The Zurich-London agreements that established the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) in 1960 and the Constitution of the RoC contain provisions for the establishment of a presidential regime with a Greek Cypriot president elected by Greek Cypriots and a Turkish Cypriot vice-president elected by Turkish Cypriots. The executive power was vested in the Greek Cypriot president and the Turkish Cypriot vice-president, both enjoying veto power in three particular policy areas: external relations, security, and defense. Veto was designed to create a balance between the two communities and to ensure that no community would enforce its position on the other. However, as early as in 1961 the balance was brought into question and led to repeated constitutional blockages. Each party used its right of veto to block the propositions of the other party.
Following numerous deadlocks and after increased intercommunal tension, in 1964 the Turkish Cypriots left their posts in the governing and state institutions. In order to keep the newborn Republic running, the House of Representatives – consisting only of Greek Cypriot members – enacted legislation (the law of necessity) that allowed the state and the government to continue their operation. In this way the President assumed all the powers of the vice president and has had very few checks on his authority ever since.
Beyond the full right to veto legislation on a range of issues, the Greek Cypriot president of the RoC has the right to return a bill back to the House for reconsideration and/or the right to refer legislation to the Supreme Constitutional Court. Given the peculiar political conditions of the RoC with the political problem still unresolved, all presidents have been very cautious in using the right of veto. In actual fact, veto power was never exercised by any president. This was mainly due to political reasons, in order to fence off criticism that they utilised powers designed and intended for other purposes and so that they could not be accused of abusing the powers vested in a bicommunal state.
Presidents have confined themselves to the other two tools provided by the Constitution, most often on occasions when the legislature interferes with executive responsibilities and when it inflicts added cost on the state budget. It is worth noting that the Supreme Court usually vindicates the President’s view of referred bills. Both of these tools have also been used with cautious, not least because the parliament rarely questioned the executive’s authority.
In view of recent developments in the Cypriot political system whereby the House of Representatives and the political parties have utilised certain powers that they have never used in the past, openly challenging the president’s authority could have significant consequences on the ability of the government to pass legislation. In response, the Presidents have also used their arsenal of powers and have resorted to the two tools provided by the Constitution.
In the last few months the President of RoC, N. Anastasiades, has returned to the House of Representatives or referred to the Supreme Court a number of legislative bills. For example, in May 2016 a total of 16 bills on a variety of issues that were passed by the House just a few days before its self-dissolution before the parliamentary elections were either referred to the Supreme Court or returned to the House; an indication of how politics is increasingly mediated by law activism.
Most recently, a bill regarding the commemoration of union with Greece (enosis) was also referred to the Supreme Court. This particular bill was earlier voted by the opposition parties except the left-wing AKEL (the governing right –wing DISY abstained) and provoked the immediate and intense reaction of the Turkish Cypriot leader leading to a two-month pause in the negotiations for the solution of the Cyprus problem. Reactions were also intense in the RoC by AKEL and various pro-solution activists. In trying to find a solution, the governing DISY proposed legislation that gave the Education minister the power to decide which historical or other events would be commemorated in public schools. The bill was voted by the AKEL MPs and was thus passed.
However, the president referred the bill to the Supreme Court. The government said that he did so on the advice of the attorney-general who said that it probably clashed with the provision on the separation of powers in the constitution. AKEL said the president’s decision to refer the law to the Supreme Court raised reasonable questions: for example, why did he not consult with his own party before the latter submitted the bill, pointing to a highly politicized decision in view of the forthcoming presidential elections in February 2018.
The decision to refer this particular bill to the Supreme Court highlights three important points which necessitate further analysis. First, issues of history continue to inform today’s political situation and thus affect the course of the negotiations re the Cyprus problem among others. Second, blocking the passage of governing bills by parliament could have long-term effects and ultimately change the balance of power between the executive and the legislature. Third, there is a current trend in Cypriot politics to increasingly involve the courts and the Attorney General in political decision-making processes, which begs questions about the nature and scope of politics.