Speech by the General Secretary of AKEL K.E. Stefanos Stefanou during the parliamentary debate on the 2022 State Budget
15 December 2021, AKEL C.C. Press Office, Nicosia
AKEL’s decision to vote against the budget this year too has already been announced.
What I will do today is to set out our political reasoning. That is, why our Party took its decision to take a firm and uncompromising stand against the government’s policies.
I would like to grasp this opportunity to address not only the Plenary, but also those who gave us the mandate to represent them. Furthermore, I shall address citizens who are listening to us and who have a right to know what determines our Party’s position and direction.
An enormous divide separates us from the Anastasiades-DISY government, both with regards the philosophy of governance and the policies being pursued. In addition, we fundamentally disagree with the behaviour of its governance, which is characterised by arrogance and authoritarianism.
We shall highlight this dimension in relation to the main policy pillars on which our life and day-to-day issues rest on.
2021 was a difficult year that made us wiser. And I am not just referring to the pandemic which continues to hold a suffocating grip on us. 2021 was a difficult year, because the huge moral deficit that leaves an indelible mark on the Nicos Anastasiades – DISY government was revealed for all to see.
Entanglement/interwoven interests – Corruption – Conflict of Interest
I refer to these three pillars, which not only expose our country internationally, but further denigrate political life in the minds of Cypriot citizens by the reproduction of the narrative that “they are all the same”.
AKEL, reacting to this nihilistic approach, stands firmly against the government criticising it severely. A stand that the government ruling forces insist on calling “destructive opposition”, forcing us to remind them of the evident: our institutional role is to exert scrutiny over the executive power in a persistent way and on a daily basis, so as to ensure the proper functioning of the democratic constitution – especially when we are confronted with a government, which at an institutional level, has dragged Cyprus back many years. It has dealt severe blows to the rule of law.
During this government’s term of office, relations between the executive power and the legislature have deteriorated because of the government’s behaviour. The example of the Reform of local government is indicative of what is happening. Because it apparently does not agree with the way the debate in Parliament on the reform is proceeding, the ruling DISY party did not hesitate to undermine the effort to reach a bipartisan consensus and finally solve a long-standing pending issue.
With political tricks and rehashed ideas, such as the proposal for 5 Municipalities, ruling DISY is undermining the Reform by reminding us all of its erroneous character when it put obstacles in the way of the implementation of the National Health Scheme (NHS).
AKEL now, just as we did in the past, will continue to act as a bastion of resistance, even if we become unpleasant to the government ruling forces. This is our role as an opposition force and we will defend this role with consistency.
AKEL, with a history spanning almost a century of struggle, has never acted as a protest Party. We have always assumed our responsibility and have never shied away from difficult issues. We do not resort to the comfortable silence of adopting a politically neutral stand, but state our position and express it even if it is not popular in society. We are responsible and sincere.
Another example, taken from current affairs, is also characteristic of how the government acts. I’m referring to the Pournara Reception Centre for Migrants and Asylum Seekers and the tragic conditions there.
2,500 people have been crammed into a centre designed and funded by the EU that to accommodate 600 persons. As a result of this unacceptable situation, human misery is spilling over into the surrounding areas, with migrants suffering, local residents protesting and the government watching in bewilderment the results of its inability to address the problems. At the same time, it is seeking to blame everyone else for the problems it itself is provoking through its own incompetence and irresponsibility.
The convenient for us would be to remain silent and, clinging to political neutrality, turn a blind eye to an ongoing human tragedy that should offends us all as a state and as citizens. But we don’t turn a blind eye because – I will repeat – our role is to act as the voice of citizens, but also as the force demanding justice and policies centred and serving people’s needs.
For almost two years we have been living under the heavy burden of the pandemic. In these conditions shaped by COVID-19, the preservation of life is the first and top priority.
As AKEL we invest our hopes for a way out of this nightmare situation in science. There is no alternative other that the vaccination programme to protect ourselves from this asymmetric threat. When people are dying every day, we do not have the right to hide behind half-truths. That is precisely why we judge government measures in a responsible manner and by focusing solely on the need to protect our fellow human beings.
I will not comment from this podium on the government’s handlings, even though the regressions, contradictions, failures and sloppiness are such that they are often provocative. We consider it our duty to see the big picture, from which AKEL singles out the major issue highlighted by this unprecedented crisis: the role of public hospitals.
All those who were downgrading the value of the public system as the pillar of the health sector, after this horrifying experience over the last two years, must think twice. As far as the human resources, doctors, nurses and paramedics are concerned, I feel the need to express once again our big and heartfelt gratitude for all their work.
Fortunately, the “small-time hospital workers and doctors”, as the government called them, did not listen to the President of the ruling DISY party who told them to ”go and work somewhere else if they don’t like their job” and are working in the front line of the battle against the pandemic. Public hospitals, although left to decline by the government, bore – and still bear – the brunt of the enormous effort to confront the pandemic.
At the same time as the pandemic was bringing out the best in our people – with the selfless contribution of not just health professionals, workers but others too – and in the midst of the health crisis, a dark cloud fell over our country. It is the cloud of the regime-type practices that weigh on the DISY government. Practices that have dragged our country back years, to times that we had hoped were never to be seen again.
- How else can we really characterise the situation caused by a government that tears pages out of school textbooks simply because it disagrees with their content?
- How else can we characterize the persecution of an art teacher for his work, and indeed outside of working hours?
- How else can we characterize the fact that the police broke into a home, confiscated a computer after a complaint by the Minister of Justice because they found a social media account on the internet that satirized the Minister?
There’s so much more to recall:
- The fact that the President himself stated tongue in cheek that regarding the huge passport scandal if he wanted he could “intervene with the investigating authorities to present a file that would not warrant prosecution on the part of the Attorney General” but did us the favour of not intervening?
- The fact that foreign journalists, on the doorstep of a European summit meeting, were waiting in the rain for the President of the Republic to ask him about his involvement in the Pandora Papers? Thankfully of course, the President didn’t react angrily with them too, as he did with our compatriots here in Cyprus, just because they dared asked him something that he considers unpleasant. The government ruling forces cannot stand unpleasant and critical press reports, so they have hired an army of “advisers” in the Presidential Palace to check on them, who taxpaying citizens are of course paying their big salaries.
- The fact that the BBC screened a documentary on Cyprus with the derogatory title “The offshore President”?
- Or the President’s indefensible argument about the involvement of his family circle in the passports scandal, saying, in effect: “But what do you want me to do? Because they are my children they should be unemployed?”
We could list more examples, but I’ll stop right here.
During the term of Nicos Anastasiades and DISY government, the pathologies of the political system have multiplied and most of them have names emanating from the Presidential Palace and ruling DISY party. Just from the chapter of “the excellent of the excellence” government appointees we could draw extremely instructive examples.
I’ll just recall the torrid case of the former Presidential Commissioner of Volunteers Yiannis Yiannaki to underline that this government mentality that breeds and exalts clientelism/cronyism is provocative. In the same way that assembling cronies in the Presidential Palace is provocative too, which has once again made headlines in the media.
The DISY government’s moral deficit is a key pillar in our opposition stand. This is not by chance. The worst thing that can happen in a country is for the authorities to lack any moral restraints. But this is exactly what is happening in our country.
Our objections however are not confined to the issues I listed previously, no matter how serious they are.
As a party of the Left, we place the welfare state high among our priorities. And on this issue too our disagreements with the government’s policies are enormous. It is obvious that we have a different philosophy, because in our view the state should primarily assist and support the economically weaker groups of the population, which is not the case today.
Those with social sensibilities should ask themselves:
- Whose responsibility is it that the Social Welfare Services cannot offer real support to those who need it?
- Whose responsibility is it for piling up in old people’s homes the elderly, under-age children, unaccompanied migrants and the mentally ill?
- Is this the concept of social protection that the government serves?
On social policy and social welfare issues, numbers and statistics are often presented. I am not going to go into that logic although numbers do have their importance. I won’t do so because behind numbers are people, whom we have a responsibility as a state to look after. And the primary responsibility lies with the government, any government. So I can’t talk about a “success story”, which the government boasts about, when 1 in 4 of our fellow citizens is below or on the poverty line. We are talking about approximately 200,000 people!
I cannot add-deduct numbers when thousands of households are struggling to make ends meet and are overwhelmed by stress and financial insecurity.
It’s convenient to boast that we don’t see or hear these people. It is convenient to turn our heads away and use communication games to hide the fact. However, as AKEL, we consider it our duty to give all these suffering fellow citizens a voice so that in this hall, in what is termed the temple of democracy, they can at long last be heard.
– 200,000 people on the poverty line! Let us keep that number in our minds.
Because with the pandemic crisis on the one hand and price hikes and the high cost of living on the other, the danger of impoverishing a larger section of the population is more than visible.
This danger is even greater because the DISY government’s social policy is confined to the Minimum Guaranteed Income (MGI), which fails to effectively address the multiple problems that exist.
The MGI was established on the logic of limiting the beneficiaries instead of providing assistance to those who are really in need of support. It has failed to provide a real web of protection for the economically weakest groups. It merely spreads poverty to more people.
Add to this the administrative difficulties in its implementation, which have not been overcome to date, and the MGI has not achieved its purpose.
From time to time we have submitted specific proposals to substantially improve it. Improvements must be made to the criteria for beneficiaries, but also in the amount of allowances. If EUR 480 was bearable in 2014 for one person, today it is hopelessly low and inadequate. It is imperative that the basket of essential needs be revised and that all allowances be adjusted to reflect and address current realities.
- AKEL’s position is clear: social policy needs to be reshaped to create a truly modern welfare state that effectively supports citizens.
Cyprus needs policies that combat economic and social inequalities and channel sufficient resources to low-income and vulnerable groups of the population.
There was a lot of discussion on the reorganisation and modernisation of the Social Welfare Services. After a long wait and constant official announcements that proved to be meaningless, two years ago the government finally made public its plan for their restructuring. We have strong doubts that the government’s restructuring will lead to an improvement in the whole system. This is because it is governed by a philosophy of limiting the role of public services to the executive level only, while assigning the crucial role of intervention and implementation of social programmes to the private sector and the purchase of services method. With this philosophy, the implementation of social policy is subject to the condition of economic viability and profit, which will lead to a deterioration in the quality of services provided.
The deterioration of the welfare state, the distortions and weaknesses in the GMI, the lack of child protection structures, the absence of infrastructures for the care of adult children with disabilities, the absence of an effective and comprehensive housing policy and much more, are driving thousands of our economically vulnerable fellow citizens to despair.
Every state needs a strong and sustainable economy that has the capacity to support an effective welfare state in order to be able to bring progress to the country and prosperity to its citizens.
The government is focusing on the growth rate to give itself credit for the economic policy it is implementing. But behind the growth rate, the government is hiding the Cyprus economy’s pathologies, distortions and lack of prospects.
It is our conviction that our country’s developmental model is in a quagmire. It has reached its limits and a new model is urgently needed to open up new perspectives.
The pandemic has brought to the fore, even more vividly, the need to reshape our country’s developmental model. Although there have been numerous government announcements made to this effect, little has actually been done in practice.
The government has made do with the ‘golden passport’ industry, but it has provoked severe imbalances and problems to the market that it is now called upon to manage because of the sudden abolition of the programme.
- The notorious tourism strategy remains locked away in government desks.
- The primary and secondary sectors have been left to operate without a plan and strategy.
- In the health and education sectors, the government is engaged in a race to downgrade public infrastructures, apparently considering that this will increase opportunities for the private sector.
Speaking of the health sector, it is obvious that the National Health Scheme, which is a great achievement for our people in which AKEL played a decisive role, needs improvement, corrections and distortions to be addressed without, of course, changing the philosophy, architecture and character of the NHS. First and foremost, we need to provide substantial support to public hospitals, which in our view constitute the backbone of the system.
In the area of research and innovation, despite the improvements that have been made, Cyprus continues to lag far behind the European Union.
Even before the pandemic, the Cyprus economy was confronted with significant challenges, which the DISY government has not only failed to address, but has not tackled in a serious manner.
For time-saving purposes I will briefly mention just a few examples:
- The DISY government has not given any substantive solutions to combat income and social inequalities. It is indicative that in recent years the share of wages in the GDP has declined in contrast to the share of earnings, whose share has increased.
- It has remained scrupulously neutral regarding working people’s demands, such as the safeguarding of collective agreements and the formation of a mechanism to ensure minimum terms of employment, including the minimum wage, through the approval of relevant legislation.
- The justified demand for the abolition of the 12% penalty imposed on those choosing to retire at 63 has been postponed indefinitely.
– In addition, the government doesn’t seem willing to discuss the full restoration of the Automatic Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) in the public and private sectors so that the purchasing power working people’s wages, particularly in the current conditions of increasing price hikes, can also be restored.
In fact the government is engaging in delaying tactics to nibble away at the time it has left in power. But the problem is that the people are ultimately paying the consequences of its inability, incompetence and unwillingness to provide solutions in favour of society. It is primarily interested in serving the vested interests of the privileged few.
Indicative of this political behaviour is the fact that every time the banks demand new legislation that seeks to safeguard their interests, the government and DISY rush emergency bills to get them approved in Parliament. When it comes to citizens, the government is not only slow to act, but if it happens that something in favour of society is at long last approved, the President subsequently refers it back to Parliament or reports it to the Supreme Court – as the President did now with Parliament’s majority decision for a reduction in the VAT rate on electricity which all parties voted for except DISY which voted against.
The government engineered the bankruptcy, closure and sell-off of the Cyprus Co-operative Bank, leaving us at the mercy of the oligopoly of two big banks owned by foreigners.
- This is extremely dangerous for the country’s economy.
The government’s policies have created other dangerous phenomena for the country and our national security. It has handed over the country’s only commercial port to private interests, arguing that it will transform Cyprus into a regional hub. Companies have left our country and charges have increased, while the problems have multiplied.
It engineered the closure of the Cyprus Grain Commission and Cyprus almost ran out of grain given that it had no strategic stocks/reserves as the government was by law obliged to maintain.
The government engineered the closure of our national airlines. An island and semi-occupied state, isolated in the Eastern Mediterranean as Cyprus is, no longer has its own national airline. Tickets have not become cheaper, as the government had said would subsequently follow, and the inconvenience of travelling somewhere has become greater.
Fortunately, our reactions, together with other parties, prevented the privatisation of the Cyprus Telecommunications Authority (CYTA), which DISY President Averof Neophytou predicted in 2010 that it would only last for five years in competitive conditions. Eleven years have passed since then, with CYTA recording record profits, which would have ended up in the pockets of private individuals and not serving the public.
The government has convinced many times throughout its years of governance that it has no vision for the future. It is content to managing today by promoting ‘get-rich-quick’ profiteering, greed and securing jobs for its cronies.
To cover up the absence of a vision and coherent economic policy, every year the government presents much-vaunted plans and commits itself to things that as usual remain on paper. Experience has shown that the Anastasiades government does not have the best record in fulfilling its pledges hence the verb “I pledge to…” became the shortest joke during its term of governance.
Speaking of announcements and commitments inevitably brings us to the issue of the implementation of the state development budget. And in this area too the government receives a very low score, the lowest of all governments. The implementation rate is usually around 65% which means that every year one out of three projects previously announced by the government are not implemented. And every year the government re-announces them and in doing so mocks citizens.
The need to develop an economy built on solid foundations, directed towards sustainable, balanced and socially oriented growth is pressing.
In rethinking our developmental model, we must support the primary and secondary sectors, which have been marginalised in recent years. We must support agriculture and livestock farming, as well as Cypriot industry.
We must provide substantial support to small family businesses and self-employed working people who constitute the backbone of the Cyprus economy.
Incentives must be provided not only to attract foreign investment, but also to support the growth of Cypriot businesses.
At the same time, we need to turn to new sectors which have been relegated to the background all through this period. We need to create a knowledge-based economy by increasing investment in research, innovation and technology; by improving the infrastructures necessary for the development of these sectors.
It is imperative that we promote a circular and green economy with determination and at a faster pace because we are still lagging behind.
We must improve the functioning of the State to rid ourselves of its distortions and problems. The members of the ruling DISY party when they were in opposition talked about “cutting losses” in the civil service that had to be eradicated. Nine years in power and despite the fact that the government now has legislation in place for horizontal mobility in the wider civil service since 2017, the number of civil servants has actually surpassed the numbers of 2012. And at the same time, spending on the purchase of services has increased by a huge amount.
The much-touted so-called Reform of the civil service won’t substantially change the situation, as it is limited to the evaluation and promotion of civil servants and does not address much more immediate needs.
This so-called reform does not address:
– The need for the Civil Service to respond to the demands of society in a timely and effective manner.
– The need to reduce bureaucracy and increase transparency and accountability.
– The need to make the public service, and by extension the State, a pillar ensuring social protection and the country’s developmental prospects.
– The need for the public service to adapt to the new conditions and realities of technological development and digital transformation.
With regards the tax system, it is our conviction that it must be reformed in order to ensure a fairer distribution of the tax burden. Wealth cannot remain untaxed.
Incentives must be adopted for sustainable development and to address environmental challenges.
It is imperative that tax evasion is combated, which continues to be very high despite the fact that the government has received from Parliament as many tools as it requested.
With regards private debt, the government has given up all efforts even though its actions and policies have caused this debt to skyrocket.
The government’s Restructuring Scheme “ESTIA” even according to official admissions has been a failure. Loan sales to private credit purchase funds are proceeding unhindered. Not only has the government done nothing to protect viable borrowers, but through targeted changes in legislation it has left them exposed. The government, on the other hand, is satisfied with the course of the private debt because non-performing loans have been removed from the banks’ books, but they have remained in the economy and been shifted on to the backs of borrowers.
On the issue of the debt, the government’s recklessness and sloppiness has been unprecedented. When the problem arose it gave the impression that it wouldn’t affect us that much.
When AKEL tabled a proposal to reduce the VAT rate on electricity, which is recommended even by the European Commission as well, the government mocked our proposal and tried to undermine it. In the end, it backed down and decided to submit a proposal to the European Commission, but it is inferior to the one approved by a large majority in Parliament. To get its own way, however, the government is proceeding to issue a decree to implement its own proposal. Once again, the government has reminded us all of its authoritarianism.
All of this leads us to one conclusion: we are facing a government without a vision that does not base its policies on society’s real problems, but instead has as its basic criterion serving powerful interests and communication considerations and experiences.
When discussing the budget, we cannot but refer to the Cyprus problem.
What we are experiencing today is indicative of the gloomy picture that is prevalent, with the permanent partition more visible than ever. The enormous responsibility of the occupying power Turkey is given, all the more so given that it is consolidating the partitionist fait accompli on a daily basis through provocative, aggressive and mostly illegal actions, which are becoming more and more frequent.
It is obvious that to put an end to this destructive course and terminate the Turkish aggression and rhetoric for a two state solution, which is being fueled by the prolonged deadlock on the Cyprus problem, the negotiations must be resumed. Unfortunately, at present, there doesn’t appear any such prospect.
We do not have the luxury of believing that time is on our side, given that the unproductive passage of time is to the detriment of the prospects for a solution. The facts on the ground are becoming increasingly negative, given that the Anastasiades government has chosen to invest in pursuing ineffective policies and so long as it is focusing on the woeful story of seeking the imposition of sanctions that will, as the government had stated, ‘hurt Turkey’.
Breaking the damaging stalemate can be achieved if we take specific initiatives to try to revive the negotiating procedure on the correct basis.
- We must understand that if we ourselves don’t act, others will not act for us.
It is generally acknowledged that at Crans-Montana we came very close to resolving the core aspects of the Cyprus problem, which would have made the overall solution inevitable.
This explains why UN Secretary General Mr. Guterres, in his Reports to the Security Council – with the exception of the last one – insisted on continuing the negotiations from where they had remained. He was fully aware that if this was accepted in practice, we could, within a short period of time, reach the much sought-after solution.
AKEL, as a responsible and serious party that works with consistency for a solution based on the agreed framework, submitted a comprehensive proposal to the President of the Republic a year ago to break the deadlock.
AKEL’s proposal serves two main objectives. First, by taking concrete steps we can convince that the Greek Cypriot side’s declared readiness for a resumption of the negotiations is genuine. This will restore the President’s non-existent credibility and persuasiveness on the Cyprus problem vis-à-vis the international community, as the chief negotiator of the Greek Cypriot side himself, Mr. Mavroyiannis, concluded.
In response to the UN Secretary General’s position for the natural gas to be used as a catalyst for the resumption of negotiations, AKEL has submitted a proposal on how this can be achieved. A proposal that does not violate any of the Greek Cypriot side’s “red lines”, nor does it propose any unacceptable concessions being made.
The proposal for the resumption of the negotiations begins by the Greek Cypriot side stressing its insistence on a solution of a bicommunal, bizonal federation with political equality, as this is set out in the relevant Resolutions of the UN Security Council, without terms and preconditions. This position may seem self-evident, but especially in the current circumstances it assumes a particular significance given that, after Crans Montana, Ankara, as well as the new Turkish Cypriot leadership, are essentially insisting on a two state solution.
Furthermore, the Greek Cypriot side should express its readiness to continue the negotiations from where they had left off on the basis of the 2014 Joint Declaration, the Framework of the UN Secretary General and preserving the convergences recorded.
Of course, there can be no guarantees that if our proposal is accepted and submitted by President Anastasiades, Turkey and Mr. Tatar would cooperate for a resumption of meaningless negotiations and to arrive at a solution within the agreed framework. But at least they will be under pressure to move in that direction, because if they don’t, they will be left exposed.
If the necessary significance is attached to AKEL’s proposal, which gives a concrete form to the UN Secretary General’s persistent and productive recommendations, then we can hope that there will be a prospect of breaking the current deadlock. This is the safest and most effective way to deal with Turkey’s delirium of intransigence – something that the so-called “new ideas” put forward both domestically, as well as by third parties, cannot achieve. These ideas nullify key convergences that took decades to achieve and in fact they are not new at all. On the contrary, they take us back at least twenty years back and, if they do eventually prevail, they will drag us back to the endless discussions of the past.
The President of the Republic, instead of appreciating the fact that the opposition party has submitted to him a specific proposal for a way out of the dangerous impasse, has not only rejected our proposal without discussing it, but instead is even accusing us of supposedly proposing unacceptable concessions.
We will just say this: we have never accepted and will never accept – even to discuss – a two state solution. We categorically reject it. Can the President of the Republic say the same?
I began my speech focusing on the substance and I will end with that: AKEL, honoring its role as the opposition party, cannot vote in favour of this budget. It would be like negating our political self. Not only because we do not want to be inconsistent, but also because the government’s budget is not in line with the role that the people have entrusted to us: namely, to exercise scrutiny and control over the Anastasiades-DISY government and protect the interests of the majority of society from its anti-social policies.
At the beginning of my speech, I said that I wanted to use this opportunity to address those who gave us the mandate to represent them. Our fellow citizens. The people. To send them a message of optimism that in the face of the government’s anti-social policies, a development policy can be pursued with a social dimension.
As AKEL we will continue to struggle on this path, with consistency, until we achieve progressive change.