Cyprus Mail
Guest ColumnistOpinion

Elections and the civil service

Public service union PASYDY conference on Thursday

By Alexander Michaelides

A law has recently been approved by the Cypriot parliament that probably should be unconstitutional because it does not ensure the objectivity, impartiality, neutrality and independence of the civil service. The law (approved primarily with votes by DISY-DIKO) allows civil servants to be political party members and have the right to participate in elections.

One excuse that was given was: “Since this is already done, why pretend it is not happening.” That is, since the illegalities are taking place anyway, why not solve the problem by legalising the practice. Unfortunately, it is with this mindset that Cyprus arrived at March 2013, and Greece is in the eighth year of its economic crisis.

At least in Greece this point is well understood by Mr Mitsotakis (the new president of the opposition New Democracy) and he has promised that at least this practice will stop. In Cyprus, the MPs have gone in the opposite direction, despite the public admonition of former President George Vassiliou and despite the (lukewarm) reactions of the attorney-general, the civil servants’ union PASYDY and the other political parties.

Honestly, I do not know where to start from on this issue, that is how big of a problem this law will create. Let’s start with what is happening in England, which despite its problems has a well-functioning civil service, and where there is a specific Civil Service code.

Article 4.4.19 explicitly states that “civil servants are disqualified from election to Parliament (House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975) and from election to the European Parliament (European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978). They must therefore resign from the civil service before standing for election.” The details go on to safeguard the neutrality of the civil service.

But let’s go into more concrete problems that this law might generate. If it makes you feel more comfortable, just think of these as a thought experiment. They have never happened before in Cypriot society. Suppose there is a secretary in an independent institution, say the Central Bank, or a ministry, say the ministry of finance, that, given the free time available, decides to become an active political party member. In the morning he comes into contact with many confidential documents but in the afternoon he can visit the (opposition) political party offices. Who can convince his political superiors that the documents will remain confidential?

Let us continue this logic. How will the political superior handle the relationship knowing that the secretary may have direct contact with the leadership of the opposition? Will there be any trust or will all politically-appointed superiors recruit their “own” secretaries? Now, I have to admit, this is not a made-up example, it is taken directly from the experience of Greece.

Let’s continue a bit further. The law legitimizing a partisan civil service has only recently been approved in Cyprus and therefore the examples mentioned above remain isolated. But if you live and operate in such an environment, do you believe that in five years there will exist any civil servants that will not be affiliated with a political party just as a way to get promotions or ensure “fair” treatment? The painful experience of Greece, where a huge turnover of posts became dependent on election outcomes, should have been telling and a clear example to avoid.

There are two issues I have not touched upon because they deserve more analysis. How can conflicts of interest among other professional groups elected to Parliament (eg lawyers) be effectively managed, when large groups (eg civil servants) are not allowed to participate in the elections? Second, where does the civil service line stop in Cyprus? Specifically, is it fair to treat differently academics from public versus private universities or journalists from public versus private radio/TV or workers in semi-public (CYTA) versus private organisations? But there are other solutions for these problems and the solution for sure does not lie with creating a partisan civil service.

I believe that this new law will replace civil service neutrality with partisanship, which will have extremely negative consequences for the country in the future. I hope the next parliament will urgently revisit this law, make a proper solicitation of views from experts both from within and outside Cyprus, and follow international best practice. If it comes to it, perhaps the Cypriot MPs can just copy the revised codes of conduct of the British civil service, there is no shame in that.

 

Alexander Michaelides is Professor of finance,  Imperial College Business School.

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