The Republic of Cyprus was established as a bicommunal state in 1960 after 82 years of British colonialism. The Constitution of the Republic provides for a clear separation of powers. Executive power is exercised by the president, who appoints the cabinet and is not held accountable to the parliament, which plays a secondary role within the political system. Thus, the power vested in the president’s office places the elected president at the heart of the political system: he serves as head of the state and the government at the same time and may be seen as an ‘elected absolute monarch’.
The role of the president grew even stronger after the withdrawal of the Turkish Cypriots from the governing institutions in 1964 following incidents of intercommunal violence. According to the Constitution the president is elected among the Greek Cypriots -the major community of the island- and the vice-president among the Turkish Cypriots. The only effective check and balance regarding the president’s authorities provided in the Constitution was the veto of the vice-president. After the withdrawal of the Turkish Cypriots there was no effective check and balance for the elected president. This, combined with the importance attached to the negotiations for the solution of the Cyprus problem that have been taking place since and for which the president is responsible, adds moral weight to the presidential powers.
Despite the heavily weighted power of the president in the Cypriot political system, there have been some signs of change in recent years. In particular, three specific challenges to the presidential authority are more obvious than ever in contemporary Cypriot politics.
The first, relates with party system dynamics and the increased power the political parties have successfully claimed throughout the years. Party competition dynamics refer primarily to changing political alliances. Cypriot presidents are elected in office through some alliance between parties that usually breaks down at some point during their tenure. This has important implications for the implementation of government policies. Although the government retains the privilege to enact laws that inflict financial costs, these laws are subject to parliamentary approval. Therefore, parliamentary majority is crucial for any president.
The current President, Nicos Anastasiades (elected in February 2013), has lost parliamentary majority just one year after his election and, as a result, faces difficulties in implementing his programme. As the leader of the governing right-wing party Democratic Rally (DISY), A. Neophytou, has acknowledged: ‘the government is dependent upon the (opposition) left-wing AKEL for promoting its goal for reuniting the island and on the (opposition and former governing partner) Democratic Party (DIKO) in promoting its economic programme’.
Moreover, the political parties have developed mechanisms to exercise pressure on the president that include the mobilization of public opinion and parliamentary voting. This has been most evident in recent years with the parties utilizing certain powers of the parliament they previously didn’t, thus, openly challenging the president’s authority. This could have long-term effects and ultimately change the balance of power between the two institutions (executive and legislature).
The second challenge concerns the ‘scandalology’ that has broken out in Cyprus in recent years and some unfortunate appointments made by the President in important public offices. Both phenomena had the same cumulative effect: levels of trust towards the President (and politicians in general) have declined and public life has been under severe scrutiny leaving the President little room for manoeuvre.
‘Scandalology’ followed the dramatic worsening of Cyprus economy and the ‘bail-in’ agreement in March 2013 when a number of scandals involving a number of public officials plagued the public sphere making the public opinion very suspicious towards politicians and state officials which are all seen as corrupted. Some of these scandals touched upon the president himself and his family or people directly appointed by him; a condition that increased levels of distrust towards the institution, as well as the holder. The most significant scandals in this regard were (a) the indictment of the General Attorneys’ Assistant for a serious criminal offense that led to his removal from office by the Supreme Court, and (b) the enactment by the President -through the Attorney General- of the process for removing the Governor of the Central Bank of Cyprus from her office following accusations for deliberately falsifying the terms of her contract.
Another source of grievances was a number of high profile appointments in independent authorities and public offices made by the President that have subsequently been involved either in fraud scandals (see above) or severe conflicts with members of his cabinet or even with the President himself, thus turning a boomerang for him. The new Auditor General is a case in point here, whose tenure thus far has been characterized by tension with a number of minsters, mayors and MPs.
All these must be placed in context. Expectations of public officials are significantly higher now in Cyprus than they were in the past, which means that their personal and professional careers are subject to much pressure and scrutiny from a number of institutions that were not present in the past, in particular, the mass media and the rising numbers of NGO activists, as well as the citizens. Both factors work against a ‘quiet’ service in office. Public officials are today more easily expendable: mistakes and/or bad judgments are difficult to hide and may easily result in an officials’ loss of position.
The third challenge relates with the ongoing negotiations for reaching a solution to the Cyprus problem. The Cyprus problem has been the object of continuous discussion and often tension among political parties and the public opinion for many years, especially during negotiations. 41 years after the Turkish invasion and the subsequent division of the island many people believe that the time is ripe for finding a solution. Amidst the ongoing process of negotiations between the leaders of the two communities both parties and public opinion are again forming blocs favouring or opposing a possible solution.
The President is committed to making everything possible to reach a solution; a commitment that prompted reactions against him for being too compromising to Turkish demands. Regardless of his success or failure, the net result will comprise a challenge to the further enactment of his duties. If he succeeds in finding a solution he will have to campaign for passing the solution in a referendum within a turbulent and tense environment. Moreover, if a possible referendum returns a positive vote then the challenge of guiding the people through this new state of affairs will be enormous. If he fails and regardless of his responsibilities, a large number of people that reposed their hopes in him will be hugely disappointed. Consequently, in either case, the President will face a very difficult and divisive terrain which many think that will find him in the losing end anyway. However, the challenge of reuniting the island could entail the prospect of economic development which could benefit him in the long run.