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Our View: Local government exists primarily to serve the political parties

File photo: voting in Cyprus

THE MUNICIPAL elections being held today have largely been ignored. Candidates standing for mayor or councillor may have been campaigning in their voting areas and appearing on any radio show that would give them air-time – even paying for billboards to promote their candidacy – but the build-up has largely gone unnoticed. The media have given some coverage, but primarily focused on a couple of the bigger municipalities at which a close fight was expected between the mayoral candidates.

The build-up has been a low-key affair and this is expected to be reflected in a poor turn-out at the polling stations that could be worse than that for last May’s parliamentary elections. That elections are being held just a week before Christmas is an added disincentive to vote, but voter apathy cannot be attributed to this only, or to the low regard in which the parties and politicians are held according to the received wisdom. The problem is much deeper and is linked to the institution of local government which is not taken very seriously by people.

Local authorities have very few powers and when candidates for mayor promises to improve the quality of life of citizens – as they all do – it is difficult to believe them and less so candidates for council seats. We have come to regard local authorities, primarily as garbage collection organisations; they also decorate the streets at Christmas and Easter and organise the odd cultural event. Their other responsibilities include maintaining the streets and street lighting, overseeing the sewage system and spraying insecticide as part of their responsibility for ensuring public health. Nicosia, Larnaca, Limassol and Paphos municipalities also act as town planning authorities.

Yet the main reason for the existence of municipalities is to operate as employment agencies. Party supporters that cannot get jobs in the civil service are given positions in the municipalities which are part of the public sector, offering staff good wages, job security, and big pensions. The biggest part of the cash-strapped, heavily-indebted municipalities’ expenditure goes on staff wages and pensions, leaving next to no funds for projects that would actually improve the quality of life of their citizens. For most, paying wages and repaying loan is the sole objective.

The other reason for their existence is to offer paid public posts to party members as they cannot all secure appointments as state officials or be elected deputies. Municipal councillors are paid about €800 a month while mayors are not only paid big salaries but they have arranged to collect big pensions as well. This is why a tiny country like Cyprus with a population of 800,000 has 30 municipalities. It suffices to say that there are cities in Europe with three times this population being served by one municipality. But our parties have never had a problem wasting the taxpayer’s money on unnecessary public posts to keep their members happy.

While the existence of so many municipalities gives the impression, superficially, of greater local democracy the exact opposite is true because local authorities have so few powers and are dependent for a large part of their funding on the central government. In other words, neither the voters nor the councils that represent them can do very much to change or improve things within the municipal boundaries. The EU objective of more powers being given to local authorities has never worked here because municipalities, primarily, have a cosmetic role.

For this to change and for citizens to enjoy local democracy, there should be a maximum of five municipalities, which should have the power to impose rates, not just for garbage collection, and become financially independent. Only a municipality serving a large number of people could be financially viable. If Nicosia, for example, was served by one municipal council instead of seven, was able to impose taxes and had more powers ceded to it by the central government we would have genuine representative local democracy. And if citizens felt the taxes were too high and the services poor they could vote out the mayor at the next elections.

As things are, local government exists primarily to serve the political parties rather than citizens. By having so many financially unviable municipalities, dependent on cash handouts from the central government for their survival, the parties maintain control and their hegemony is never challenged. If, on the other hand, a municipal council was financially independent it would have the autonomy to ignore political party or central government diktats and put the interests of its citizens first. But for this to happen, the number of municipalities must be drastically cut and we know how the parties feel about that. They rejected the interior minister’s moderate proposal of reducing the municipalities from 30 to 22, so they will never agree to these being cut to five.

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