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Our View: Foreclosures bill could spark first mass anti-troika protest

FOR THE FIRST time since the decision to bail in depositors, there is a real sense of public discontent and disquiet. This has been caused by the foreclosures bill that was approved by the cabinet on Wednesday and presented in a television broadcast by President Anastasiades later the same day. None of the assurances about the protection of the primary residence given by the president in his speech seem to have eased people’s anxiety or convinced them that they had nothing to fear.

Groups opposing the bill have sprung up voicing strong opposition to the bill and pledging to fight it all the way. These are not controlled by the political parties, but groups made up of citizens who want to defend their interests from what they see as the injustice of the foreclosures bill which would allow the banks to seize their properties. They are not only protecting primary residences, but also business premises and real estate used as collateral for loans.

The more militant groups do not want to hear about restructuring of loans or mediation, but are demanding there be no foreclosures until the economic recovery in two or three years’ time. A group representing land developers, who are supposedly more pragmatic, has made a similar demand which seems to have support from a cross-section of society. For now, each group is fighting its own corner, but if they united they could become a social force that could not be ignored.

It is not known whether the government is aware of the danger of being confronted by a popular movement opposed to the bill, but Finance Minister Harris Georgiades’ decision to meet all the parties and try to secure their support was a good move. How successful he will be remains to be seen considering the parties’ reactions to the bill have ranged from strong objections to outright opposition. Even pro-government DISY has voiced some reservations and said it would propose three improvements to the minister.

AKEL is vehemently opposed to the bill, as is the Alliance of Citizens, while DIKO and EDEK have voiced strong objections but have said they would take a position once they had studied it properly. The populism that has always poisoned politics is very much at play and it is very difficult to see any of the parties acting responsibly and taking a stand that went against public sentiment.

Georgiades has a thankless task convincing parties to support such an unpopular bill and his assertion that he would brief them about the provision but not engage in negotiations was not very wise. If making some tweaks to the bill will secure enough backing to see the bill through it should be pursued. However, any changes will need the approval of the troika which has warned that if the bill is not approved by the end of August, it would not release the next tranche of financial assistance. Troika’s representatives were involved in tough negotiations with Georgiades for many days in order to finalise the bill last month, and might not be inclined to accept more changes.

Finding a compromise that will satisfy enough parties to secure a House majority and also have the consent of the Troika is a big challenge for Georgiades. But even if he pulls this off, the government may be faced with popular opposition and social unrest that would be difficult to control. Until now, there have been negligible public protests or opposition to measures imposed by the memorandum, people accepting them as necessary.

They seem unlikely to be so compliant and acquiescent to a law that could cause them to relinquish ownership of their real estate, the only asset universally considered safe and of sound value. After what has happened to shares, bank deposits and bonds in the last 18 months this unshakeable faith in real estate will have been further strengthened. This explains why so many groups, with the sole purpose of blocking the foreclosures bill, have been formed. How far they would be prepared to go to achieve this objective nobody can predict, but we could witness public unrest and the first mass protests against the memorandum.

It is entirely possible that none of this would happen. The majority of the parties might act responsibly and approve the bill while the pressure groups might fail to rally adequate support. But the government should still prepare for trouble.

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