Nikos Christodoulides won Sunday’s run-off election to become the eighth president of the republic. He took 51.91 per cent of the vote, edging Andreas Mavroyiannis out by 15,000 votes. It was not the big difference opinion polls had been forecasting for the duel, but it was respectable margin.
Regardless of the size of the margin, nothing can be taken away from the astonishing rise to the highest office by the 49-year-old, who appeared for the first time on the political scene just nine years ago, when he was appointed government spokesman of President Nicos Anastasiades’ first administration. He was promoted to foreign minister in the second administration in 2018 and five years later he won the first ever election he took part in.
He had never stood in any election before February 5, his political profile built on political appointments. Despite this lack of election experience, he ran an effective presidential campaign, which relied on keeping the message simple – being a unifying force – and avoiding confrontation with any other candidate. Perhaps he had understood better than the other candidates that a simple, positive message, however vague, was what people were interested in.
This was the easy bit for the president-elect because there is big gap between saying you will be a unifying force and being one when pulled in different directions by different groups. He now has to harness all the disparate political forces that backed him, ensure a share of the spoils of power that will not alienate his backers and try to define, in practical terms, the government of “broad social acceptance” that he so often spoke about.
Christodoulides will also have to abandon the non-confrontational, non-committal style that won him his popularity. As president, he will not have the luxury of sitting on the fence because now the buck stops with him. He will have to take responsibility for big decisions, something he has never had to do in his short political career. He will need to take a position on important issues, and fight for it even if this sparks criticism and creates enemies, because the pursuit of “consensus rule,” however well-intentioned and noble, leads to weak and ineffective government.
Christodoulides will be the first president of the republic with no prior experience of leadership. He has worked as a civil servant and subsequently for a government that was led by someone else. All his predecessors, except one, had been leaders of political parties, while the only one who was not, George Vassiliou, had honed his leadership skills for years at the head of a big and successful business.
The new president will have to prove his leadership skills from day one as this will set the style of his presidency. The nebulous concepts of participatory democracy and consultations with civil society that he spoke about in his campaign will be of no use now. He will have to show he is in charge, that he is not afraid to take difficult decisions and he has the stomach for a fight when needed. This is how he will assert his leadership skills, which is essential for his presidency to make a good start.