Cyprus Mail
CM Regular Columnist Opinion

How a solution would ripen democracy

Ballots being counted in a Swiss referendum

By Antonis Antoniou

The constitutional arrangement and political establishment in Cyprus are in need of urgent change and modernisation. The executive and legislature system needs significant changes and revisions to meet the aspirations of all its citizen. Solving the Cyprus problem and at the same time renewing Cyprus’ system of governance and citizen representation and participation is in itself a very important aspirational goal.  Never again would there be such a chance to radically change an inadequate system of governance in one go. The important challenge for a United Cyprus is not to replicate the existing system, but to renew and introduce a more direct citizen representation and democracy.

Many Cypriots of all ethnicities, irrespective of background, have excelled in their respective careers in environments with equal access and opportunities. Is it not sad that Greek and Turkish Cypriots work together in harmony and collaboratively outside Cyprus without conflict, supporting the same football teams and political parties, while in Cyprus they face conflicts and disagreements? Thus, the political environment and governance system is vital to how people live and behave. Hence, the window of opportunity that may be still open to the leaders of the two main communities is unique and historic for all its people.

The ‘perceived’ need to solve the Cyprus problem has dominated and pushed down the priority list all other matters affecting citizens. While on face value the political parties in Cyprus cover the entire spectrum of political thinking, in practice the demarcation lines are very different.  The experience of the last 43 years has shown that Cypriot political parties are mainly separated by their views on the national issue, not their political philosophy.

Even the two so called extreme parties, Akel and Disy, have not put into practice measures that correspond to their ‘theoretical’ aspirations. Neither party tried to implement a system of free markets or total government control and planning, low or high taxation, fully private or fully publicly provided health and education, pro or anti-business legislation, pro or anti unions legislation, liberalised or protected markets for labour, goods or services.

The remaining so-called parties of the ‘middle’ ground, whatever their political aspirations, are really nationalists in focus. It is interesting that the so-called extreme parties have similar, although not identical, views about the Cyprus problem.  In Cyprus the real political divisions centre on the Cyprus problem and range from the ultra-nationalists supporting a unitary/centralist state solution and the more moderates supporting a federal solution.

This may also explain why political voting preferences among the Greek Cypriots has remained mostly stationary.  Normally, in other countries, the middle ground and floating voters determine most election outcomes.  In Cyprus, voting preferences have been almost fixed with very little movement between the parties.

Although more recently there seems to be some movement, I think that this reflects the unsuccessful attempts to solve the Cyprus problem, and thus the movement is mainly from those supporting the federal solution to those supporting the unitary/centralist state solution. It is not because of deeper political beliefs about the degree of control of the market system or the size and role of the government.

The democratic system of politics since independence has not evolved much and can be described as in a state of ‘arrested’ democracy.  With a solution those issues will no longer apply, and with a new governance system and citizen representation, the opportunity will exist for democracy to grow and mature.

While there are good and strong arguments for and against unitary or centralist state versus federal state solutions, the composition of the population in Cyprus with the Greek majority and Turkish minority, suggest that the federal solution has many advantages. One very important and yet not so easy to assess advantage is that it allows laws and administrative processes to match the needs and aspirations of different people.  In addition, within a federal structure decisions are transferred to the local levels and this reduces conflict, improves democratic representation and acceptance of ‘difficult’ decisions. Finally, this will also be more cost effective as it will deliver what is needed by the different constituent parts.

The present system of governance may be referred to as a “representative” democracy where a president (executive) is elected on a five-year term and takes all the decisions, even on matters as important as the Cyprus problem, while the rest of the population sits quietly until the next elections and either nods in agreement or is frustrated with disagreements. Such a system has been referred to as a “part-time” democracy. In this regard, the leaders of the two main communities should aspire to create innovative governance structures.

Within this general framework and with goodwill and adequate preparation, which includes scenario planning, constitutional experts and informed advisors, a United Cyprus could and should become not only a peaceful place in which to live and work, but a model of representative democracy for the 21st century.

The leaders of the two communities should seriously consider a more direct form of democracy, in which the electorate on an on-going basis can challenge or ultimately reverse the decisions made by their political representatives, or even suggest policies that their representatives never considered.  The mechanism through which such a system of direct representation is practised is the referendum, where all the eligible voters vote.

These referendums should not be organised by governments, where governments choose the issue and question such as the famous referendum organised by Pinochet in Chile in 1978 where the question asked was “In the face of international aggression … I support President Pinochet in his defence of the dignity of Chile”. Democracy is strengthened where referendums happen whether governments want them or not. Like in the Swiss system, a petition by an agreed number of voters can initiate a referendum that could introduce a new law or change or cancel existing law or challenge a government decision.

To help the citizens to understand the arguments for and against the issue being voted on, independent think-tanks will put forward assessments of the issues being considered.  Politicians will have the right to make a case for or against the referendum and the outcome will not alter their position or status.  If they lose, then they will simply have to implement what was directly voted by the people.  Such a direct system of representation is much more important than whether the executive or legislature is voted by the first-past-the-post system or proportional representation or any other system.

With the present IT systems and technology, frequent electronic voting should not be very expensive or chaotic. In this system, as people know that they are ultimately the final deciders, they are more likely to accept laws proposed by the executive and voted by the parliament(s). This system offers a partnership between the two federal states and their political representatives including the executive. It will also expand citizen choice and would allow separation of economic and political decisions and thus improve citizen well-being.  It will improve security and advance the governance ‘system’ and the outcomes of the ‘system’. This is the quickest and most efficient way of finding out precisely what the people want.

Politics are changing across most developed democracies with political parties losing their old power. Voter apathy is also on the increase and voters across developed democracies are becoming disenchanted with the ‘establishment’.

Recent elections in the USA, UK and France including the Brexit referendum in the UK have shown that voters are driven more by specific issues rather than ideologies or political lines. I would expect that the 21st century will see further movements towards more direct systems of voter representation across the world.

Finally, within this more direct democracy system, the role of the president and the executive is less important and thus the concept of rotating presidency becomes much easier to accept by all sides. People will be able to govern themselves irrespective of who is the president or vice-president at any one time. Viewed in this light, the Crans-Montana disagreements can easily be bridged and thus a lasting solution for Cyprus and all its people achieved.


Antonis Antoniou is a writer, educator and researcher and has both academic and consulting experience.  He worked as a Professor of Economics and Head of Department of Economics & Finance at both Brunel and Durham Universities and as Dean of Durham Business School, Durham University.  He has published many academic papers and more recently has worked as an economic/financial consultant.


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