During a visit to a primary school on Thursday, President Nikos Christodoulides was asked about the twice-yearly exams, which parents, students, teaching unions and Akel want scrapped. He said he agreed with them, because twice-yearly exams had not achieved their objectives, adding that legal steps would be taken so that they would be abolished the next school year.
The president had promised to abolish the unpopular twice-yearly exams during the election campaign, as had a rival candidate, and felt obliged to do so now. It was, however, a mistake as it set a bad precedent for the new government. It created the impression that if enough people make a big fuss about something the government would try to satisfy them. Listening to people’s concerns and worries was one of the main slogans of Christodoulides’ campaign slogans, but this does not mean government has to satisfy all popular demands.
The twice-yearly exams were introduced after considerable study by the education ministry technocrats, who concluded that these would encourage students to manage their schoolwork better and thus be better prepared for end-of-year exams. It would also help teachers evaluate their students’ performance more frequently and enable them to concentrate on aspects of their work that needed improvement ahead of final exams. In short, the ministry’s education professionals decided having exams twice a year could help improve the poor end-of-year exam results.
Students did not like this because it meant more work for them. Apart from staging protests, they complained to their parents, who in turn used the parents’ association to campaign for abolition. They were supported by teaching unions, who opposed the twice-yearly exams, not for educational reasons but because these involved more work for teachers. Akel had taken up the matter as a way to rally support against the Disy government which had introduced the measure.
By announcing the abolition on Thursday, the president had overruled the education experts and taken the side of the protesting mob, which had no educational argument to support its case. The overriding message was that the experts’ views can be ignored if popular demand is strong enough. Instead of announcing the abolition, the president could have said that the new education minister needed to discuss the matter with ministry officials before any final decision was taken. This would also have been in line with his declarations about the importance of technocrats to good government.
A similar error seems to be on the cards regarding the suspension of the foreclosures law. A proposal for a three-month suspension was defeated in the legislature on Thursday as was an attempt to reduce it to one month. This was not the end of the saga, as the pro-government parties, led by Diko chief Nicolas Papadopoulos have applied pressure on new finance minister, Makis Keravnos, to come up with proposals for dealing with NPLs.
Again, the opinion of the technocrats at the finance ministry, professionals with a better understanding of what is good for the economy than Akel and Diko politicians, have highlighted the dangers of suspending the foreclosures law or making it toothless, which is what the parties have always sought. The former finance minister, Constantinos Petrides on several occasions warned that suspending the foreclosure law could lead to the downgrading of the country’s credit rating and undermine the way the economy is viewed abroad. Protecting people who refuse to repay their housing loans is not the best advertisement for rule of law or a smoothly-functioning economy and the government needs to take this into consideration when making a decision.
People, who have been failing to make their housing loan repayments for years are not in the right or deserving of protection as populist politicians like to assert. If the repossessions law was “scandalously biased in favour of the banks,” as an Akel deputy claimed on Thursday, why is it so difficult for banks and credit-buying companies to foreclose properties? And by what logic must a person be allowed to keep a property they do not have the means of paying for?
Bowing to the pressure of the recklessly populist parties, Keravnos announced on Friday, probably against his better judgment, that the ministry would examine possible actions and a package of measures aimed at dealing with NPLs. After ten years of helping people with NPLs what more can be done? If after all the help offered by the previous government, there are still some 4,000 house occupiers (they are not owners as they have not paid for their properties) that cannot or will not repay their housing loans, repossessions should go ahead. This is what happens in all well-run economies.
If the government wants to be taken seriously it cannot be swayed by popular demand and base its policies on what groups of people or populist parties demand. President Christodoulides needs to recognise this because a government needs to be able to say ‘no’ to unreasonable demands and sometimes take unpopular decisions for the good of the country. He needs to listen to the technocrats on important issues because government by popular demand always has an unhappy ending.