Political Culture in the Vassiliou Era

Political Culture in the Vassiliou Era

The election of George Vassiliou in February 1988 was unexpected. Although many Cypriots were increasingly disaffected because of the lack of progress in the intercommunal talks and the incumbent's reputation for passivity and ineffectiveness, the results were an upset. The first round, held on February 14, gave a plurality and 33.3 percent to Glafkos Clerides of DISY. Vassiliou, an independent, came in second, with 30.1 percent, and the incumbent, Spyros Kyprianou of DIKO, came in third with 27.3 percent. Kyprianou was defeated, according to Cypriot press opinion, because of inflexibility in the settlement talks and because of party maneuvering, including an unpopular tactical alliance with the communist party, AKEL.

The runoff between Clerides and Vassiliou was held on February 21, and Vassiliou won by a little over 10,000 votes. He polled 51.6 percent; Clerides, a veteran of Cypriot politics and acting president in 1974, polled 48.4 percent. Ironically, in the final contest the two men were in substantial agreement over the settlement issue; both expressed eagerness to engage in talks with Denktas, and neither made withdrawal of Turkish troops a precondition for talks. Some believe that Clerides narrowly missed victory because of his past associations with right-wing political groups.

Born in Famagusta in 1931, Vassiliou completed secondary school in Cyprus, and spent more than a decade studying and working in Europe. He received a doctorate in economics in Hungary. Upon his return to Cyprus in 1962, he founded and remained president of the Middle East Marketing Research Bureau, the largest consultancy in the region, with offices in eleven countries.

Vassiliou's campaign emphasized his wish to invigorate the settlement process. He offered to meet directly with both thenPrime Minister Turgut Özal of Turkey and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Denktas. Without a strong party base, Vassiliou also decided to resurrect the National Council, first created by Makarios, with the hope that the political parties meeting together could forge a collective and consensus-based policy toward the settlement process. Vassiliou proceeded to work out new rules with the party leaders, including guidelines on which issues required their unanimous consent. He pledged to put any settlement plan to the people in a referendum. But his seemingly liberal views on a settlement were tempered by his policy commitment to reorganize and reinforce civil defense and increase defense spending.

A number of factors brought Vassiliou to power. The electorate, to be sure, was frustrated by the impasse in the settlement process and welcomed someone who spoke of new ideas and energy. More broadly, the vote may have signaled the end of the Makarios era, and the desire for new leaders, rather than Makarios's heir apparent.

Vassiliou brought to the presidential palace skills learned in the private sector, such as prompt decision making, cost-benefit analysis, marketing, and open competition, that promised livelier and more effective policy making. Some Cypriots welcomed his attempt to bring corporate boardroom concepts into politics. Others resented it. In his first two years in office, Vassiliou was constrained by the island's experienced politicians, who had different agendas, and by Turkish Cypriot strategies that did not embrace the spirit of Vassiliou's settlement message.

The new president tried to introduce fresh faces into the executive branch. His first cabinet had only two ministers who had previously held office: George Iacovou continued to serve as foreign minister, ensuring continuity in external relations, and Christodoulos Veniamin took the post of interior minister, which he had held, along with other cabinet posts, between 1975 and 1985. In May 1990, President Vassiliou replaced four of his cabinet ministers and appointed several who had not served in previous cabinets. For the most part, the outside appointees were people who had the approval of one or more of the major parties.

Vassiliou had promised first and foremost to achieve progress in the talks with Turkish Cypriots, through intercommunal talks and negotiations with Turkey. However, in his first two years he made no breakthrough toward a settlement.

He achieved more in other areas. In the 1988 election campaign, Vassiliou spoke of his desire to make changes in the civil service, to end the spoils system that had created a large and inefficient public sector. He pledged moves toward a meritocracy, and promised to bring into government energetic, talented people from private sector. During his first two years in office, he was unable to replace the incumbent appointees to the Public Service Commission with his own candidates, because the parliament did not approve funds for it. Nor did another campaign promise, to create a government ombudsman as a clearinghouse for complaints, make headway in the first two years of his presidency. He was also unable to wrest from the political parties appointments to quasigovernmental posts such as utilities boards. He failed to pursue vigorously a campaign pledge to investigate charges of corruption in the police force.

Vassiliou's modest gains in these efforts were constrained by the parties' resistance to the businessman-president's ideas. The parliament failed to approve many of his requests for new positions, such as political appointments for ministerial special assistants and even experts to assist the president.

Vassiliou did manage to dilute the parties' power to some extent. Political patronage jobs, formerly the perquisites of the largest party, were shared among the major parties, reflecting Vassiliou's desire for a consensus-based political system. Vassiliou often chose for appointed positions associates whose skills he respected but who were also acceptable to one or more of the major parties. This power sharing with the parties, however, kept the new president from keeping his promise to reduce the size of the public sector.

Yet Vassiliou's intelligence, energy, and worldliness were valued by Cyprus's friends overseas. Vassiliou visited all major European capitals, traveled in the United States, and attended multilateral conferences to explain the Cyprus situation and enlist support for new settlement efforts. He was troubled that the dramatic and triumphant world events of 1989 and 1990 distracted world attention from the Cyprus problem, and he was concerned about the prospects for its neglect. His presidency, nevertheless, although it did not produce dramatic results, won respect and attention from a number of friendly governments.

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