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Rotating presidency: unfair, unnecessary and undemocratic

A rotating presidency means an office without power

By Alper Ali Riza

Apparently a rotating presidency in a federal Cyprus is a red line for the Turkish Cypriot side in the seemingly endless negotiations to resolve the Cyprus problem. To negotiate means to discuss in a grown up way with the aim of agreeing a solution within a reasonable time. Would someone please tell whoever was responsible for putting a rotating presidency on the table as a red line to think again as he or she is making mischief?

It is a strange proposal that reminds me of my childhood when we used to play musical chairs, normally at birthday parties. We danced to music around a number of chairs that were one short of the number of children and rushed to sit on one when the music stopped, eliminating the child left standing at the end of each round. If memory serves, it used to end in tears as young children hate being eliminated or excluded.

As we all know politicians are like children! They are ruthless in the pursuit of power – the proverbial chair – and extremely reluctant to be unseated, even tearful when it happens. Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, was seen shedding a tear as she left Downing Street for the last time in 1991.

There is going to be a referendum on any settlement, and the Greek Cypriots will not vote for any settlement containing a rotating presidency provision in a million years. Anyone who thinks they would vote yes to a referendum on a settlement containing such a provision is not living in the real world. I am prepared to offer a side bet of 1000 to one on the Greek Cypriots voting affirmatively in a referendum that contains a rotating presidency proposal!

Last time, when no such proposal was on the table, 75 per cent of Greek Cypriots were unpersuaded.

Making a rotating presidency a red line in addition to the inevitable carve out of northern Cyprus as a Turkish Cypriot constituent state adds insult to injury. It is unnecessary, unfair and fundamentally undemocratic, and I am dead against it.

The only line on the table is the green line but only to be got rid of. It was drawn in 1963 when a British commander drew a green line around Turkish Nicosia – using one of those charming colonial government pencils – to help deploy his soldiers on peacekeeping duties, after a collective killing madness gripped the island like the plague. No sooner had the British left in 1960 when all hell broke loose. I am still not sure what possessed the Cypriots to start killing each other in 1963 – probably the madness of nationalism mingled with villager values – but they did, and we are still stuck there more than half a century later. Unless we get rid of the mindset of those dreadful times we shall still be marking time after another fifty years.

I suspect the idea of a rotating presidency comes from that sort of mindset that also produced the idea of the partnership state. A rotating presidency could not have been Rauf Denktash’s idea – although the partnership state may have been – for the simple reason that as a Turkish nationalist he did not want to be leader of the Greek Cypriots. ‘Why should I want to be leader of the Greek Cypriots?’ Rauf Bey once asked rhetorically, which in its way was fair enough at the time, alas no more!

Partnership is a business arrangement in private law, and principles from private law do not take root in public law. In public or constitutional law we have political equality not partnership equality. However you do not need a rotating presidency to have political equality. Indeed on close analysis the reverse is the case since such a president would have to be a figure-head president stripped of all political power. In other words, you cannot get political equality from an office emasculated of all real political power.

Political equality, as the Greek Cypriots discovered after they joined the EU, means that in some important areas Member States have equal voting power. For example, Cyprus and Germany have the same voting power in any decision to admit a new member of the EU. In our Federal Republic of Cyprus – inshallah – in some important areas of government the two constituent states will have equal political power which these days is regarded as good governance.

Electing a president on a common roll would be great fun and hugely significant after a solution. If, for example, Mustafa Akinci were to run for president on a common electoral roll, the political manoeuvring and alliances across the divide, and the promises, compromises, betrayals, secret conspiracies and stabs in the back and stabs in the front – with all the sound and fury of the rough old trade of democratic politics – would be paradise on earth for people and pundits alike. Instead of which Mr Akinci would seemingly be prepared for a Turkish Cypriot to rotate to power rather than be elected. I can’t fathom it!

Even if there is no Turkish Cypriot candidate any Greek Cypriot candidate for president would need to cultivate votes from Turkish Cypriots and build political alliances and make compromises and avoid stupid nationalist speeches of the sort Makarios and others made – and still make – that poison community relations.

Political equality in the election of head of state can be achieved by having an electoral college like they do in the USA. Political equality is a relative concept. Majoritarian domination is frowned upon these days as undemocratic, but that does not mean that rule by the minority is democratic. Indeed it is obviously undemocratic as the Bolsheviks proved in Soviet Russia. Reasonable people can work out an electoral college system with two aims: to make the election of president representative of the people in both constituents states and at the same time to make it politically feasible in the right political circumstances for a Turkish Cypriot to be elected to the top job.

In the US it is not the people as such who elect the president directly. Each state is given a number of delegates. If a presidential candidate wins a majority in a state, he or she gets all the delegates allocated to that state by the constitution. The delegates then vote the president to office. The model is a good one that can be adapted and adopted to suit local circumstances in Cyprus. All the negotiators have to be is reasonable about the percentage composition of each electoral college. And if that fails, then get computers on the case!


Alper Ali Riza is a Queen’s Counsel and part time judge in the UK

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