POPULISM and pandering to interest groups have always been the political currency in Cyprus and one of the main reasons for the crash of the economy four years ago. As we have written on countless occasions that our political parties have learnt nothing from this devastating experience and carry on behaving in the same way, supporting every interest group’s demands, advocating more state spending and more state jobs while blocking any attempt to change and rationalise things such as privatising SGOs, reforming the civil service and restructuring local government.
They are the conservative, reactionary forces, which are united in maintaining the old and discredited ways of running the country. When issues of modernisation arise, government measures that would affect interest groups, Akel, Diko, Edek, Greens, Alliance and Solidarity all unite in opposing it, their positions being identical. They also support every demand, regardless of how unreasonable it might be, by teachers, nurses, small shopkeepers, bank bondholders etc. Those in parliament collectively blocked the foreclosures bill in 2014 while also drafting and approving a host of unconstitutional laws aimed exclusively at winning votes.
The only exception to this cacophonous concert of populist excess was the right-wing Disy, which regularly took a stand against it, an encouraging and re-assuring voice of reason that offered an alternative. On some occasions it even angered the presidential palace which has developed a tendency this year, as we exited the assistance programme, of occupying the middle ground between populist recklessness and rationality. This left Disy and especially its leader, Averof Neophytou, who shouldered the burden of taking ‘unpopular’ stands, isolated. He may have had the support of a few members of the cabinet, but not necessarily the president’s.
After Disy’s poor showing in the May parliamentary elections and the loss of three seats, Neophytou appears to have been shaken, especially as the president blamed the fall in the share of the vote on the Disy leader’s anti-populist positions which antagonised some big unions and interest groups. There has also been criticism from within the party which has its own Akel-style populists. This criticism and pressure, we suspect, made Neophytou feel weakened and fear that his leadership was under threat, although it is difficult to see from where any challenge would come.
We mention this as a possible explanation for the change of attitude that has been exhibited by the Disy leader after the elections, which saw the announcement of ‘dialogue’ with society. Last month an array of interest groups were invited for meetings with Neophytou at his office. He met the representatives the old shareholders of the Bank of Cyprus, the noisy bank bondholders and the Laiki depositors known as Sykala and in statements following these meetings he expressed the view that now the economy was recovering it was time for the state to consider compensating the people who suffered from the haircut.
It was as if he was giving himself a baptism in populism. Some could argue that this happened earlier in the month, when he backed Diko’s proposal for the immovable property tax, against the government’s wishes, but there may have been different motives for that. Last Sunday, in an interview with Politis, Neophytou expressed views on the Cyprus problem talks that are usually uttered by his counterparts at Diko or Edek. Was this another sign of a decision to join the populist camp? If Disy took an anti-settlement stance it would not be long before the opportunists of Akel also joined it.
Any move by Disy towards the populist camp would be terrible for the country and our democracy as it would signal the end of political pluralism. We would have a dictatorship of the populists who, in collaboration with unions and other interest groups, would run the economy into the ground once again. There may be some isolated opposition to their plans and lone voices of dissent, but parliament would operate like that of a one-party state. This may sound exaggerated, but the danger of there being just one voice in parliament, if Neophytou decided it was politically too costly to stand up for reason cannot be ruled out. We leave aside the threat to the peace process by such a turnaround.
There is little doubt that Neophytou has been put under pressure and has received little support from the presidential palace for sticking his neck out and for often carrying the can for the unpopular measures taken by the government during the assistance programme. Admittedly, it took courage, resolve and mental strength for him to swim against the populist tide in these years, but now is not the time to give up. The country still needs a voice of reason and responsibility to counter the demagogues.