Leo Varad­kar set to lead Ire­land

The son of an In­dian im­mi­grant is ex­pected to be­come its next prime min­is­ter.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Melissa Ete­had melissa.ete­had@la­times.com

Leo Varad­kar, a doc­tor and Ire­land’s min­is­ter over­see­ing the coun­try’s so­cial wel­fare sys­tem, Fri­day be­came the new leader of the rul­ing Fine Gael party, bring­ing him one step closer to be­com­ing the next prime min­is­ter.

Varad­kar, who would be the coun­try’s first prime min­is­ter who has come out as gay and the first of South Asian de­scent, was se­lected by party law­mak­ers and other politi­cians to re­place out­go­ing Prime Min­is­ter Enda Kenny. He was the fa­vored can­di­date over Si­mon Coveney, Ire­land’s min­is­ter for hous­ing, plan­ning, com­mu­nity and lo­cal gov­ern­ment.

“I want to thank every­one who en­gaged in this ex­tra­or­di­nary, open demo­cratic process,” Varad­kar, who was born in Dublin and is the coun­try’s min­is­ter for so­cial pro­tec­tion, said in his ac­cep­tance speech. “For me, it’s just the start of a more demo­cratic and more en­gaged Fine Gael and we will be stronger for it.”

Varad­kar, 38, and Coveney, 44, were vy­ing to re­place Kenny, who an­nounced in May that he would step down as head of the Fine Gael party and as the coun­try’s leader once a suc­ces­sor was cho­sen. Kenny faced mount­ing pres­sure from within his party over the han­dling of a scan­dal in the Ir­ish po­lice force.

As party leader, Varad­kar is ex­pected to be­come the new prime min­is­ter — also known as the taoiseach — when Par­lia­ment votes on the mat­ter this month.

Coveney de­liv­ered a con­ces­sion speech shortly af­ter Varad­kar was an­nounced as the win­ner.

“I’m so proud of every­one in Fine Gael in the way in which we have con­ducted a com­pet­i­tive and at times sparky con­test,” Coveney said. “But I think it had dig­nity and re­spect in it, in terms of the dif­fer­ences of opin­ion that were ex­pressed over the last two weeks.”

Kenny is­sued a state­ment of­fer­ing Varad­kar his hearti­est con­grat­u­la­tions.

“This is a tremen­dous honor for him and I know he will de­vote his life to im­prov­ing the lives of peo­ple across the coun­try,” Kenny said. “He will have my full sup­port in the work that lies ahead.”

Varad­kar, the son of an Ir­ish mother and an In­dian im­mi­grant fa­ther, and Coveney, a mem­ber of a prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal fam­ily, rose through the ranks in Fine Gael, a cen­ter-right Chris­tian demo­cratic party that leads a mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment with ri­val po­lit­i­cal party Fianna Fail.

Varad­kar leans more con­ser­va­tive on so­cial and eco­nomic is­sues, while Coveney tends to edge to­ward the left of his party, some an­a­lysts said.

An­a­lysts said Varad­kar’s me­dia-savvy charisma, grass-roots cam­paign strat­egy and abil­ity to ap­peal to both ur­ban and ru­ral vot­ers placed him in the best po­si­tion to be­come the coun­try’s next leader.

He has promised to strengthen the econ­omy through in­come tax re­form and to pur­sue tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ments to help peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas.

“He is a ter­rific me­dia per­former and has a rep­u­ta­tion as a straight talker,” said Gra­ham Fin­lay, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin. “He has a com­mand­ing lead among par­lia­men­tary mem­bers and among coun­selor and elec­torate vot­ers be­cause he ap­peals to ur­ban con­stituen­cies.”

In 2015, shortly be­fore Ire­land be­came the first coun­try to le­gal­ize same-sex mar­riage in a pop­u­lar vote, Varad­kar came out as gay on Ir­ish na­tional ra­dio.

“It’s not some­thing that de­fines me. I’m not a half-In­dian politi­cian, or a doc­tor politi­cian or a gay politi­cian for that mat­ter,” Varad­kar told RTE 1 then. “It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t de­fine me. It is part of my char­ac­ter, I sup­pose.”

Many ob­servers see Varad­kar’s rise in pol­i­tics as a mile­stone that high­lights chang­ing at­ti­tudes in Ire­land’s once-re­li­giously con­ser­va­tive pop­u­la­tion of 4.6 mil­lion peo­ple.

LGBTQ ad­vo­cates were among those who cel­e­brated Varad­kar’s win, call­ing it a piv­otal mo­ment.

“To­day is a his­toric one for the LGBTQ com­mu­nity in Ire­land,” said Be­long to Youth Ser­vices, a non­profit for LGBTQ youth in Ire­land, on its Face­book page. “We wel­come Ire­land’s first gay pre­sump­tive taoiseach ... here’s to the next gen­er­a­tion!”

Ire­land de­crim­i­nal­ized ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in 1993 and over­turned its ban on di­vorce two years later.

The de­cline of the Catholic Church’s in­flu­ence in Ir­ish so­ci­ety over the last 20 years, fol­low­ing rev­e­la­tions that some priests were sex­u­ally abus­ing chil­dren, was a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor that has contributed to Varad­kar’s rise in pol­i­tics, said Henry Far­rell, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Washington Univer­sity in Washington.

“Young peo­ple are be­com­ing less reli­gious and more sec­u­lar and the Catholic Church’s moral author­ity has di­min­ished,” Far­rell said.

Ai­dan Somerville, of Dublin, said via Twit­ter that Varad­kar’s suc­cess was his­toric.

“I think he has an op­por­tu­nity to make real change as he is quite well-liked,” Somerville, 43, said in an in­ter­view. “How­ever, he needs to not be cocky, and put real ac­tion into place in terms of health and bat­tling home­less­ness.”

Brian Law­less As­so­ci­ated Press

LEO VARAD­KAR, 38, leader of the rul­ing Fine Gael Party, ran a me­dia-savvy, grass-roots cam­paign that ap­pealed to both ur­ban and ru­ral vot­ers in Ire­land.

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