By Aaron Miles Coatsworth
In his article ‘Rotating presidency: unfair, unnecessary and undemocratic’, (Sunday Mail, January 31), Alper Ali Riza (a Queen’s Counsel and part time judge in the UK) made a pretend offer to readers of a bet at odds of a thousand to one (1000/1). He joked that he was willing to pay out on a bet wagered at these odds if Greek Cypriots vote ‘Yes’ in a future referendum which contained the institutional design of a rotating presidency. He said that anyone who believed this to even be a possibility was not living in the ‘real world’ and that it would not happen in a million years. In order, therefore, to make the most of my fairy tale existence and since every Cypriot loves a gamble, I am hereby wagering a €20 bet at these odds with a potential return of €20,000.
Contrary to the claim that the rotating presidency was not previously on the table, the clause was indeed included in the 2004 Annan Plan when 24.6 per cent of Greek Cypriots voted in its favour. Article 5, 2d of the Foundation Agreement read: ‘Unless the Presidential Council decides otherwise, it shall elect two of its members not hailing from the same constituent state to rotate every twenty months in the offices of President and Vice-President of the Council.’
Why, you may ask, do I have confidence in this unusual bet?
The design of the executive pillar of government in a united Cyprus has been an ever-present source of friction in the negotiations, particularly given the historical experience of the paralysis of the Republic of Cyprus’ government in the early 1960s. The possibility, therefore, of a Greek Cypriot compromise on a rotating presidency, which was not only detailed in the Annan Plan but also in the subsequent Christofias-Talat convergences, has fallen victim to the crusaders of democracy. These advocates argue that if the will of the majority is the result of a democratic process, no other mechanisms should be engineered into a government that will prevent the will of this majority.
While there is some merit to this point, one must not forget that a democratic process does not necessarily lead to a democratic government or society. Institutions that can result from the will of the majority can also lead to minorities being excluded from power and representation in government, and even discrimination. Such consequences, even if they result from a democratic process, are inherently and ironically undemocratic in nature. This is particularly so if one accepts the argument that the definition of democracy contains the presupposition that democracy allows for disagreement or contestation within society. In other words, there is an argument that, for a democracy to be democratic, it also has to be pragmatic.
In a society of clearly segmented groups and a history of mistrust, majoritarian rule can cause minorities to lose faith in a regime and push them towards rebellion – an act that threatens the stability of democracy itself. In the case of Cyprus, excluding Turkish Cypriots from running a government as a result of majoritarian rule could provide the grounds for a return to armed conflict and even result in the destruction of the state. The alternative to a power sharing democracy, in this case, is therefore likely to be no democracy at all. In the case of Cyprus, this only means the continuation of the status quo and/or the regeneration of conflict.
In fact, there is no need for the executive pillar to be the cause for such controversy and concern. This is because the executive pillar of a federal Cyprus can borrow from the successful Swiss federal model’s presidential council. In this arrangement, multiple members will be elected or appointed by parliament on a proportional basis to an executive body (as an example, four Greek Cypriots and two Turkish Cypriots) with a rotating president. Like the Swiss presidential council, decisions by the presidential council in a united federal Cyprus could first be made by attempting to reach a consensus between members. If this were to fail, decisions could then be made through a simple majority vote where each member would have a single vote.
In other words, the president would only be the first among equals. In order to ensure cross-community support, special provisions could be made such that for any decision to pass, it would also require at least one vote from each community. As a result, no single person would be able to impinge on the will of either community, as was the case in the 1960s.
The nature of this design would therefore require give and take within the executive, thus facilitating cooperation between elites of the two communities.
The creation of a common list, a likely mechanism for electing the presidential council, would require parliamentary candidates to create bridges with parties from both constituent states, thus ensuring that whoever is elected is also acceptable to both communities. This elite level of cooperation in government could trickle down to society, having the knock-on effect of facilitating good relations between the two communities.
The electoral system used for the election of parliament itself and/or the presidents directly could also contain an element of weighted cross voting in order to ensure further cross-community support. For example, Greek Cypriots could vote on Turkish Cypriot members of parliament and vice versa, but these votes would make up only 10 per cent (an arbitrarily chosen figure) of the electoral vote in each constituent state. This arrangement can dissuade hardliners from launching campaigns on ethnic platforms, thus rewarding moderate behaviour in government.
Membership of the EU would also see the federal state devolve some of its remaining powers (those that have not already been decentralised to the constituent states) to the European body, thus relieving the presidential council from a number of potential sources of friction in the decision making process.
Ali Riza is confident that an overwhelming majority of Greek Cypriots will reject a referendum on the notion of a rotating presidency alone. However, a poll conducted by the Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development, as part of the ‘Cyprus 2015’ initiative, demonstrates that only 28 per cent of Greek Cypriots now believe that a presidential council that makes decisions by voting majority is entirely unacceptable. Such a poll must also be viewed in the greater context of the Rubik’s cube that is the Cyprus problem. For example, in the exit polls of the 2004 referendum, 75 per cent of Greek Cypriots cited security concerns as the biggest reason for their ‘No’ vote. In other words, the majority of ‘No’ voters were most concerned by the issue of Turkish military guarantees and not the rotating presidency.
History has shown that Greek Cypriots do not often win in the high stake games of international politics. However, if Ali Riza had been serious about his bet, he could well have inadvertently shot himself in the foot by giving them a good reason to vote ‘Yes’ in a future referendum – with excellent betting odds and the best financial incentive this island has seen in a long while. Being half Greek Cypriot, half Turkish Cypriot, Ali Riza is a true Cypriot in every sense of the word, but he seems not to have inherited the gambling gene and if the bet were a real one he may – I think – have regretted having offered the services of a betting shop. We will have to wait for a referendum to find out.
Aaron Miles is a political analyst and freelance writer. He holds an MSc in conflict studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science where he wrote his thesis on the Cyprus conflict