Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

In search of common ground in Cyprus

In Cyprus a patchwork bizonal-bicommunal-federal plan was cobbled together by the UN
Christodoulides and Tatar with Stewart

Last week I was taken to task in the comments section for suggesting a referendum as a ladder for all parties to climb down in the political crisis in Israel over the appointment and powers of senior judges.

Israel reverted back to type since last week with the usual violence between Israelis and Palestinians but the efficacy of referendums to sort out knotty political problems is still sound and its detractors wrong to distrust them.

Contrary to the views expressed in the comments that referendums give hostage to fortune, they are a species of direct democracy with a place in representative democracy to enable it to function smoothly. Referendums are not a substitute for accountable government, but a lubricant to ensure government by consent or to give democratic legitimacy to political choices beyond elected legislatures.

By the way as I am writing in English and not Latin, it is referendums not referenda. Although the word referendum is of Latin origin, a few years back, Mary Southcote of Friends of Cyprus, told me that when used in English the plural is achieved by adding an s to the singular in the normal way. It does not mean that referenda is wrong, just that it is not English.

My take on referendums is that like the old Heineken beer advertisement, they refresh the parts of the body-politic that representative democracy cannot reach. For those too young to know, the ad was intended for the English consumer to market lager beer in the 1970s and 1980s. Old England preferred warm beer and cricket. Then along came this ad from the Netherlands, “Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach” whereupon lager beer became one’s pint of choice. It is drank ice-cold and to excess by English football fans – although if you ask me nothing beats the taste of English real ale.

The reach of referendums is most evident in Switzerland where they hold referendums on all manner of laws, actual or proposed. Switzerland is a successful and diverse society that managed to hold itself together despite two world wars involving its constituent nationalities, in no small measure because of the way it is governed that repays attention by other ethnically diverse societies.

Swiss referendums are held in three sets of circumstances: by popular initiative; selectively, whether to approve or reject federal laws; and is mandatory for fundamental proposals to change the federal constitution, join international security or supranational communities, and for new federal emergency acts of more than 12 months duration.

A sample of referendum results illustrate the range of choices for which the Swiss voted recently. In 2021 they voted yes to ban full face coverings; no to electronic identification; yes to an economic partnership agreement with Indonesia; and yes to Covid-19 restrictions.

In 2022 they voted yes to ban tobacco advertising; no to a ban on animal and human experiments; and yes to adoption of an EU regulation on coordinating immigration control.

More topical in view of the political crisis in France after the government raised the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a vote in the French National Assembly, was the referendum held in Switzerland in September 2022, in which the Swiss voted yes in a referendum to raise the retirement age of women from 64 to 65 without a fuss.

In Cyprus a patchwork bizonal-bicommunal-federal (BBF) plan was cobbled together by the UN and the EU and put up for approval in simultaneous referendums. It was a best endeavours concoction based on proposals put forward by the two sides to the Cyprob over many years of negotiations that the UN and the EU hoped would be approved by the Cypriots.

It was not ideal, of course, but it would have resulted in the return of significant number of Greek Cypriots displaced by the 1974 war and end Turkish Cypriot isolation. Alas it did not reach let alone refresh the Greek Cypriot psyche.

In the event 75 per cent of Greek Cypriots rejected BBF even within a wider EU federal umbrella. The Turkish Cypriots supported it by a substantial majority but its thumping rejection by a majority of Greek Cypriots buried BBF for a generation. That’s the truth of it acknowledged by former President Nicos Anastasiades explaining why he supported BBF in 2004 but rejected it as president in 2017.

Unsurprisingly the Cyprob has remained unresolved since 2004. How could it be otherwise in view of such an overwhelming rejection of BBF by the majority community? In the meantime the current Turkish Cypriot leadership and Turkey also now reject BBF and insist on a two state solution.

As far as the UN and the EU are concerned BBF is the only show in town, which begs the question can BBF be revived? That is the $64,000 question. The way out of the cul-de-sac in which Cyprus finds itself in cannot be BBF if no one wants it. That approach falls foul of the dictum attributed to Einstein that other things being equal, you act irrationally if you repeat the same action over and over again and expect a different result. But what if other things are not equal? What if a referendum is held in search of common ground to begin with and both sides vote in favour of BBF?

In the case of the Greek Cypriots a referendum is necessary to see if their previous overwhelming rejection of it still holds good. In the case of the Turkish Cypriots, perhaps their previous approval of BBF is shaken but unchanged.  As the old saying goes nothing ventured, nothing gained.



Alper Ali Riza is a King’s Counsel and a former part-time judge in England

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