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Electoral reform has given the Greek centre-right the courage to legalise gay marriage.

Greece is on the path to legalising gay marriage. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister and leader of the ruling centre-right New Democracy (ND) party, is championing a new draft bill to legalise same-sex marriage – writes Alex Petropoulos .

With help from the main opposition party, Syriza, Mitsotakis should have the numbers to pass the reform — but not without consequence. This move has already prompted strong opposition from within his party. Pushing forward will take tremendous courage from the Greek leader. His plan to enfranchise the Greek diaspora as a voting force may have made that courage possible.

Understanding the context for this bill is crucial. Many MPs in Mistotakis’ party are vehemently opposed to legalising gay marriage. Already, Antonis Samaras (former Greek prime minister) and several current ministers have ruled out voting in favour. The influential Greek Orthodox church, by far the strongest opponent, has framed the bill as “the first step in the dismantling of Greek society”.

For a political party which has always sold itself as an upholder of traditional, socially conservative values, ND’s promise to legalise gay marriage is a political challenge. Under most circumstances, it would probably hurt the ND voter base more than it would help it. With European Parliament elections this June, that could deliver an embarrassing loss. However, these reforms may turn from a woe to a win.

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Alongside the marriage equality bill, the government is also planning a set of electoral reforms aimed at making it easier for the Greek diaspora (Greeks living abroad) to vote in elections. The diaspora was allowed to vote for the first time in the May and June 2023 national elections and will be voting for their first European elections this June. However, the 2023 process was clunky and bureaucratic, with strict restrictions on eligibility. Only 25,000 people voted from overseas, out of a diaspora of five million.

The 2024 reforms plan to allow postal voting for the first time in the European elections. This would significantly lower the barrier for overseas Greeks to vote (as well as for those who struggle to get to polling stations, like people with mobility impairments).

Why does this matter to New Democracy? It helps to look at the demographics of the often economically conservative Greek diaspora to answer that. In short, expat Greeks are both richer and more socially liberal than the average Greek. Just look at the overseas vote from America (home to an estimated 3 million Greek-Americans). Despite the low turnout, an overwhelming (67%) of those who did vote in the US backed New Democracy.

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With this in mind, Mitsotakis is already planning visits to Australia and Greek-American communities in Chicago and New York to boost registrations for postal voting ahead of the European elections.

However, for most overseas voters, gay marriage is already a normal part of everyday life. As a result, they are more socially liberal than the existing ND voter base. They would be unlikely to support a government that walked back promises to legalise gay marriage. This is especially true now that Syriza (the main opposition party) has a new leader, Stefanos Kasselakis, the first openly gay leader of a Greek political party.

Since the last election, Kasselakis has moved Syriza away from its radical-left identity and towards the centre-left. Many overseas Greeks who had written off voting Syriza may now be inclined to support them. This has initiated a fight for the moderate centre ground that has pulled New Democracy left on social issues. Combined with the courting of the diaspora, this has opened the door for Mitsotakis to liberalise not just his party, but his country, too.

The draft bill isn’t perfect. Notably, it doesn’t go so far as to legalise surrogacy as a route to parenthood for gay couples. However, it does go a long way toward liberalising the country, not just opening the doors to gay marriage but also introducing full adoption rights for all couples and single parents. For Mitsotakis, not legalising surrogacy looks like the compromise necessary to ensure his social reforms pass.

It’s not every day that you see a centre-right government pushing for socially liberal reform. Mitsotakis should get credit where it’s due for his leadership here. Likewise, Syriza’s longstanding support for this issue put the necessary pressure on ND to make this move, so they should also share some of the credit (and don’t forget, without their votes, the bill will struggle to pass). But, overall, we shouldn’t understate how impactful electoral reform was in securing this change. The enfranchisement of the diaspora has opened the door for Mitsotakis to pull his party in a more socially liberal direction and the country along with it. Other countries should take note.

 Alex Petropoulos is a Greek-British political writer, policy commentator and fellow with Young Voices Europe. You can find him on Twitter here.

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