Leo Varadkar is 38-years-old, the son of immigrants, and openly gay—and Ireland seems on the verge of selecting him as the next prime minister by June 2.
Varadkar’s meteoric political rise began at just 22-years-old. Then, at 27, he was elected to parliament as a member of the left-wing Fine Gael party. If he is chosen as Taoiseach (prime minister), he would become the youngest head of state in Irish history.
Unlike the American presidential system, the election of a Taoiseach (which literally means “leader” in Irish) is not decided by a popular vote of the country. Instead, the Taoiseach is elected by a majority of parliament. The position of president in the Irish government is largely ceremonial.
The prominence of a gay politician in Ireland marks a stark departure from a country historically dominated by Catholicism. Ireland only decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, and divorce wasn’t even legal for another two years.
“I honestly don’t think in 1981 when I first got elected that I could foresee a time when an openly gay man might become Taoiseach,” former Fine Gael deputy leader Nora Owen said in an interview with Reuters.
“We have come a long way and the fact that someone like Leo Varadkar, who is an openly gay man, living with his partner, can actually put himself forward for Taoiseach and nobody is batting an eyelid is wonderful and I think it’s a great day for Ireland that we can do that.”
On the eve of a 2015 vote to legalize gay marriage, 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. It’s just part of who I am, it doesn’t define me, it is part of my character I suppose,” he told state broadcaster RTE.
The vote passed with 62.07 percent, making Ireland the first country to legalize gay marriage through a popular vote.
Despite his unorthodox background and identity, Varadkar’s brash and forward style appeals to conservative voters. Members of Fine Gael hope that by selecting Varadkar as president, they will broaden their support in time for a possible election next year.
With the slogan, “Taking Ireland Forward,” Varadkar promises to hold a referendum on abortion, reform tax laws for the self-employed, and repeal a controversial water charge.
At the same time, his fiscally conservative policies make him a middle-of-the-road candidate despite his radically novel identity. He also plans on clamping down on welfare fraud, investing in large infrastructure projects, and championing small businesses.
At the moment, Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel is the only other openly gay head of state. Varadkar is on track to double that number in just a few days.