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Our View: Shop hour dispute threatens the rule of law

MPs at the House

THE SEPARATION of powers is an integral part of any well-functioning democratic state that is safeguarded by the constitution. We like to think this is the case in Cyprus and generally speaking it is, even though our politicians and parties sometimes disregard this separation.

President Anastasiades displayed utter disregard for it a few months ago when he publicly advised the attorney-general that he should investigate the wild allegations made against the latter by his deputy at the time. By issuing instructions to an independent state official he had overstepped the boundaries imposed by the constitution on the president’s authorities, prompting a scathing written response by the AG that ended with the word ‘shame’.

This disregard for the separation of powers has also been displayed by the political parties in the legislature, which, a few months ago, passed a law taking away the constitutional power of the labour minister to issue decrees about shop opening hours. Having done that, they then passed their own regulations governing the shop opening hours as if the legislature had executive powers. The legislative power usurped the constitutional powers of the executive, with our deputies feeling that showing contempt for the constitution was permitted for a worthy cause such as the protection of small shops from competition on Sundays.

This mentality – wise politicians deciding that a law can be disregarded for the benefit of a group of people – is not only a threat to democracy but encourages a lack of respect for the law, of which there is already too much among the population. Deputies have never been able to make the connection, not even when the Supreme Court rules their actions unconstitutional, as had happened in the case of the Sunday shop opening. The Supreme Court had ruled that the legislature did not have the constitutional authority to issue regulations as this belonged to the executive.

On Thursday the parties again showed their contempt for constitutional order by voting against the government regulations for shop opening hours, which meant that from January 2, when the opening hours for the Christmas period end, the 2006 law would come into effect. This stipulates shops being closed on Wednesday afternoons and all day Sunday, with the exception of kiosks and bakeries. It was an act of political petulance by the parties the aim of which is to enter negotiations with Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou in order to find a ‘compromise’ that in essence would mean imposing their regulations on her.

Emilianidou said she has sought the advice of the attorney-general about her next steps, but may have realised that the government’s main mistake was its failure to legally challenge the legislature’s law taking away the labour minister’s power to issue decrees regarding shop opening hours. Had the government acted as the custodian of constitutional order it would never have tolerated the parties’ law curtailing the labour minister’s powers; the legislature had in effect changed the constitution.

Like the parties, the president is not such a stickler for constitutional order, which is why he chose not to take the legislature’s abuse of power to the Supreme Court. He had hoped that some compromise would eventually be reached, as is often the case. Yet matters of constitutional order such as the separation of powers are sacrosanct and the populist parties should not be allowed to make a mockery of it in the pursuit of votes. The president should never have tolerated this, because it was perceived by the parties as licence to exercise the powers of the executive, which they did.

The government must resist the temptation of entering any discussions with the political parties, even informally through DISY, which was the only party that backed the labour minister’s regulations on Thursday. There might be a problem in January, with shops either staying closed on Sunday or violating the law and opening with the risk of being fined. Emilianidou has warned that shops could lay off staff that are no loner necessary if they were obliged to return to the 2006 opening hours, but this does not seem to concern deputies as long as the kiosks, which represent many voters, and the bakeries were happy.

While it is perfectly legitimate to make this point, in an effort to win public support, the government’s main focus must be the on the issue of constitutional order on which there should be no compromise. This may cause the dispute to drag on, but the legislature needs to understand that rule of law cannot be suspended whenever it suits the parties.

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