Tempe ‘fills us with a sense of responsibility and shame’

Tempe ‘fills us with a sense of responsibility and shame’

Katerina Sakellaropoulou marked three years as President of Greece on March 13. Ahead of that anniversary, Kathimerini had requested an interview to look back on that period in office. The interview took place, but publication was halted by the rail tragedy at Tempe.

The following is the product of two separate discussions with the country’s first female president, in which she talks about her experience in office, reveals how she felt when she visited the site of the deadly February 28 rail crash and outlines her thoughts on her role in the upcoming general elections.

Madam President, thank you for agreeing to this conversation. You visited the site of the Tempe rail disaster just hours after the collision. How did you feel? What does the incident at Tempe signal for the country and what needs to be done to prevent such a thing from happening again?

I froze. It was an inconceivable tragedy. It hurts and makes us angry. It fills us with a sense of responsibility and shame. Our country does not deserve such an image. Citizens’ safety and trust in the state are the cornerstones of our coexistence. This trust must be restored, and accountability assigned promptly. We need to attract capable people to the public administration, people who can carry out their duties professionally and diligently. We need to draw strength and inspiration from the heroism of the young men and women who tried to save their fellow passengers, from the selflessness of the EMAK [disaster response] teams and the promptitude of the medical and nursing staff, from the solidarity shown by the act of donating blood. The reform of the state needs to start at the base. There is no room for compromise with the various afflictions that are holding us back and hurting this country. We owe this to society, to the people so unjustly lost.

You spent nearly 40 years at the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court – which has been accused of being in a bubble – before finding yourself right at the center of public life. How did you handle the attention and the scrutiny in an age where everything a politician says and does, even wears, is commented on on social media? Did it come as a shock at first?

Yes. It’s not always easy. I was asked to serve the presidency coming from a non-political field, with a background of nearly 40 years as a judge. I think it’s interesting that I came from a civic background. It’s something we see in other countries too. I find it interesting in this day and age that people from outside the political sphere, people with a distinct career trajectory and who have something to offer, are invited to hold office and, possibly, to enrich political life with their presence. Now, in terms of my personal experience… I wanted to enrich the institution, to add a few brushstrokes of my own, particularly with regard to reaching out to society – in a way, I believe that fully respects the substance of my responsibilities as outlined in the Constitution, and custom. As I have already said on previous occasions, it is conventions I’m opposed to, not customs.

Yes, but how about all the attention, like how you decorate your office, doesn’t it get on your nerves at some point? Isn’t it annoying?

I can’t say it’s pleasant. Criticism – as I’ve said before – is welcome in a democracy. But criticism is not the same thing as a direct attack, which may be based on stereotypes, prejudice and often on false assumptions or fake news. It’s not easy to read things about you that are simply not true. It borders on the ludicrous sometimes because I think that people get when something is being exaggerated and, from what I understand, society doesn’t really care that much. The messages I get from the people I meet are different than those that see the light of publicity.

What has been the response from the public to you as the country’s first female president?

Positive overall, but extremely positive from other women, and especially younger women and girls. I’ve seen what it’s like to be regarded as a role model and it is very touching. A young girl recently came up to me at the Benaki Museum and said, “I want to be like you.” I said I hope she becomes better than me. I think society is positive toward the notion overall. Perhaps the presidency, as an institution, having the stature and gravitas it does, was regarded as being a bit dry and distanced from the people. I wanted to bridge this distance; to bring the people close or to get closer to the people myself. People understand this and acknowledge it with great satisfaction.

Apart from being the country’s first female president you also live with your partner, to whom you are not married. I wonder if this shocks a part of society. He is also more than a partner in that he has an active role in the presidency. How do you deal with all that?

Again, I don’t see that people really care. I don’t see anyone having a problem with it in the contacts I have and when I appear with my partner, Pavlos Kotsonis. This kind of thing is completely outdated in Europe and America. And again, I believe that anyone who does express annoyance has ulterior motives. I truly believe that such prejudice, such reservations and stereotypes are behind us now. In terms of the role, moreover, I believe that it is the most useful thing – beyond the need to have your partner with you – in a role like this, with such a broad scope of obligations. Those who know him also know that he has a distinct personality, so I wouldn’t want to put him on the spot by speaking for him, but those who know him appreciate him. He does what he can do. After all, he dropped everything else he was doing to support me in my term as president, to support his partner, and this is something I appreciate. It is also essential and I honestly do not think that society cares.

The elections

It is widely believed that beyond the strictly institutional role of the president, they can also play a “behind-the-scenes” role in helping achieve consensus on certain matters or can help bring political leaders closer together, unofficially. Has this been the case for you? Or has the climate been too toxic?

I imagine that if such a thing were carried out “behind the scenes,” it would be best not to discuss it. That said, I don’t believe in a “back stage.” If we are talking about communication and understanding, I have never said I won’t listen or take the initiative, but only so long as I know that this is what all the parties involved want. I believe that everyone – the political parties and their leaderships – have the requisite maturity to shoulder the burden of their office. We are going into elections under a particular law, which means that cooperation may be on the cards. The role of the president is to ensure unity, on another level. With regard to matters of a narrow political interest, I believe it is up to them to look for consensus – unless, of course, the Constitution dictates an intervention from me. When the Constitution dictates that I have some role in a particular procedure, then I will do that to the best of my ability.

You will likely be called upon to play such a role in the upcoming elections, which are being carried out under the simple proportional representation system and are unlikely to yield an outright winner. Are you ready for the procedure of exploratory mandates? I often wonder what it’s like for someone in your position to maintain a neutral role and to help achieve consensus and cooperation.

‘The reform of the state needs to start at the base. There is no room for compromise with the various afflictions that are holding us back and hurting this country’

This will be my first time doing something like this and it is a burden that weighs on my mind. As to whether I am able, I believe that with a certain age comes a certain maturity that allows you to carry such responsibility. But I repeat that what it ultimately comes down to is everyone else’s ability to reach an understanding. The president’s duty is to express the unity of the Greek people so that the best political solution can be found for the good of the country; this is what weighs on my mind and hopefully on the minds of those running in the election, because this is what matters. It is not about person A or person B, or party A or party B, but about what is best for the future of the country; for the collective good. I would like to believe that this is where everyone’s focus will be and this is what I will try to contribute toward, for my part.

The institution

Are you at all concerned about overexposure? There are those who say they cannot get used to the idea of a president going to book launches and other such public events, who argue that the president needs to maintain a certain distance from things.

Every institution comes with certain responsibilities, of course, but they are always influenced – colored or illuminated, if you will – by the people serving them. As president, this is what I choose. And I understand that everything is open to criticism. But I come from civil society, I was an active citizen, despite being a judge, and I have always had interests. I miss going to legal conferences, for example, which stopped with the pandemic. I was also a person who took a very active interest in the legal sciences and other issues. I will never forget the events and conversations with the late [jurist] Stavros Tsakyrakis; he was a very important proponent of civil society who I feel is greatly missed. I say that because what I have observed in this country is the absence of interest in the common good. It is something that is clearly lacking in modern Greece. We do not have it in any abundance even though it is something we see in other people. It is up to civil society to play that role. In the past few years, we have also seen people who are involved in politics taking an active civic role, like [late Ioannina mayor] Moisis Elisaf, who we recently lost. There are many people who could contribute and I think it would be better to focus on what people are actually contributing instead of on the smaller things that we obviously can’t all agree on in a democracy.

We all regard the president as the guardian of our institutions. The matter of the wiretaps has been very much in the limelight recently and you have come under criticism from the opposition and others for not taking a firmer stance on the issue.

The matter of privacy in communication is not only a right that is enshrined in the Constitution; it is also extremely important in a democracy. It is essentially at the core of human values and, in this day and age especially, where the risks are ever increasing because of advances in technology. The matter, therefore, is becoming increasingly complex. At the same time, there is another important parameter, and that is national security. It is an extremely fine and sensitive balancing act for the various agencies and state authorities involved. I stated my position on this matter from the onset, in August, stressing how important it is. When something goes wrong, when there’s a problem connected to this issue, as with all fundamental rights, the problem needs to be fully illuminated and fully investigated, and the people need to be given compelling answers.

On the other hand, precisely because it is such a sensitive issue, it is also very important that those who continue to repeat themselves on the matter are mindful of respecting the boundaries of their jurisdiction and responsibility. Accountability is very important in a democracy, as is the responsibility of every individual holding a certain office. Thankfully, we have the independent Authority for Communication Security and Privacy (ADAE), we have prosecutors and we have Parliament – to the degree that it may need to get involved – in this country. And there’s also the justice system, where its involvement becomes necessary. So I firmly believe that everyone needs to look after the field and area they are responsible for. I stated my position when I thought it necessary and do not believe that, as president, I need to say more.

The fact is that this very difficult issue has also divided your own circle, people you were close to before you became president, like the head of ADAE, Christos Rammos, former deputy prime minister Evangelos Venizelos and others. How do you deal with that?

It happens sometimes for people who are friends, who are close as you say, who have been colleagues for years, to have parallel jurisdictions. I believe each has a very responsible sense of how they exercise their roles and how they act more generally. I do not think this has an adverse effect on our personal relationships, because everyone is just doing what they have to do. But I only speak for myself.

I guess it never crossed your mind that someone may have you under surveillance too?

I admit it’s not something I have thought about. That said, I believe that if it is necessary and if the letter of the Constitution and the law are being upheld, no one is exempt in a democracy – as long as caution is exercised.

I meant illegal surveillance.

Well, I really hope not… I confess I haven’t thought about it at all.

The justice system

Let’s talk about the justice system. You recently convened a meeting of its leadership to discuss the state of the justice system. Do you believe that it was in your purview as president to take such an initiative? And, secondly, did something come of it?

We see it featured strongly in all the different surveys, how the justice system is one of the country’s biggest problems. So, I thought that instead of calling each court president separately, I would call them all together. By virtue of what they do, judges tend to be very reserved and unlikely to open up in a discussion. But problems cannot be addressed without dialogue. We see laws being passed and then we see the bar associations objecting to those laws and then we have strikes. I thought that some common ground could be found on some issues to help progress if all the different parties sat down to talk. My basic goal was to bring them all together for a very general discussion and for them – because I have no role there – to continue this communication amongst themselves. I believe very firmly in communication and dialogue as a means of addressing issues like the ones concerning the justice system, which are basically institutional, but are also very practical.

Do you believe that reform of the justice system should be one of the highest priorities?

Of course.

But can it be accomplished without consensus?

Nothing can be accomplished without consensus. We have even seen laws being ratified by Parliament with a sizable majority and then stalling in implementation. Consensus must be about the politicians, of course, but it must also concern all the stakeholders and, ultimately, society too.

Your relations with the Church of Greece and Archbishop Ieronymos appear to have gotten off to a rocky start, possibly because you are, in the Church’s eyes, one of the key proponents of the complete separation of Church and state. Were ties really fraught? And if so, have they since improved?

You know, it’s also about where people get their information from. In terms of the secular state, when I agreed to take up this post, I accepted the role on the terms of the Constitution. Some people had possibly judged me by my position on specific cases at the Council of State. There too, you vote according to conscience and the Constitution. I think that’s very clear. Ever since I met and spoke with His Eminence, our relations have been excellent. We have a relationship of mutual appreciation and respect; he is a truly formidable personality. But the key to having an opinion about someone is having a personal relationship with that person rather than basing that opinion on other people and other elements. 

What has surprised you most about the three years you have been in office?

This opening to the people, the communication with the people, has been the most positive surprise; it has also been very moving. Meeting with people on the islands on our furthest borders and in Thrace. Meeting people from vulnerable groups. I have done quite a lot of work in this area in particular, because I believe that even though I cannot offer practical solutions as I am not an executive president, I can shed light on aspects of society that are in the dark and give a voice to people who haven’t got one. That is what I have tried to do.

Another thing that had a very profound impact on me was the trip to Ukraine; that is something I have held onto. On the negative side, there are things we have already mentioned. Criticism is welcome, but not when it is based on stereotypes or outright lies, or when it is basically an attack on my person. But I accept that, because anyone who holds public office is subjected to that, something to the extreme.

If someone a few years down the line were to ask what you brought to the presidency and what you did for the country, what would you want the answer to be?

I find the idea very moving and interesting. That on all the matters that I have been called upon to do my duty – be they national matters or matters of politics – I have been true to the dictates of my role, as outlined in the Constitution. But mainly that I made this opening to society, that I wanted to put a human face on an institution that is, by custom, somewhat faceless.

Are you thinking at all about a possible second term?

No, just as I hadn’t given any thought to the first one. I am very OK with myself. The only thing that concerns me is to stay true to what I have to do within my term. 

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