THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman who refuses to grants favours for votes and is determined to change a corrupt system, while insisting that revolution has an age limit
Anna Theologou is quite an unusual MP. She’s a woman, for a start, though that’s not so unusual anymore. She’s a divorcee and a single parent. She’s young (she’ll be 35 in March), the second-youngest among the current crop. Above all, she’s an independent, the only one in the 56-strong House – albeit now affiliated to the Independents, a new movement of non-party candidates hoping for a strong showing in May 2021.
The sign downstairs reads Alternus Consulting Ltd, the small consulting firm she runs in Nicosia. There are two other full-time employees, though the office is empty on a Friday afternoon; a print of George Gavriel’s Jesus-as-a-migrant painting (one of the works that caused so much controversy recently) hangs on her wall. Anna herself is tall, with a sharp nose and chin; her height and poise took her to ‘Star Cyprus’, the annual beauty pageant, in 2005 (she was named ‘Miss Carlsberg’, the equivalent of third place) – but her tone is the opposite of a beauty queen’s, being down-to-earth and entirely unaffected. We speak in enikos, the informal form of Greek, from the very first moment.
It’s hard to overstate how important – above all, how rare – it is to be an independent in our House of Representatives. She didn’t enter Parliament under her own steam, of course; nobody could, unless they were a Trump-like celebrity (even then, they’d surely choose to align themselves with one of the big parties). Anna was initially an MP for Citizens’ Alliance, a vehicle for the veteran politician Giorgos Lillikas; she’d come in ‘on merit’, as they say – i.e. not as a party member – being a fairly well-known economist and TV pundit. Lillikas may have thought that someone like her, with no previous experience in politics, would be unlikely to rock the boat – yet in 2018, when Citizens’ Alliance refused to take sides in the second round of the presidential election and instructed its followers to vote according to their conscience, Anna rebelled, and left the party.
“They tried to muzzle my voice,” she says now, towering elegantly behind the desk in her office. “Because I’d said from the start that whoever was against Anastasiades, I’d be for them, I said so clearly.” She abhors the political cop-out of not taking sides, in general: “Having a party just for the sake of having a party, without trying to guide the people who support you, I don’t think is right… Why did everyone [i.e. the small-party leaders] go ‘according to your conscience’ in 2018? Didn’t they have an opinion?”.
Admittedly, MPs breaking with their parties is nothing new; but it usually ends with them joining another (usually bigger) party. Pavlos Mylonas, for instance, was also elected with Citizens’ Alliance in 2016 and also broke ranks, even before Anna did – but he’s now with Diko, while she’s happy to remain on her own. The snag, of course, is that an independent MP is unlikely to be re-elected, indeed it’s quite possible that her parliamentary career will be over (at least for now) in a few months’ time. “Sure,” shrugs Anna, “but it was never my intention to have a political career… I wasn’t even thinking of trying to get into Parliament. It just happened.”
She may not be a politician, but she works pretty hard at it: she’s a member of five House committees, Finance (which meets on Monday), Trade and Industry (Tuesday), Refugees (also Tuesday; she goes back and forth), the House watchdog committee (Thursday) and Communications and Works (Friday, followed by the weekly meeting of the full House). Her day starts at 7am, when she takes her 10-year-old daughter to school, and doesn’t end till 8pm, usually later. She also – for a semi-accidental MP – seems to have developed the politician’s knack for rhetorical crescendo, tending to repeat the same point over and over but more emphatically – though in fact I only catch this when I listen to the interview later. I’m entirely engrossed at the time – both because she speaks very well and because what she says is so vital. Indeed, she’s a breath of fresh air.
It’s no secret that our system is broken. The recent scandal over the passport scheme has only illustrated what’s long been obvious, viz. that “they’re all the same”, ostensible Left and Right alike. Parties divide the spoils and cover up for each other, a rotten situation enabled by the absence of ‘horizontal voting’ – i.e. being able to vote for a cross-section of the best people, irrespective of party affiliation (it’ll never happen, of course; party MPs would be suicidal to vote for it) – which in turn has to do with many, or most, voters viewing the parties as a way of serving their personal interests.
“That’s not my position,” says Anna firmly. People call her up all the time (or else contact her on Facebook), to report illegalities or seek help with health problems – but there’s one kind of problem she refuses to fix. “Don’t call me up to arrange a job for your son, I won’t do it. Don’t call me up asking for favours, I won’t do it. If you vote for me, or support me, you’re supporting me because you believe in the things I say, and you believe they represent you. If you’re not doing it for that reason, better that you just don’t vote for me. I’m being completely honest here.” She saw it even while campaigning in 2016, she recalls, people saying ‘You have my vote if you can arrange this-or-that’. “I don’t want your vote,” she told those people simply.
Is she for real? Or just saying all this to get into power, at which point she’ll stick her snout in the trough like all the others? Hard to say, of course – and power does corrupt, that’s for sure – but there are reasons to be optimistic when it comes to Anna Theologou.
The first is that she’s remained independent – and indeed is now trying to expand the category, through the Independents (they plan to field 56 candidates, like a normal party but without any leader; all will be young and “untainted by politics”). “I want to be accountable,” she says by way of explanation, her point being that party MPs are never truly accountable because they have to toe the party line; ‘I had to do it,’ they’re able to claim, when faced with evidence of having promised one thing and done another. Many of her colleagues secretly envy her freedom to express herself, she reckons – yet it’s also true that parties mean protection; Disy or Diko or Akel (especially Akel) operate as a shielding effect, a comfort zone for skittish politicians. Anna, on the other hand, is always exposed – yet she also doesn’t care about that. “I don’t have a problem not being in my comfort zone.”
The second reason has to do with the kind of person she seems to be: a confident person (hence that remark about a comfort zone), above all a rational person. Confidence came early, as the oldest of four kids, always tall for her age – don’t underestimate the psychological effect of being tall, especially for a youngster; “I never felt the need to prove myself”, given that she stood out without even trying – and always a doer, even before her night at the beauty pageant. Her schedule was always packed, going from school to piano lessons and basketball games – and her mind has always been analytical, practical, never the type to wallow or mope. (Her favourite subject was maths, not literature.) At one point we talk about fines for driving offences, and she points out the illogic of the fine for not wearing a seatbelt being the same as the fine for running a red light – even though the former is ‘merely’ a failure to protect oneself, while the latter actively threatens other drivers. “It’s unacceptable,” fumes Anna, “that we don’t sit down and study these things logically.” If she’s idealistic (and she is) it’s partly for technocratic reasons, because the system is so inept and inefficient.
The third reason for believing – or hoping – that she does indeed want to change things is because she’s young, and not just young (everyone, after all, was young once) but part of a very specific younger generation that’s been devastated by the past few years. “My generation is hurting,” she says hotly, calling them a ‘vulnerable group’. “I was on €1,000 a month too, before I got into Parliament, and not even that sometimes.” (She’s not a corporate consultant; her firm mostly offers financial advice for people having trouble with bank loans.) “I understand the conditions other people my age are living through right now. I only had one child – why didn’t I have a second one? Because my circumstances at the time, before I became an MP, didn’t allow me to have a second child.”
She thinks of her daughter often, thinks of what the world – and Cyprus – might be like when her child is no longer a child. “Because if I feel now, at 34, that we have no future as a generation, that we have no prospects as a generation…” Anna tails off, shaking her head. “And I say that now. What about in 20 years, when my daughter is 30? Will anything have changed for the better?”
Salaries are low, she recites gloomily, life is expensive “for other reasons… Because when you have the millionaire investors, you don’t have a problem setting rents at €2,000. But what about your own people? The locals? The young man who wants his own house, wants to start a family, and he can’t because he’s living with his mum and dad – and even that house might not be around in five years, because the bank might get it”. Loan deferrals due to Covid run out at the end of the year; from 2021, loans must be paid – but 12,000 people have already lost their jobs, government support schemes will end, companies will inevitably start firing people. Tourism isn’t expected to make a comeback till 2023; lockdown has already cost a fortune; and we don’t even have the passport scheme anymore. “It’s a lot,” admits Anna. “I mean, it feels like we’re on automatic pilot. Actually, even that might be wrong – at least you can fly straight on automatic pilot. It feels like we’re going down.” Her hand swoops, to indicate a plane in freefall.
So what do we do? Is there a plan? She is an MP, after all.
“Listen, I can imagine what will happen – but I don’t want to believe it,” she replies, not exactly reassuringly. This could be the worst crisis we’ve ever faced as a nation; worse than 2013, worse even than 1974. “At least there was money coming in in 1974.”
Maybe there’s just no money available these days, I venture.
“I disagree. If we wanted to attract healthy investments, we could easily give support” – tax incentives, for instance – “to certain sectors. Not just the construction sector.” Anna mentions ‘green’ development, tech companies, even health infrastructure. “But all the focus was on – specific people, let’s put it that way, at the expense of society as a whole. And now, the whole of society is paying the price.” Developers, the obvious culprits, make deals and move on. The towers in Limassol – now increasingly looking like white elephants – get built with bank loans. We never learn.
Will things change? Judging by her four years in Parliament (where change, if it comes, comes “in slow motion”), Anna isn’t sure. “But one thing I do know,” she adds shrewdly, “is that revolution has an age limit”. The torch must be passed to the young, if only because they genuinely care – not because they’re better people, just because they’re young – about the future. And the torch should be passed, while we’re at it, from the chokehold of political parties to free independents, offering greater transparency and a more representative democracy.
Anna herself is surprisingly relaxed about being re-elected in May, and would have no problem going back to private life. (It’s fitting that she recently made the news with a proposal for Parliament to dissolve itself and call fresh elections, as a gesture of contrition after the passport scheme.) She’s quite a refreshing politician, seemingly indifferent to power and happy to remain unencumbered. “I mean, it’s not a bad thing that I’m a woman on her own, independent, in Parliament, and I’m still standing,” she muses. “It’s not bad. It’s not bad to show the world that there are other options, that you don’t have to be cooped up in a ‘pen’, and anyone who tries to leave the pen gets lost”. I mention – just being honest – that I rather doubt if her project can succeed, and her face grows comically downcast: “Nooo, don’t ruin my hope! It’s what keeps me going!”. It’s a big dream, for a rational person.