THE government has tabled a bill that would limit a president to two successive terms and a member of the House to three. The bill that would amend the constitution and had first been tabled five years ago was presented to the House legal affairs committee on Wednesday by the Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou.
Nicolaou said the bill would make a president ineligible to submit a candidacy in the year that they had completed the two terms; the same applied for a deputy after three terms. Perhaps this arrangement was decided on because it would have been unconstitutional to bar someone outright from standing on completion of a set number of terms.
Under the current amendment, a president could seek a third term if they take a five-year break, which is as good as having a two-term limit. It is very difficult to imagine for instance that President Anastasiades would sit out the 2023 presidential elections but stand in those held five years later when he would be in his eighties.
Advancing years did not stop Glafcos Clerides from seeking a third term at 83, but the truth is that after 10 years of the same president the voters want a change. Spyros Kyprianou came third in the voting when he sought a third term while Clerides lost from the first round in 2003. Only Makarios served for 17 uninterrupted years, but his rule was a quasi-dictatorship during which there were presidential elections only twice.
Ionas explained that the purpose of the bill was to address issues relating to political accountability and the potential for abuse of power by keeping someone in the same post for too long. While these are all legitimate points, the bill fails to address the most important political issue – the excessive powers enjoyed by the president. These create conditions for abuse of power regardless of how long the president has been in office.
Since the demise of the constitution in 1963 and the departure of the Turkish Cypriot vice president, the president of the Republic enjoys unprecedented powers without the checks and balances that would have been exercised by the former. This has been an anomaly in the presidential system for the last 55 years, but nobody has taken up the issue because presidents do not want to surrender the sweeping powers they enjoy. The justification is that we were adhering to the 1960 constitution, but it does not wash.
Restricting the unchecked powers of the president would have been a better way to limit the capacity for abuse of power, but for now we will have to be satisfied with Nicolaou’s gentle reform proposal.