Interview with the General Secretary of AKEL S.Stefanou:
- ‘We feel the people’s “pulse”, the struggle for change begins’
- ‘The people want change and we must exhaust every possibility to achieve it’
Saturday 1 January 2022, “Haravgi” newspaper
QUESTION: Following the announcement by the DISY President Averof of his candidacy for the presidency of the Republic of Cyprus, does AKEL feel any pressure that it has delayed its own announcement?
SS: No. I would say that we are continuing our efforts in line with our initial schedule. We have begun to discuss the political framework and given situation surrounding the 2023 presidential elections at the level of our Party’s leadership bodies, with the main objective of achieving a progressive change in the country. Once we have set out the political framework, we shall approach the political forces of the opposition to seek cooperation and, of course, at some point we will then discuss the figure/person who will lead this effort.
QUESTION: When will the final decisions be taken?
SS: In the New Year we will have a discussion in the Central Committee and then we will go to the local Party cells. We will subsequently come back to assess the outcome of the whole discussion. The aim is to convene the Extraordinary Pancyprian Congress in the spring, where the final decision on the candidate we will support in the presidential elections will be taken.
QUESTION: You have said publicly that there will be contacts between AKEL and all opposition forces – except far-right ELAM. Have these contacts started?
SS: No substantive contacts have taken place, but some discussions are taking place on the sidelines or on the occasion of discussions on other issues. Recently, for example, we have had contacts and discussions with parties on AKEL’s proposal for the reduction of the VAT rate on the price of electricity. When such contacts are held, there are also soundings and some exchange of views concerning the presidential elections without going into any specific details, given that we at least do not yet have the political framework ready.
QUESTION: AKEL has stated that it seeks cooperation based on principles and bearing the criterion of electability in mind… With these characteristics, must the candidate’s profile be that of a party leader, a political figure or a technocrat?
SS: Electability is not the sole criterion. There are other factors that determine the profile of a given candidate. The first thing AKEL is interested in is that there is a relevance and convergence on the core positions with those we seek to cooperate with. However, we are of course also take into account the prospects for success of a candidate.
QUESTION: Will the candidacy of the General Secretary of AKEL be put on the table?
SS: We are not ruling ourselves out, and I don’t just mean the General Secretary, but a candidacy coming from the spectrum of AKEL. However, we should filter such a choice through the possibilities of securing broader cooperation and through this cooperation to enhance the chances of getting the candidate we shall back elected.
QUESTION: Is AKEL discussing the candidacy of the leader of the Democratic Party DIKO Nicolas Papadopoulos?
SS: Let us leave these issues to be discussed first of all within the Party and subsequently with the other political forces. We do not want our public statements to build up a scenario that does not help us focus on the principal objective, which is to achieve real change. The people need and want this change and we should exhaust every possibility to realise this prospect.
QUESTION: The ruling DISY party, however, is already promoting the candidacy of its President, Averof Neophytou…
SS: Averof Neophytou has started the premature talk regarding the presidential elections in order to promote his own candidacy. He has been engaged in an intensive communication activity to build up his profile. However, citizens do not forget that for nine years Averof Neophytou has been the government’s pillar of support in all the decisions and actions it has taken. They do not forget that he is an accomplice in all those things that are defaming our country internationally and offend us as a society. He is pursuing the same policy as the Anastasiades government and citizens know this. Averof Neophytou is the continuator of the order/state of affairs that citizens want to change.
“This is not the first time that ruling DISY party has sacrificed the solution of the Cyprus problem to serve electoral considerations”
QUESTION: As far as the Cyprus problem is concerned, are you not afraid of a new prolonged deadlock or the Cyprus problem once again being sacrificed for the sake of the presidential chair?
SS: We are worried about a prolonged deadlock and the absence of negotiations. When the effort at Crans Montana collapsed, we warned that if things remained as they were, together with the fact that Turkey was exonerated and relieved of any responsibilities, this would enable Turkey to impose new serious fait accompli on the ground that would damage the prospects for a solution of the Cyprus problem. This is what is happening today. Although AKEL was issuing these warnings, not only were the government ruling forces not worrying about developments, but with their actions the President and the government made it easier for Turkey to create new serious fait accompli without suffering any political cost, while they were cultivating illusions on the domestic front.
The sought solution of the Cyprus problem was absent from the government ruling force’s public discourse and rhetoric. The solution of bi-zonal, bi-communal federation was absent from the entire election campaign period in both the 2013 and 2018 presidential elections. It is through such actions and behaviour that the President has undermined the Greek Cypriot side’s credibility.
We got a glimpse of what Averof Neophytou will do with the Cyprus problem from the video clip announcing his candidacy. The DISY President makes no mention of the Cyprus problem. And it is quite clear why. He did this to hide any positions on the Cyprus problem because he wants to appeal to different audiences and especially to the far-right, which represents his reserve force. The government ruling forces have done this before and will do so again, sacrificing once again the solution of the Cyprus problem in order to serve electoral considerations.
QUESTION: Mr. Averof and Mr. Anastasiades criticise AKEL for pardoning the Turkish side and its provocative actions and incriminating the Greek Cypriot side…
SS: The attempt by Mr. Anastasiades, Mr. Averof and the government camp in general to lie in order to shift their own grave responsibilities for the ongoing stalemate on the Cyprus problem onto the shoulders of others, especially on AKEL, is nothing new. AKEL does not exonerate Turkey. The opposite is true. AKEL does not miss an opportunity to criticise Turkey – both inside and outside Cyprus.
However, I must say that the accusations made by the government ruling forces against us aren’t convincing. A President – N. Anastasiades – and a political force – DISY – who discussed and flirted with a two state solution, a solution which Turkey is seeking, cannot convince. On the other hand, our consistency on the Cyprus problem is well known.
QUESTION: Expectations were also cultivated by Foreign Minister N. Christodoulides about the EU imposing sanctions on Turkey, while the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy J.Borrel recently declared that Turkey has contributed towards the de-escalation of tension in the Eastern Mediterranean…
SS: Mr. Christodoulides is part of the problem. The fact that huge illusions have been fostered in society about the possibility of the EU imposing sanctions that will…”hurt Turkey” is also due to Mr. Christodoulides. Not only were there no sanctions approved by the EU, but in pursuing them we became isolated, we were on our own in Europe on this position.
Mr. Christodoulides also bears grave responsibility for the illusions cultivated by the DISY government that the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was supposedly protected through the multilateral meetings held (with Greece/Israel/Egypt), while the government ruling forces underestimated the dangers of Turkey drilling in the EEZ of the Republic of Cyprus, but also the dangers for the creation of fait accompli on the Famagusta issue.
“Aligning with AKEL strengthens the possibility for change”
QUESTION: With your election as General Secretary of AKEL you have begun a march towards the people with visits to villages and factories. What message are people conveying?
SS: The first message we get is satisfaction, not only from the people of AKEL, that we are continuing and deepening our direct contact with the people.
Secondly, through our direct contacts we listen to the people and get to feel their “pulse”. For example, when we visited mountainous areas, we knew of the weaknesses that the government’s housing schemes had. However, through our contact with the people, we also saw on the ground the problems they face. As a result of these contacts, we as a Party prepared a memorandum which we submitted to the responsible Minister containing specific proposals so that these schemes can be improved in order that more people will be able to make use of them.
Without doubt, these contacts have helped us to formulate our own views and proposals in a more concrete way on other problems too. We will therefore continue and intensify these contacts in the New Year, not only by region but also with specific groups of citizens and social groups.
QUESTION: Is this how you respond to the narrative “they are all the same”?
SS: This is one of the ways we respond. I must say that this widespread perception has been formed by those in power and the establishment. In doing so, the government ruling forces are trying to defuse popular reaction, perpetuate their own status quo and justify the anti-social characteristics of their socio-economic policies.
We often hear the soundbite “but is the Parliament doing anything?” I must say that Parliament isn’t the government; its possibilities are limited, not only because it cannot increase funds, but also because it is unconstitutional to encroach on the competences of the executive power. Furthermore, Parliament is not a homogeneous assembly. There are issues that you can pass, but there are also issues that you are in a minority on. So that is where you fight your battle and the results depend on the balance of power that evolves.
Direct contact with people helps us explain what is really going on, but I must say that it takes a lot of work to change the perception that “everyone is the same”.
QUESTION: We understand that you have also encountered the perception that “no matter what happens, nothing changes”…
SS: This is another perception that needs a lot of work to change people’s minds. This is a perception that ultimately keeps people away from engaging in collective struggles and asserting their rights. One thing is for sure, the only thing you can change by staying at home is the channels on your TV – nothing else.
It is the alignment with AKEL, in the effort to exert pressure “from below” on the government and decision making centres, that strengthens the possibilities to bring change.
However, what is decisive is the question of power, and that is what people need to keep in mind with regards the 2023 presidential elections. That is where the “key” is and that is where there is no room for any positions arguing that “nothing can change” or “they are all the same”.
No, we are not all the same. Citizens should judge us by what we do in practice, what we vote for and who we serve by what we vote for. AKEL is with society, with the vulnerable groups of the population, with young people, with all those who need the support and warmth of the state and not only that. Those in power and DISY President Averof Neophytou vote in favour of the banks and powerful interests. For that reason, we are not all the same.
QUESTION: We have seen that during recent state budgets, AKEL together with other political forces was able to pass joint amendments submitted on various issues. But you have also been criticised because you tabled amendments when you vote against the state budgets?
SS: Yes, we have heard that argument too. It is perfectly natural to want to table amendments even though you vote against the budget. This is because, given that the budget will ultimately be approved, we should do everything on our part to reject provisions of the government’s budget, such as, for example, the funds that we managed to cut again for the promotion of privatisations that we consider to be detrimental to society and the country itself.
We have indeed managed, through the amendments we submitted, to cut plans that have to do with anti-social policies, to exercise more parliamentary scrutiny, to prevent the government from continuing its policy of hiring cronies and increasing spending – not for investment purposes or to support the welfare state – but simply to promote clientelism.
QUESTION: We heard from the floor of the House of Representatives Averof Neophytou and other members of the ruling DISY party saying that economic indicators are improving, unemployment is falling and the economy will be on track to record growth in 2022. What is it then that AKEL wants to change?
SS: The numbers certainly reflect a picture, but if you do not get into the substance, this picture is usually misleading.
What does “unemployment has fallen” actually mean? We need to see how much those who are working are paid, how many people are underemployed, what conditions do they work in and how many rights are there left in the labour market, what prospects and what quality these jobs really have. Those in government are simply playing with numbers, and indeed those numbers that suit them, to embellish situations.
I did not see or hear Averof Neophytou, especially now that he is acting the role of a farmer and worker for PR purposes, addressing the pain of farmers and workers. I have not seen him deal with the 200,000 or so of our fellow citizens who live below or on the poverty line. For us, we don’t just refer to some numbers, we are talking about people. The reason why the government has never concerned itself with them is precisely because it doesn’t care. They established the Minimum Guaranteed Income by reducing social policy to a barren benefits policy and indeed with rules, conditions and criteria that ultimately exclude rather than provide assistance to people.
Growth rates have risen, they say. But who benefits from the economy’s growth and the production of wealth? The figures and data show that the share of wages in the GDP is falling, while that of profits is increasing. Labour relations have been deregulated, wages have fallen, and this shows realities that the government not only does not want to tackle, but creates itself with its policies.
QUESTION: On the new bank charges, apart from calling on the institutions to intervene, what else can you do?
SS: A law on the abusive clauses has been passed, due to the pressure we exerted, but it has some loopholes. With the help of our Group of the Left GUE/NGL in the European Parliament, we revealed that the government had kept a European Directive in its drawers since 2013 to deal with unfair clauses against consumers. The government hid the directive to avoid having to take action against the banks whose arbitrariness it serves. So we put pressure, and a bill that has been approved – but needs improvement – has eventually been presented after a long delay. We will continue to raise the issue because the banks are indeed arbitrary.
“The government not only lacks the political will to tackle corruption but is part of the problem”
QUESTION: How concerned is AKEL about the fact that while so many scandals are happening and corruption is at an all-time high, even with the institutional involvement of the Presidency itself, there is neither the assumption of political responsibility, nor has anyone been punished?
SS: How can there be punishment when the government ruling forces themselves are the protagonists of these scandals/corruption? Such is the absence of any morality, the provocative behaviour and the authoritarianism of this government that it even tries to bypass what should be self-evident because it goes without saying that when do you have political responsibility for something that happens, you assume it, and eventually, if it happens repeatedly, it can lead to resignations. As if all this isn’t enough, they are also provocatively declaring themselves to be immaculate and untainted.
To confront corruption, there is one basic thing that the government lacks and that is political will. Not only does it not have this will, but it itself is part of the problem.
QUESTION: Cyprus is entering a new wave of the pandemic, just as the measures announced are provoking a backlash and bringing businesses to their knees again. Does AKEL see any possibility of giving financial support to businesses and affected individuals?
SS: Given that the pandemic is continuing, and this affects many jobs and small and medium-sized enterprises, we believe that, yes, we should look in a concrete and targeted way at how the state reintroduces providing support for both small and medium-sized enterprises and the vulnerable groups of the population.
QUESTION: How much are you worried that a deep divide has been created in society between vaccinated and non-vaccinated citizens?
SS: The government bears a grave responsibility for this division in society because, instead of putting the emphasis on briefing/enlightening the people and trying – all together – as much as possible to confront this situation, with its contradictory decisions, it is fueling tension instead of helping to defuse it.
Citizens’ rights should be respected and we should always approach them with great care, but at the same time we must say that rights too have a line. My right should not infringe on the right of my neighbor.
QUESTION: Thank goodness the “petty nurses and doctors” (Note: the terms DISY President used to describe nurses and doctors when they mobilized and asserted their rights) have fought and are fighting the battle against the pandemic…
SS: Yes and grasping this opportunity, I want to send a message to the medical and paramedical staff who are worthy of every praise and deserve our respect. Thank goodness they didn’t listen to Averof Neophytou who was telling the “petty doctors and nurses” that “if they don’t like the public sector they should all go find work somewhere else”. Have you thought about what would happen if all these people left and didn’t fight this battle after all?
Now, the government and Averof Neophytou are heaping praise on them, but not long ago, they were undermining public hospitals. They did not support, promptly and effectively, public hospitals as regards their autonomy too, and at the same time they insulted and threatened the medical and paramedical staff when they were protesting about the huge problems of understaffing and underfunding they faced. We sincerely and lovingly convey once again our gratitude for all the work they do and will continue to stand by them, as we stand by all workers.