“MILD political discourse, far away from populism, should guide us so that, through dialogue and understanding, we could take the most consensual decisions possible,” said President Anastasiades, during one of his public appearances this week.
A newspaper quoted this remark, lamenting the fact that this supposedly, noble idea existed only in words. In Cyprus, ‘consensus’ has always been a sacred cow that everyone strives to achieve, even when it is to the detriment of the country. Demetris Christofias pushed the state deeper into financial crisis and closer to bankruptcy because he insisted on taking measures by consensus which was never achieved as the public sector unions were opposed to any cuts.
The practice of consulting every interest group before a bill is finalised or a government decision taken often leads to unenforceable laws and ineffective measures. The issue of Sunday opening for shops is a perfect example of the folly of consensus. Some political parties, pressured by a couple of interest groups, decided to pass a law keeping shops closed on Sunday. When the matter was discussed at the legislature, other interest groups appeared that supported Sunday shopping and deputies were in a quandary over what to do because a consensus solution was impossible and postponed the discussion for this week.
The consensus logic is also taken to absurd extremes. When the education ministry announced reform plans for state education earlier this year the association of secondary school students demanded a meeting with the minister so its teenage members could give their views. The teenagers, who had previously met the minister to discuss the abolition of bus fares, felt they should have a say on educational reforms. In the name of consensus, the kids will be running the schools.
Unions were the biggest beneficiaries of this nebulous concept as, in the name of consensus, even their most unreasonable demands were satisfied. Some of the most outrageous privileges granted to public sector workers were supposedly the result of consensus, which in reality involved unions dictating terms and weak, populist politicians accepting them and telling taxpayers, whose consent was never sought, that consensus – a euphemism for giving in to blackmail – ensured industrial peace.
In the case of the president, consensus is the get-out clause from the tough job of providing leadership. Decision-making by committee, which Anastasiades has attempted unsuccessfully several times – for the economy, the foreclosures bill and of course the Cyprus problem – spares the president from taking personal responsibility for decisions that might be unpopular or prove mistaken. Consensus might allow the blame to be shared when things go wrong, but invariably produces bad, half-baked decisions because its primary consideration is to keep as many people and parties happy as is possible.
It is no surprise that Anastasiades has now remembered the need for consensus. Cyprus talks are set to resume next month and he will almost certainly call meetings of the National Council in order to take the “most consensual decisions possible”. Although this has been shown to be futile, except in the case of negative decisions such as pulling out of the talks or rejecting proposals, the president refuses to give up on the National Council.
It could be argued that he needs to keep the party leaders on side if he is committed to work for a settlement. But the reality is that there will never be consensus at the National Council because most of the leaders are openly opposed to a settlement and want the talks to fail. How could there be collective decision making and unity between two groups of people that have opposite objectives? Consensus on the Cyprus peace talks is a practical impossibility.
If Anastasiades is sincere in his stated desire to work for a solution he should put aside his nebulous ideas about consensual decisions and start showing qualities of leadership. A true leader has the moral courage to take personal responsibility and big risks in the pursuit of his objective and does not seek the approval or support of his political foes. And when he achieves his objective he has an obligation to persuade people to accept it. But he will never in a hundred years agree a settlement via consensual decisions, which could be what he really wants.