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Our View: We all want different things. How would participatory democracy work?

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In this day and age politics is all about packaging and presentation. It is no longer about ideas and convictions which are the subject of public debate. Few politicians seem to believe in anything other than getting elected and to achieve this they will tell voters whatever they want to hear. This is the current trend in most democratic countries.

One of the candidates standing in 2023 presidential elections, former foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides has understood this tendency better than any of his rivals, and has made a virtue out of his lack of ideas and convictions, exemplified by his unbreakable resolve not to engage in any form of political debate. When he announced his candidacy, he made it clear that he would not respond to criticism or attack his rivals, while in August he pulled out of television debates with other candidates, scheduled for this month.

A few days ago, his campaign put out a seven-minute promotional film in which he and his colleagues explained how he had toured the island, meeting countless people in order “to hear their concerns, to hear their worries to hear their expectations.” He described this as an “unprecedented exercise in participatory democracy”, which gave him the opportunity to get in touch with the “expectations of society” and “the ‘I wants’ of society” from the government of the country.

Christodoulides’ campaign team, we were informed, set up “mechanisms” through which everyone could submit proposals, views and thoughts, which were subsequently processed and evaluated before being categorised and passed on to working groups that prepared the election proposals, based on four basic principles. Concluding the film, in which several members of his campaign team spoke, Christodoulides said that if he were elected one of the first acts of the council of minister would be to “institutionalise this dialogue, the continuous dialogue between society and the executive so we could respond effectively to the expectations of the Cypriot people.”

Nobody could fault the packaging and presentation, but is there any substance to this gimmick of government by public demand? Is Cypriot society a homogeneous whole, in which everyone wants the same thing? Do we all have the same concerns and expectations so that a candidate can claim with a modicum of credibility that he will respond effectively to our expectations? There are people who passionately want a settlement of the Cyprus problem and there are others who are opposed to any compromise with the Turkish side – how will the candidate respond to the expectations of both groups, which quite clearly want completely different things?

They are part of the same society, as are developers and environmentalists. There are parents that do not want religious indoctrination at public schools and others who do. How will the diametrically opposed views of these groups be included in the election proposals of Christodoulides as part of his exercise in participatory democracy? Will he be obliged to take a stand against his will – limit the influence of the Church which is fully behind him – because people would want a more liberal society? Or would his brand of participatory democracy avoid dealing with issues on which there is disagreement in his model society.

Even the concept of participatory democracy, especially at a national level, is packaging rather than substance. How will participatory democracy and the institutionalised dialogue between society and the executive take place under a Christodoulides presidency? Would an organisation representing those refusing to repay their loans ask the executive to pass a law making it legal to not pay? Would university students ask the executive, as part of the dialogue with society, to have their rent paid by the state? Who will represent society in this dialogue the new president will institutionalise?

This is student thinking packaged as real politics, which it quite clearly is not. What Cyprus needs is a leader that can take tough decisions, that might be unpopular, because these would benefit the country. We have lost half the country to Turkey, because since the 1950s our leaders based their decision-making on what would make them popular, or encounter the least public resistance, rather than what would secure the future of the country. It is a destructive tradition, as the results prove, started by Makarios and upheld by all presidents following him including the current one, who placed his personal popularity above a future without Turkish occupation troops, guarantees and a Green Line.

The late Demetris Christofias listened to the people and gave them what they wanted, but he managed to bankrupt the state in the process. Participatory democracy is a good concept for local government, but national government needs a leader that can also take unpopular decisions for the good of the country. A government programme based on public demand, in the name of participatory democracy is not just naïve, it is a recipe for disaster.

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