRELAND — Ireland is to get its youngest prime minister, and the first who is openly gay.
Leo Varadkar, the 38-year-old Minister for Social Protection, was elected leader of the ruling Fine Gael party on Friday. He will be confirmed as Taoiseach, or prime minister, when the Irish parliament reconvenes on June 13.
The outgoing Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, stepped down as party leader in May, a position he’s held since 2002.
Varadkar’s sole opponent, Housing Minister Simon Coveney, whose roots in the party run deep, won the backing of nearly two-thirds of the party’s regular members.
But in the system for electing Fine Gael’s leader their votes only made up 25% of the total. Varadkar secured majorities among local council members and, crucially, his parliamentary colleagues, whose votes counted for 65% of the total.
Varadkar, the son of an Indian-born father and Irish mother, reportedly had a keen interest in politics as a child. He became a doctor before first entering Irish parliament at the age of 27.
In 2015, as Minister of Health, Varadkar came out on Irish national radio, joining a handful of other openly gay politicians in Ireland in support of the Marriage Equality Bill, which allows same sex couples to marry.
Varadkar might seem to be an unexpected pick for leader of Ireland — a country that’s still finding its secular European footing after years of the church influence over the state. But Varadkar’s policies signal a sharp move towards the right.
In his leadership campaign, “Taking Ireland Forward,” Varadkar’s fiscally conservative politics took center stage. He fiercely campaigned against benefit fraud with the slogan “welfare cheats cheat us all.” He pledged to invest in large infrastructure projects, reform tax laws for the self-employed and has proposed to ban “essential” public workers from going on strike.
Varadkar also promised to represent the “people who get up early in the morning,” in an effort to harness the support of Ireland’s rural farmers, the middle class and elderly — rhetoric that critics say both alienates and demonizes a large chunk of Ireland’s casual workforce, who have been hit by increased austerity measures.
He has pledged to hold a referendum on abortion in 2018, saying the current rules are too restrictive.
Varadkar is expected to officially take up the role as Taoiseach on June 13 after a formal confirmation from parliamentary members.