Cyprus Mail
Opinion

Power in all the wrong places

National Council

THE INFAMOUS National Council was established in 1975 by Makarios. Perhaps his successive blunders, culminating in his conviction that Greek army officers were patriotic and would never stage the coup that led to the Turkish invasion, made him see sense and he voluntarily abandoned his ideology of the ‘one and only’ leader.

It should be noted, however, that Makarios was not to blame for the excessive power he held in his hands. The Enlightenment had never reached Cyprus’ shores and we therefore considered every archbishop an ethnarch (leader of the nation) and by definition irreplaceable. So if we are looking for the guilty party for Makarios’ errors we should point a finger at the Church of Cyprus which did not allow the ideals of equality, democracy and humanism to infiltrate the country.

As a result of his political and religious standing, Makarios significantly downgraded the role of the cabinet or Council of Ministers, a practice that unfortunately has been followed by the governments that followed. Even today the cabinet is made up of technocrats and not individuals who have proved capable of producing national policy. In our Council of Ministers, the president is not the first among equals (primus inter pares) but indisputably the first among apolitical individuals.

A president’s procedures in appointing ministers has not changed since Makarios’ time. A technocrat is usually placed in charge of a ministry. As a rule, a person involved in education is appointed education minister (with the blessing of the archbishop, of course), an agriculturist gets the agriculture ministry, while a rich merchant or CEO of a big company is usually appointed commerce and industry minister.

In contrast to the Cyprus practice, in mature democracies of the West ministerial appointees are invariably individuals that have long experience in the hothouse of politics and their opinions carry weight at cabinet meetings. In these countries, a minister depends on the briefing he receives from the mandarins of the civil service, whose expertise is utilised accordingly and there is no need for the minister to be an expert in the technical issues of his ministry.

The primary role of a minister is to work with the president (or prime minister) of the country as well as their ministerial colleagues to implement their election manifesto and not to deal with the everyday issues of the ministry he heads. He is the political superior of the ministry and shapes government (not his) policy, the implementation of which must be the responsibility of the permanent secretary and department heads of the ministry.

In a democratically developed country, apart from the individual responsibility of a minister there is also the collective (or political) responsibility. Consequently, in the case of a government decision that causes a political crisis, all ministers are responsible, regardless of whether they had participated in the actual decision-making. In such cases the resignation of one or even all ministers is considered a natural consequence. Cyprus’ minister-technocrats do not understand this simple fact, which is why since the establishment of the Republic until today the number of ministers that resigned could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

It was preposterous that only one minister resigned when the arrival of the S-300 missiles was cancelled. ALL ministers should have stepped down because they (in theory at least) had taken the decision to buy and deploy them. This behaviour teaches us that Cypriot ministers, being technocrats and to a large extent apolitical, ignore the convention of political responsibility which is integrally bound to democracy and aims at the unimpeded functioning of the democratic system of government.

The main consideration of the Cypriot people in electing Nicos Anastasiades president was the solution of the Cyprus problem. The large majority of people believes that the only achievable solution is the bizonal, bicommunal federation (BBF). The existence of the National Council adulterates the people’s will because it includes in its ranks a significant number of ‘party leaders’ who represent and promote the most undemocratic and conservative positions, the aim of which is to scupper the efforts for a settlement.

The role of the National Council should be performed by the Council of Ministers. What business does Elam have participating in the national council when it supports union with Greece, which as a solution has been dead and buried for years? What business does the extreme right Edek have participating, given that it rejects BBF as a solution and undermines the operation of the council by publicising its confidential documents? The same applies to other parties whose leaders suffer panic attacks whenever there are reports of convergences at the talks. Some would counter that the role of the National Council is ‘advisory’. In theory, it is but in reality the president cannot but be influenced by it, at least to a degree.

So what should we do? In the short term the National Council should be abolished. In the longer term, the technocratic character of the Council of Ministers should be phased out and its members should be politicians, capable of working with the president in shaping government policy. Only when these changes are made will the deficient, wan democratic picture transmitted by our country end.

George Koumoullis is an economist and social scientist

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