Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

The office of president is bigger than any president

Abraham Lincoln’s government for the people is preferable to Erdogan’s government for ‘my’ people

By Alper Ali Riza

Election Day is a good time to ponder the nature of the office of president and the constitution under which he functions. As it is now all over bar the voting, it is not fair or proper to say any more about the relative merits of the candidates.

The people have heard all the arguments; indeed they have already spoken and rejected the also-rans and consigned them to the dustbin of history. Last week, the people roundly rejected the ‘fruitcakes, loonies and racists’ among them who had the effrontery to put themselves up for election – to the office of head of state if you please!

The office of president is bigger than any office-holder and often moulds the man or woman elected to it. The president is the head of state and head of government, and as such he is president of all Cypriots and takes precedence over other persons in the republic. He has enormous power and influence on the direction of government policy, the appointment of ministers, members of the judiciary and other senior officers of the republic, not to mention the duty to unite the people. In his capacity as head of state he represents the republic internationally and authorises treaties and other international agreements.

The duties combine dignity with power, which is why, like Caesar’s wife, whoever is elected must be above suspicion. The legal requirement under the constitution is that a person cannot be a candidate if he has been convicted of an offence involving dishonesty or moral turpitude. Politically, however, candidates must be above suspicion.

The political requirement for leaders to be above suspicion comes from Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar. The great man had divorced his wife because of rumours she had been involved in an adulterous liaison with a man called Clodius. When called upon to testify in Clodius’ trial and asked why he had divorced his wife, Caesar claimed he knew nothing of her alleged liaison with Clodius. The prosecutor found his testimony implausible and pressed him further: ‘Why then divorce her?’ he asked. ‘Because I thought my wife ought not even to be under suspicion,’ Caesar retorted. In other words leadership cannot be seen to be sullied with the suspicion of moral turpitude even indirectly.

The nature and origin of presidential democracy comes from the United States after independence from Britain. Basically the founding fathers set up an elected head of state in place of a king and a head of government in place of a prime minister, all rolled into one with checks and balances between Congress, the Supreme Court and the president. Abraham Lincoln coined the phrase government ‘of the people by the people for the people’ in his famous Gettysburg address. It is how presidential democracy is supposed to work.

Government of the people means the people decide democratically who to elect as president in accordance with the principle that all men and women are created equal. Government by the people means chosen democratically from the population at large taking part in the political process and organised by them. Such a procedure replaced government chosen undemocratically from a privileged elite or by force or revolution or under the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

It is the requirement that government must be conducted ‘for the people’, however, that is crucial in modern presidential elections. Candidates are judged according to whether they will govern in the interests of the people. That is easier said than done because the people are not a homogeneous group with common interests. But the general idea is that people expect good, honest government in accordance with the political affiliations of the winner.

Under most presidential systems in Europe, except Turkey’s, whoever wins becomes president of all the people whether they voted for him or not. This is the reason why they cease to be the leader of their party on taking office. Turkish President Recep Tayep Erdogan changed the constitution to enable the president to remain party leader, but he is not a good example to follow. It is a no-brainer that Abraham Lincoln’s government for the people is preferable to Erdogan’s government for ‘my’ people.

The presidential system in Cyprus has its own peculiarities. Under the constitution of the Republic of Cyprus the Greek Cypriot community elects the president and the Turkish Cypriot community elects the vice-president. The office of the vice-president has fallen into disuse, however, owing to the political problem.

An exclusively Greek Cypriot administration invoked the principle of necessity to suspend all the parts of the constitution that require Turkish Cypriot participation. The principle of necessity holds that if the well-being of the people makes it necessary you can suspend even entrenched provisions of the constitution. Opinions differ about how sound this is in law, especially if the implementation of the constitution is guaranteed by international treaties. But all this is academic, save that it is a bit rich for the Greek Cypriot side to demand zero implementation of guarantees when they have not even tried to implement the basic provisions of the 1960 constitution requiring Turkish Cypriot participation since 1963, preferring to hide behind the nebulous principle of necessity.

Historically the Turkish Cypriot political leadership has been ambivalent about Cyprus’ constitution. Sometimes they treat as still relevant, but for the most part they have given up on it for pastures new.

The important constitutional point, however, is that even under the constitution, unaltered by necessity, a president elected by the Greek Cypriot community is president of the whole population. In effect Turkish Cypriots are no different from Greek Cypriots who did not vote for a particular president.

Which brings me to the special qualities a president of Cyprus needs to become what the Americans call ‘our president’. I recently heard a well-known American academic who had been very critical of President Donald Trump say that, despite all the criticisms and despite the fact that he would not have voted for Trump in a million years, as the president he is entitled to a fair wind because he is ‘our president’.

There has never been a president of Cyprus who possessed the unique ability to be ‘our president’ to Turkish Cypriots in the same way that presidents have been able to be ‘our president’ to Greek Cypriots who did not vote them in. I think President Makarios was the only leader clever enough to realise the crucial importance of being an inclusive president, but he came to this realisation far too late to do anything about it.

There is, however, a window of opportunity to seize the moment now on account of the clear divergence of attitude between the Turkish government under President Erdogan and the attitude of most Turkish Cypriots about the way they would like to live their lives.

It is hugely important for whoever is elected Cypriot president to stop obsessing about zero guarantees and zero troops – zero implementation and zero security as I prefer to call the two impostors – and get on with acting as president of the Turkish Cypriots too. Not in place of their own leader but as the overarching head of state –  a state to which they belong and of which they are citizens. The arrangements concerning implementation and security are procedural not substantive requirements of any agreement. Both sides have legitimate concerns but how these are resolved will depend on the nature of any agreed solution.

I have little doubt that if instead of trying to isolate and strangulate the Turkish Cypriot community economically, the president acted out his role as president of all Cypriots and adopted a more imaginative approach than that of embargo, the Turkish Cypriots would be amenable to reducing their reliance on Turkey, a country they no longer recognise, and her complete withdrawal from Cyprus in short order.

Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part time judge

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