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Our View: Parties have always paid lip service to meritocracy

THE ROW between the auditor-general and the minister of finance, regarding the finance ministry civil servant that also happens to be member of a Disy executive body, highlighted a much bigger, decades-long problem. The bigger, much deeper problem is the control of the public service by the political parties, which use it to provide jobs for and promotions to their members, as well as a sweetener to attract new members with the promise of jobs.

There may have been laws against this but were openly disregarded. Two years ago, Disy decided to regulate the matter by passing a law that allowed public servants to hold positions in a political party, as long as they had received permission from the Public Service Commission. It was a joke law, considering that the Commission members are party appointees and would have never turned down any application, but it created the illusion that a regulatory framework had been put in place.

The issue raised by auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides was that finance ministry employee Savia Orphanidou was a member of the Disy political bureau without receiving clearance from the Public Service Commission. In response, the minister, Harris Georgiades, said that nobody respected the law – public servants held party positions when this was illegal – while after the passing of the 2015 law they continued to do so without securing the approval stipulated by the law.

Georgiades said that implementing the law was not a good idea. “We would have to go back, if we were to implement, with strictness, the letter of the law and this would have to be done for everyone; there were, and there are civil servants, government doctors, there were journalists at the state broadcaster and everywhere there are public employees that participated in political parties,” he said and concluded: “I say it again, if the legislation is implemented to the letter we would be opening a very big chapter.”

In effect, the minister was warning all the parties to stop making a fuss about the matter because the implementation of the letter of the law would affect all of them. They were being hypocritical in criticising the minister about a single case when all the parties were guilty of ignoring the law. Of course, the fact that all the parties disregarded the law is no defence and Georgiades was being disingenuous in resorting to such a ludicrous argument.

At the same time, this was an admission that all the political parties had destroyed the public service, turning it into an agency of party cronyism and nepotism. It was also an admission that any laws aimed at combating this type of corruption would be a dead letter. It suffices to say that the Clerides government, some 20 years ago, passed a law making nepotism a criminal offence, but no-one has ever been prosecuted. Was it because nepotism had been eliminated or because the law was not, as Georgiades would say, enforced “with strictness”?

The truth is that the political parties, without exception, have been taking everyone for a ride, in paying lip service to meritocracy and passing laws, supposedly aimed at tackling nepotism. Public employees are rewarded with promotion or favourable transfers not because of their job performance but because of their party allegiance. A public employee joins a party because this helps his or her career prospects and offers protection against disciplinary measures and bad transfers.

Politicians, however keep up this charade. On Wednesday, after meeting Odysseas Michaelides, Diko leader Nicholas Papadopoulos expressed his full support to the auditor-general, in the latter’s row with Georgiades. He said his party would back Michaelides’ efforts “to tackle the phenomenon of party control of the public service.” It was as if nobody knew that Diko owed its existence to the large-scale nepotism exercised by its founder and first leader Spyros Kyprianou. As president Kyprianou increased the size of the public service in order to offer jobs to those that signed up as Diko members. In the 1980s, Diko had an electoral strength of 27 per cent thanks to the “phenomenon” Papadopoulos abhors and it is because of this “phenomenon” the party controls Cyta and the CTO.

In a well-run state, a civil servant would not be allowed, to hold a position in a political party because this would compromise his or her position as an impartial and unbiased servant of the state. Nor would the ridiculous practice, of a civil servant taking leave to stand in parliamentary elections and returning to work if he or she failed to get elected, have been tolerated. Such practices are the reason we have a dysfunctional and corrupt public service in which meritocracy is almost non-existent.

If we want an independent and meritocratic public service all links between public employees and the parties must be severed by law and the letter of the law would have to be enforced not just with strictness, but ruthlessly.

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