The Cyprus Mail continues its series of articles with the main presidential candidates. We have reprinted their responses in the order we received them. Today, we pose questions to Nikos Christodoulides
What do you think are three main issues at stake in this presidential election?
Based on the dialogue we have developed with civil society throughout these months of the election campaign, the three main issues that voters are concerned about are the cost of living/housing, immigration and the Cyprus problem.
The standard of living of most people has been affected negatively by the rising prices. Do you have specific plans for helping people deal with this?
There are no magic solutions for an immediate resolution of this problem. But one of our first decisions is to increase by 5 per cent those on low pensions and at the same time reduce the worker’s contribution rate to the Social Insurance Fund for low-income groups, with the difference being paid by the state. We also intend to modernise and improve the state’s benefits policy, to redefine the Minimum Guaranteed Income, as well as provide more effective, targeted support to the public, based on individualised assessment. At the same time, benefits, such as unemployment, maternity, child and sickness benefits, will be paid promptly.
We will fully subsidise, 100 per cent, vulnerable groups for the installation of photovoltaic systems and by 50 per cent the rest of the households, effective until the end of 2023, with simplified procedures and utilising the increased revenues of the Renewable Energy Sources and Energy Saving Fund. The simplified procedures and grants will also cover thermal insulation of buildings, replacement of energy-intensive appliances and replacement of conventional vehicles with hybrid and electric vehicles.
The standing of the country abroad has been tarnished by the issuing of golden passports. We have also been at the centre of European Parliament investigations regarding the illegal surveillance software. How do you plan to improve our country’s image abroad?
It is accepted that the Cyprus citizenship by investment scheme had several problems and for this reason it was amended three times before it was finally withdrawn. It is also a fact that the Republic has been criticised for its use of Pegasus and similar software (Pega).
Corruption has been firmly established in the minds of voters, as is clearly reflected in relevant surveys. Corruption is a complex problem in a two-way relationship of mutual feedback with clientelism. Corruption is linked with a lack of accountability and transparency, the undermining of institutions and the erosion of traditional social values.
Corruption has a negative impact on the country’s competitiveness, makes it difficult to attract quality investment and limits the economy’s potential for growth. The need to reorganise the state is more urgent than ever before. It requires the development and consolidation of a culture of zero tolerance and the strengthening of the citizen-politics-state relationship on the basis of trust, transparency, accountability and efficiency.
Further institutional reforms and a broader modernisation agenda are needed, with the creation and/or strengthening of support mechanisms to guarantee the functioning of the state on a new basis, with a new ‘social contract’. It is therefore a key priority to modernise the state, in coordination and harmony with the needs and demands of civil society, thus strengthening the fundamental and inextricable link between the state and society, based on the following principles: (a) zero tolerance of corruption, (b) inclusiveness, (d) universal and faithful application of the law, (c) equal treatment and equality.
Only in this way will we be able to improve the image of our country, both at home and abroad, and regain our lost trustworthiness and credibility.
Can you give us three practical measures you would take to deal with the migration problem?
Already, migrants make up more than 6 per cent of the country’s population. To address the problem, we will proceed with the establishment of a junior ministry of immigration, under which all the agencies involved will be brought together. We have already prepared the relevant bill.
We will also proceed with the rapid examination of applications for political asylum by increasing the number of officials over the next three years with the aim of examining more than 3,000 applications per month. To this end, we are studying the possibility of cooperation with the Cyprus Bar Association to speed up the processing of asylum applications with for the adoption of the relevant administrative decision, as well as examining the possibility of appointing lawyers, experienced judicial officers, who will hear the numerous applications in parallel with the judges of the International Protection Court, after consultation with the Supreme Court.
At the same time, and given that the vast majority of migrants do not meet the criteria for international protection, we will intensify the deportations of third country nationals, staying here illegally, by strengthening the Police’s Aliens and Immigration Service with staff and the necessary tools. We will fight the abuse of benefits policies so that Cyprus ceases to be an attractive destination. We will also further improve the surveillance of the ceasefire line with modern means to prevent the influx of irregular migrants.
Is there a pioneering project your presidency would implement?
Our intention is to adopt and introduce the institution of participatory democracy, where the government will consult youth in the formulation of its policies. We will harness technology by creating an online platform, “Voice of Youth”, similar to the Voices from Youth established at the European Union level, so that all young people have a voice and can raise their concerns to the executive.
We will also set up a youth working group at the ppresidency with a voice in government policies in cooperation with representatives of the Cyprus Youth Organisation, the Cyprus Youth Council, as well as other youth bodies.
Gesy has been under pressure, plagued by overspending, staff strikes, complaints by patients. Can things be made better and, if yes, how?
The institution of the Gesy is the most recent major social reform of the Republic. It is normal for a new institution to face problems, shortcomings and weaknesses. We will address these by putting patients and their rights at the centre of our policy. We will place particular emphasis on strengthening public hospitals and A&E departments, reducing waiting times, and ensuring equal and easy access to health care and medicines.
Housing is becoming unaffordable in parts of the country. What can be done?
The issue of housing is one of the most pressing problems that many have mentioned during my dialogue with civil society.
We will set up a Single Housing Authority, which will be responsible for implementing the state’s housing policy. This will have the responsibility of managing the state’s land as well as bringing together and administering all the state’s housing programmes and plans under a single roof.
We will utilise large tracts of state land through public and private sector collaboration to provide housing and student residences at affordable rents and provide housing for young professionals. We are also studying ways of cooperation between the state and the private sector, such as open tenders for public-private partnership (DFBOT – Design, Finance, Build, Operate, Transfer), on the basis of which contractors will be selected to build modern housing at their own expense, a significant proportion of which will be rented at affordable rent to young people and young couples, based on income criteria, as well as to families with three or more children. After an agreed period of time the government will regain ownership of the land and development.
At the same time, we will introduce tax incentives to property owners who renew the lease to the same tenant, by keeping rents constant or reducing them. We will also consider making part of the interest paid on mortgages for a first home, or part of the rent paid for a first home, on the basis of income criteria, deductible from taxable income.
There is great inequality between workers of the private and public sector – in terms of pay, pensions, job security, work conditions – which undermines social cohesion that you value. Do you believe this unfairness should be addressed?
Ensuring working conditions of security, allowing workers to respond to the needs of everyday life and reconciling professional and personal life, are essential for all workers, both in the public and private sectors. In this context, the state must act to ensure that all problems are dealt with effectively. The government programme of Nikos Christodoulides includes specific planning in this direction.
Will you follow the practice of seeking the archbishop’s approval for the person who will be appointed education minister?
We have separation of state and religion and the appointment of the members of the Council of Ministers is the exclusive responsibility of the president. I will appoint the minister(s) based on the criteria I have decided and, no, I will not seek the approval of the archbishop for the appointment of education minister.
Would your government be prepared to introduce same-sex marriage and allow the adoption of a child by same-sex couple as is the practice in most European countries?
After the establishment of civil partnerships, I believe that the right to civil marriage for same-sex couples will follow. That is, the official recognition by the state that two people can make joint legal decisions without this being dependent on their gender. With regard to adoption, there is a need for broad consultation with all stakeholders, including the children’s commissioner, the welfare ministry and the LGBTI community, with the aim of protecting the child’s interests and protecting the child from any discrimination.
Would you support the legalisation of marijuana?
The legalisation of marijuana, and in particular legalisation for medical purposes is regulated by the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act.