IN HIS first public appearance after being elected House president in 2016, Demetris Syllouris announced that he would introduce measures to improve the standing of the legislature and make it work more productively. All parliamentary regulations would be implemented, he said, and he would seek regular meetings with the press to ensure accountability to the public.
Fine words indeed but, as is so often the case, they were not matched with actions. In fact, in the case of the list of non-performing loans (NPL) held by Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) including deputies, the House president appears to have done everything in his power to avoid the accountability to the public he professed. Transparency, which ensures the much-vaunted accountability, was shunned by Syllouris.
The list that was given to him in April last year by the outgoing governor of the Central Bank Chrystalla Georghadji and included the names of deputies with bad debts – reportedly totalling €35.3 million – was handed back to the new governor, Constantinos Herodotou, a month later. Syllouris said he wanted to know if discussion of the list would constitute a violation of privacy laws. This seemed an understandable concern at the time, but subsequent events indicated his intention was actually to bury the matter.
Herodotou wrote to the House committee meeting in July telling it there was no legal obstacle to releasing the information. His letter was ignored. He sent a second letter at the end of November, informing Syllouris that the list could be given to the legislature if a House committee formally requested it. Again, he was ignored, but on Thursday, thanks to the persistence of an Akel deputy and the Greens’ leader, the House watchdog committee was finally forced to request a briefing on the list from the governor. Syllouris attended the committee meeting where he argued that the list was sloppily drafted and would spark populism and therefore should not be discussed. Although he was backed by committee chairman, Zacharias Koulias, he did not get his way because the rest of the committee members insisted the governor should be asked to submit the list.
It was commendable that the deputies on the committee decided to protect the reputation of the House, in stark contrast to the House president. Instead, he seemed intent on preventing the public exposure of all those deputies who had behaved inappropriately, using their position to secure preferential treatment from the banks. According to reports, there were also deputies with NPLs, hardly the most appropriate people to vote on foreclosures legislation. Whose interests were they really championing when they campaigned against foreclosures and made the legislation ineffective? How many of them were not repaying their loans to the co-op bank while blaming the government for closing it down?
The people have the right to know, even if Syllouris has decided to suppress transparency. Unfortunately, the lack of transparency and accountability marks many decisions of the legislature. For years, despite the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body GRECO, political parties refuse to pass legislation ensuring transparency on their funding. Nobody knows who funds the parties or presidential candidates in elections. There is no register of interests and if there is everybody ignores it. The capital statement that politicians are obliged to submit is a joke, the correctness of the information checked by nobody, even though a committee was set up for this purpose.
Is it any wonder, Syllouris has been doing everything he can to prevent the Georghadji list from being submitted to the legislature and discussed? He is upholding a House tradition of protecting deputies, by fighting against transparency and accountability. In fairness, he would not get away with this behaviour without the tacit support of the majority of the political parties that also seek to protect their deputies and minimise public scrutiny.
Things will carry on in this way for as long as there is no public pressure on the political parties and their leaderships for real transparency. The media can play an important role as can individual deputies who have nothing to hide and put the interests of our democracy above those of their parties and colleagues.
Only concerted public pressure can bring real change and ensure the transparency that characterises all true democracies. We cannot expect our parties to do this of their own volition, now that we have a clear idea of how hollow the House president’s words of greater accountability really were.