How to be a liberal in a conservative country

Supporters of the same-sex marriage bill, react during a rally at central Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece

Supporters of the same-sex marriage bill, react during a rally at central Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece.

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Michael Varaklas

Greece currently lacks a liberal party due to the low demand for liberal policies. In contrast, there is a high demand for ultra-right-wing policies, resulting in the presence of half a dozen ultra-right parties, three of which are represented in Parliament. The absence of a liberal party can be partly attributed to the overrepresentation of liberals in the cabinet of the conservative Government. The ideas of liberal members of the Government sometimes do not align with their electoral base or parliamentary group. This divide within the “New Democracy” party led to the events of last week. The government introduced a law recognizing LGBTQ+ rights, which was supported by the Left. One-third of the MPs from the “New Democracy” party did not support the law, and almost twenty MPs from the Left abstained, fearing their socially conservative constituencies.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Celebrations and Achievements

Last week, Greece passed legislation recognizing same-sex unions and extending parental rights to LGBTQ+ people, marking a historic moment for LGBTQ+ rights in the country, as well as in Southeastern Europe. This progress represents a crucial step toward inclusivity and equality in a country where conservative values and orthodox Christianity have traditionally influenced public policy and social norms.

The legalization of same-sex unions in Greece was driven by changing societal attitudes, advocacy by LGBTQ+ groups and individuals, and a recognition of the need to align with European human rights standards. For decades, LGBTQ+ activists in Greece have fought for recognition and equality under the law, often in the face of strong societal and institutional resistance. However, the increasing visibility of LGBTQ+ issues in public discourse and the efforts of civil society organizations have gradually shifted public opinion towards supporting LGBTQ+ rights – most notably the right to marry. However, the right to adopt is opposed by most Greeks, but accepted by younger generations, especially women.

The passage of this law brings Greece in line with other European countries that have recognized same-sex unions and parental rights. It also sends a powerful message to the global community that Greece is moving toward greater inclusivity and respect for diversity.

same-sex marriage bill
© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Michael Varaklas

The legal recognition of same-sex unions and parental rights in Greece is not only about marriage equality, but also about recognizing the diverse forms of family structures that exist in society. The Greek government has extended legal protections to same-sex couples and their children, recognizing the importance of providing all families with the security and dignity they deserve. This legislative change was informed by a wealth of evidence showing the positive impact of legal recognition on the well-being of LGBTQ+ people and their families. Studies and personal testimonies have shown that legal recognition of LGBTQ+ families can have a positive impact on mental health, economic and social stability, and the protection of children’s rights.

Greece’s progress towards LGBTQ+ equality exemplifies the importance of liberal values in promoting social progress. It illustrates that upholding individual freedoms, ensuring equality before the law, and protecting human dignity are fundamental principles that can guide societies toward greater inclusivity and appreciation of diversity. The lessons learned underscore the need for an unwavering commitment to these values to ensure that all citizens can live openly and authentically, free from discrimination and prejudice. These have all been core liberal values since the 18th century.

It is no coincidence that the new law was introduced by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the liberal prime minister and leader of the mostly conservative “New Democracy” party. The bill was approved by nearly 60% of the members of the Greek Parliament. However, this liberal victory in Greece was not as easy as it sounds.

Controversies and Contradictions

I spent last Thursday on a balcony inside the Greek Parliament, listening to MPs argue for and against the bill. The government initiative was supported by the leadership of the four smaller left-wing parties (ranging from the social-democratic Pasok to the radical-leftist Syriza). Supposedly, this kind of support would have led to an impressive majority for the bill of 243 out of 300 MPs. But only 175 MPs voted for the new law. What happened to the rest? Some abstained, others voted against the law.

The 68 Greek MPs who did not vote for the law, against the support of their parties, were conservatives, socialists, even radical leftists. They are essentially aligned with the fiercest opponents of marriage equality and gay parenting: the Greek far right and the Communist Party of Greece. This was quite interesting and indicative of a new political landscape in Greece and Europe.

There were many MPs who were simply afraid of alienating their conservative constituencies. They came from provinces where people are socially conservative and under the spell of the Greek Orthodox Church. Although the Greek archbishop and some bishops reacted moderately and rather uncomfortably, the reaction of the clergy in some areas was medieval. One of them, the Bishop of Piraeus, warned the deputies who would vote for the new law never to return to the Church. Many other bishops and clergy expressed similar sentiments of Christian love towards anyone who supported the law, but also towards LGBTQ+ people. As the Bishop of Piraeus put it vulgarly: “You cannot be a member of the Church if you are gay.”

Most of the MPs who opposed the law did not participate in the parliamentary debate or vote. The Prime Minister himself proposed this alternative. Four cabinet members were among the absentees. The leftist MPs who abstained, were mostly against gay parenting and made unfounded claims about women “becoming reproduction machines” through surrogacy, which has been legal in Greece for two decades. Both conservative and leftist MPs referred to women as incapable children in their arguments, suggesting the need for legal paternalism. The concepts of personal autonomy, self-ownership, and self-determination, as well as the right to control one’s own body, seem alien to them.

However, a number of conservative MPs did not abstain. They actively participated in the debate and voted against the law. Their leader was the former Prime Minister (2012-2015) Antonis Samaras. Samaras’ speech was expected mainly because of his defiance against his successor, the current Prime Minister. But the most interesting highlight of his speech were his arguments against the new law. Samaras, in essence, reacted to the transformation of the conservative party, New Democracy, into a more liberal party. He even used softer versions of arguments straight out of the American and European far-right toolbox, i.e. arguments based on intolerance, pseudoscience, homophobia, and sexism. He attempted to deflect accusations that he is aligned with the far right by arguing that he single-handedly put the leadership of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in jail – thus offering a salvo to the neo-Nazis’ claims that their trial was political and sending shivers down the spine of anyone who cares about the state of the rule of law in Greece.

But the problem with Samaras is not that he is an anti-European ultra-right-winger – he is not. The problem with him is that he is very conservative, in some ways reactionary, a nationalist (but not anti-European) who is trying to pull the party in his own direction. That would be disastrous for the conservatives, but also for the Greek political system, which is already tilted to the Right.

It was quite surreal to hear deputies of the same party speaking in two completely different languages. Some MPs (mostly younger men and women) expressed liberal and progressive views, while others echoed views and attitudes from the early 1950s. It was more than obvious: New Democracy houses two different parties: the conservatives and the liberals. Most of the conservatives in the party have antiquated ideas, they are not even in harmony with their conservative counterparts in Western Europe, such as Germany’s Christian Democrats. Some of their arguments were identical to those of the extreme right. They are anti-immigrant, zealously religious, traditionalists, suspicious of any liberal reform, with a strong anti-market bias. They represent the majority of conservative voters whose preferences are underrepresented in the cabinet. Mitsotakis and his liberal allies are tolerated by New Democracy’s conservative base because they have been so politically successful. Mitsotakis’ three consecutive electoral victories in 2023 were massive, the left-wing opposition was crushed, he is now politically dominant, he has only a fragmented left to oppose him and an equally fragmented far right.

He is powerful enough to purge the ultra-conservative wing of his party. Would that be a wise move? I am not sure. I am a liberal myself and I detest some of the conservative ideas and policies. However, I must admit that I am ambivalent.

By including conservative voices, New Democracy could better represent the wide range of views within its membership and electorate. This inclusiveness increases the party’s appeal to voters who identify with conservative values. It can lead to more balanced and well-rounded policy proposals that address the concerns of a wider range of citizens. Including both liberal and conservative voices promotes unity within the party by demonstrating an openness to differing opinions. Conservatives often advocate the preservation of traditional values and institutions, which can resonate with certain segments of the population. Including these voices allows the party to address these concerns, thereby increasing the party’s chances of electoral success by broadening its appeal across the political spectrum. It also demonstrates a commitment to respecting diversity of thought within the party. This sends the message that differing opinions are valued and welcomed, and that New Democracy is a big tent party.

Furthermore, as much as I hate to admit it, it is obvious that the inclusion of conservative perspectives can temper potentially extreme or ideologically driven policies and promote a more pragmatic approach to governance. By including conservative voices within the party, it can serve as a bulwark against the rise of extremist ideologies. Providing a mainstream outlet for conservative viewpoints can help prevent the radicalization of disaffected voters who might otherwise be drawn to more extreme political movements.

On the other hand, centrist voters may be disillusioned by these conservative voices if they are strong enough. Embracing conservative voices may alienate the party’s more liberal base, leading to lower enthusiasm, support, and turnout. It may compromise the core liberal principles that Mitsotakis is trying to instill in a piecemeal fashion. This could lead to a loss of ideological coherence and identity, alienating liberal-leaning members and voters. The way some conservatives have reacted to this law, but also to other issues, could lead to more internal disagreements and gridlock within the party. This could hinder the party’s ability to effectively advance its agenda and respond to pressing issues, and ultimately undermine its electoral appeal, especially if it blurs its distinctiveness and becomes indistinguishable from the ultra-right parties.

While Mitsotakis has successfully reached out to center-left voters and now dominates the political center, tolerating conservative voices could undermine efforts to build coalitions with other progressive or center-left parties. This could weaken the party’s ability to form alliances and work toward common goals, reducing its overall political influence and effectiveness. It could even be argued that embracing conservative voices in order to prevent the radicalization of conservative voters could inadvertently embolden or mainstream extremist elements within the party. This could damage the party’s reputation, alienate moderate voters, and undermine its credibility. Conservative perspectives may be less conducive to addressing emerging challenges such as new societal norms, the migration crisis, climate change, technological disruption, and globalization. Integrating these voices could hinder the party’s ability to adapt and respond effectively to evolving circumstances, limiting its long-term viability and relevance.

Challenges and Opportunities

But let’s get back to the big win the liberals had last week, despite opposition from many conservatives in the party.

As Greece celebrates this historic milestone, it should also prepare for the challenges ahead in fully implementing these laws and ensuring that they translate into meaningful change for LGBTQ+ individuals and families. The legal recognition of same-sex unions and parental rights in Greece is only the first step towards achieving full equality and social acceptance for LGBTQ+ people. The road ahead requires a multifaceted approach to eradicate prejudice and discrimination that persists in various sectors of society. This approach should include educational initiatives aimed at informing the public about LGBTQ+ issues and promoting understanding and empathy towards the community. In addition, public awareness campaigns are essential to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions and to emphasize the common humanity and dignity of all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Thus, the question remains: how far can a liberal government go in achieving these goals with such conservative makeweights?

Greece’s recent legislative advances offer hope and a framework for further progress in the recognition and protection of LGBTQ+ rights in the Balkans and Southeastern Europe. It offers an opportunity for Greece to move more steadfastly along the path of liberal reform and to realize the vision of its founders: to become not only an integral part of Western Europe, but an institutional model for other Europeans to follow. However, this ambition can only be achieved as a part of broader liberal project.

Aristides N. Hatzis is a Professor of Philosophy of Law and Theory of Institutions and Director of the Laboratory of Political and Institutional Theory and the History of Ideas at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Contact: ahatzis@uoa.gr