President Anastasiades’ practice of inviting people with a grievance or a demand to his office for discussions is as old as the presidency. All presidents have done it, to different degrees, because it shows them to be accessible and in touch with the people whose problems they want to solve personally.
It occurs to nobody that such practices also show that our state services and the technocrats are incapable of doing their jobs in a rational and competent manner and the president has to intervene to provide solutions. It sustains the myth of the president as, saviour, champion of the people and all-purpose problem solver, that is usually associated with authoritarian regimes than with advanced democracies boasting sound institutions and good governance.
A classic example of the president personally intervening to tackle a problem was the case of the conscripts who wanted to start their studies at UK universities this year to benefit from the lower tuition fees that will more than double in 2021. Foreign and education ministers failed to find a solution, so the president invited a delegation of the conscripts’ parents to his summer residence and promised them he would arrange for the young men to get a deferral on army service so they could attend.
For the deferrals to be granted, however, some 200 soldiers would have to be employed on contracts to cover the gaps that would be left in the national guard. Most political parties are threatening not to approve the expenditure for hiring privates on contract, which means the government would not be able to give the deferrals – there will be a vote on the matter in the legislature today. If the expenditure is rejected, the conscripts would be forced to do their service even though they may have secured places through clearing this years and paid part of the fees; some reportedly gave up the places they had secured for next year.
This mess is the direct consequence of Anastasiades’ badly-thought-out intervention that made a bad situation worse. Last year, a visit to the presidential palace by the shopkeepers of Tseri Avenue led Anastasiades to order a complete re-design of the road despite plans having been finalised. The road, designed by experts for maximum safety and to help the traffic flow in the area, will now be based on the specs dictated by self-interested shopkeepers and a president wanting to please them.
In short, these presidential interventions, based on the assumption that the head of state is the font of all wisdom, who will personally solve problems in a prudent and rational way, have been exposed as bunk on countless occasions. These are practices seen in dictatorships and have no place in a democracy with properly functioning state institutions.