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Our View: Is the president’s rhetoric substance or political gimmick?

Christodoulides wants to have non-binding referenda, as part of his "participatory democracy"

President Nikos Christodoulides told a group of secondary school students he met on Friday that the government would soon hold non-binding referenda, because it “sincerely believed in participatory democracy” and that students “must have a say and role.” Both the commitment to participatory democracy and non-binding referenda were features of his election campaign, presumably because they sounded good. It is doubtful that they were thought through, either at the time or now.

If a referendum is not binding, what is the point of having one? And how will students have a say if what they vote for in a non-binding referendum is ignored by the government? In the participatory Athenian democracy what the people voted for was binding, and it was not up to a politician to decide when to take the vote seriously and when not to do so. In his meeting with the students, the president suggested there could be a referendum about lowering the voting age, which was ironic considering there are thousands of youths whose apathy ensures they do not register to vote when they reach voting age.

Such political gimmicks, more concerned with presentation rather than substance, have marked Christodoulides’ first year in office. We had the consultative council that was to enable people to apply for seats on semi-governmental boards, which turned out to be a sham, not to mention the setting up of committees to oversee other committees.

There was the initiative to appoint a political personality as an EU representative for the Cyprus problem that the president pursued for months, when everyone knew this was a non-starter. As for the sea corridor for humanitarian aid to Gaza, he naively promoted it for weeks, without considering the insurmountable political obstacles that would never let it happen.

Meanwhile, the daily public appearances and televised addresses, in the name of accountability, do not appear to have had the desired effect, as opinion polls carried out in the last few weeks indicate. A poll carried out a couple of week ago found that 20 per cent of respondents had a positive view of the president while 45 per cent had a negative view. A poll carried out for Sigma TV, released on Thursday, put the negative view at 45 per cent and the positive at 19 per cent while 47 per cent of respondents were disappointed with the first 12 months of the administration and only 16 per cent were satisfied.

Has Christodoulides’ very specific, communications-shaped style of government failed? Presentation and nice-sounding ideas might work in an election campaign, but the governing of a country is a different ball game and people, understandably, have other expectations. They want to see decisiveness and action which have been in rather short supply during the first year of the administration.

Even the constant touring by the president, who attends one or two events every day, does not create a very good impression, despite claims that he does this in order to be in touch with the people. Perhaps the people want a president that stays in his office most of the time and deals with the many affairs of state. Of course, public perceptions can change if there is a change of style, for which Christodoulides has time.

On the plus side, Christodoulides has placed the country firmly in the Western fold, implementing sanctions against Russian oligarchs and fully aligning Cyprus with the US and the EU on the war in Ukraine. The biggest challenge his presidency will face is the Cyprus problem, about which he says all the right things, regularly stating that status quo was unsustainable, that there were no frozen conflicts and that his objective was reunification. This rhetoric will be tested over the next few months as will the president’s ability to show true leadership, by taking tough decisions that will not be popular.

Whether he meets this challenge that none of his predecessors risked taking, conveniently blaming Turkish intransigence, remains to be seen. He will have to choose whether his presidency will be remembered for something big and ground-breaking – for something historic – or for uttering pleasant-sounding ideas and holding non-binding referenda for teenagers.

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