After the golden passports exposé there was an outcry against corruption. Citizens held demonstrations, newspapers wrote fiery editorials against sleaze and opposition parties demanded a clean-up. Corruption became the main campaign theme of last May’s parliamentary elections, Diko and Akel engaging in daily attacks on the government for its allegedly shady dealings while constantly demanding transparency and accountability.
This criticism was justified, but it did not have much effect on the voters, with both parties seeing their share of the vote declining, whereas Disy (that could be called the party of government) still taking the biggest share of the vote although its support had waned. This could have been interpreted in several ways: the majority of voters were not bothered about corruption because they hoped to benefit from it at some point; opposition parties posing as anti-corruption agents were not taken seriously because people, understandably, believed all parties were involved in corruption.
Long before May’s elections, reacting to the public criticism President Anastasiades announced a series of measures aimed at combating corruption, including the establishment of an independent anti-corruption authority as well as a National Service of Integrity that would hire accountants to carry out proper checks of the capital statements (known in Greek as pothen esches) submitted by members of the executive, state officials and members of parliament.
There has also been pressure to introduce anti-corruption legislation by the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (Greco), which has repeatedly censured Cyprus for delays in introducing its recommendations on transparency and accountability. There is now an urgency on the matter because the European Commission has made disbursement of €97 million from the Recovery and Resilience Fund conditional on the introduction of an anti-corruption authority and a law regulating political lobbying.
Justice and Public Order Minister Stefi Drakou appeared before the House ethics committee on Wednesday to urge deputies to approve the two above-mentioned bills because the release of funds depended on it. The law regulating lobbying, which provides that politicians declared all their contacts and kept minutes of what was discussed, did not go down well with deputies, who felt it was an infringement on their liberty and that it would discourage people talking to them. They had a point, but they will vote the bill through because of the strings attached and – if past practice is anything to go by – subsequently ignore the law.
Is it better to pass a law and ignore it or not to pass it at all and thus avoid making a mockery of it? The ‘pothen esches’ law, by which politicians have to declare their assets when taking office and update this statement every few years, has turned into a farce. A couple of weeks ago, the newly-elected deputies submitted their capital statements, followed by members of the government a week later. Of the 56 deputies less than 20 per cent reportedly filled out their forms properly. This is not to say they wanted to deceive anyone but so low was their regard for the law they did not take the trouble to complete the forms properly.
Parties are no different from the deputies. They took the entire state subsidy for this year before May’s parliamentary elections with the result that four parties that did not take the share of the vote on which this funding depends owe money to the state. Citizens Alliance and Solidarity owe in excess of €200,000 while Diko owes €47,000 and none of them seems prepared to pay this money back even though it is due to other parties. Is bending the law for financial benefit not a form of corruption? These are the parties that that for years have been ignoring the Greco recommendation to list the names of their funders. No need for transparency on their funding, they have decided.
Corruption takes many forms, but politicians and their parties see it only when their rivals engage in it and the media make a fuss about it. If it benefits a party or a politician, corruption is packaged in mock-lawfulness. President Anastasiades, for instance, saw nothing wrong with his family benefiting financially from a state policy – the citizenship by investment scheme – nor with the fact that citizenships were issued to the extended family of a man whose generosity the president enjoyed. Yet the president insisted he had done nothing improper and has repeatedly boasted that he has always been irreproachable in the performance of his duties.
The sad truth is that the entire political system has been built on corrupt practices – it is the way political parties operate, attract supporters and keep them loyal. It is the way the parties operate that cultivates corruption and it does not look like they are ready to change anything. We can pass as many anti-corruption laws as we like but as long as the political system does not radically change its mode of operation, the laws will be a dead letter.