Ireland’s ruling party chose Leo Varadkar as its new leader, putting him on track to become the nation’s first openly gay prime minister. Social Protection Minister Varadkar, 38, defeated Housing Minister Simon Coveney, 44, to replace Enda Kenny, who is stepping aside after six years. Varadkar is poised to be elected prime minister when parliament next meets in the middle of this month.
The election of Varadkar marks a generational and social shift. Ireland, which voted to recognize same-sex marriage in 2015, was among the last European Union members to decriminalize homosexual activity.With Kenny and Finance Minister Michael Noonan set to depart, a new cadre of younger figures is set to move center stage in one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies.”The country needs change,” said Michael O’Leary, chief executive officer of Ryanair Holdings, Europe’s biggest discount carrier, which is based in Dublin. “Leo represents a slightly more risky candidate, more of a change.”
The party’s lawmakers had the biggest say in choosing Kenny’s successor, controlling 65 percent of the total vote, and many have already declared for Varadkar. Party members accounted for 25 percent of the vote, with local representatives the rest.Varadkar lined up a number of senior colleagues to support him for leader within hours of Kenny laying out his plans to step down after 15 years in charge of the party. That led one of Varadkar’s opponents to label his backers as “choreographed choirboys singing for their support.” O’Leary said the strength of Varadkar’s campaign underlines his ability.Varadkar “had the campaign sown up out of the blocks,” said O’Leary.A physician and the son of an Indian immigrant, Varadkar has long had his eyes set on high office. He told his mother he wanted to be health minister when he was 7, Varadkar said in an interview with broadcaster RTE in 2015.”She was mortified, needless to say,” he said.His rise hasn’t been totally smooth. In his Twitter bio, Varadkar says he “has been known to talk too much,” and his campaign this time has drawn his critics. During the campaign, Varadkar has said he wants to lead a party for “people who get up early in the morning,” which his internal opponents suggested signaled a tilt to the right.Coveney, his opponent, said that approach risks splitting the nation of about 4.6 million people.”I’m trying to unite people not divide them, and that kind of language is about separating the public sector from the private sector, separating the achievers from the non-achievers,” he said.