A real scandal: president did not list his pension in wealth declaration

By Efi Xanthou

The last week saw the pundits debating Cyprus’ latest scandal: namely President Nikos Christodoulides’ omitting in his wealth declaration – pothen esches as it’s referred to in our legislation – his income from his public sector pension.

It seems that, after the Doxa Komodromou scandal for demanding overtime for public representation of the presidency, a series of complaints were made to the auditor general’s office concerning previous overtime claims made by other political appointees of the presidency. Overtime claims led to per diem claims for trips abroad made by the then government spokesperson, who was also seconded to the position from a public servant position, that were reported to have been according to the elevated public official position, and not the public servant position, Christodoulides still held. This led to scrutiny of when exactly he resigned from his public servant position in the foreign ministry, which logically would have been a few days before he was officially appointed foreign minister in March 2018. This then led to the obvious question: did he receive his government pension as soon as he resigned? Is he receiving both his ministerial pension and his public servant pension now that he is elected president of the Republic? And if he did, why was this income not noted in his various wealth declarations since he assumed public office?

The same scandal of course has arisen for other former and current politicians and MPs, both in this and previous governments. This is the line that this presidency chose to take in an almost mafia-style announcement: “We’re not the only one’s doing it!” Yes, ladies and gentlemen! Since other politicians have behaved in such a way previously, we consider it OK to do so ourselves. This is the communication strategy the presidency chose to take. Oh, also, our president responded with a single phrase: “clear skies fear no bolts”. I guess we can all draw our own conclusions.

So why are so many people upset with this situation? Was it not known that politicians that undertake public office are allowed to a pension when they leave office? The pension public servants receive if they resign after their 45th year has been rectified, but it is not illegal of the president to receive it since he was employed in the public sector before 2011. Why should people begrudge a president receiving a big pay cheque for his current position, full room and board for his whole family and a spending budget for the activities of the first lady, a pension as a former minister and his pension as a resigned public servant? Well, I guess it comes down to the public’s disappointment over this state of affairs.

It is provocative, as simple as that. Nobody is saying that he is illegally receiving these funds, but many of us believe that it is an abuse of the system. The pensions for former public officials were established as a means of compensation for people that decided to interrupt their career paths in order to serve the public, ensuring that after they vacate their public office, they would not be left financially destitute. That is the reason why many politicians through the years chose to divert their extra pensions back into the public coffers if they assumed a new public office, or if they felt that their financial position allowed them not to need the extra income. Rarely, but it has happened. So when the newly elected president – and six members of his ministerial council as it turns out – decide to keep both their public office pensions while assuming a new public office, it is logical that there would be an uproar.

Personally, I find the fact that this extra income was not reported in the president’s wealth declaration the bigger scandal. The president who promised to combat corruption and shed light on every aspect of his governance, omitted information concerning his income from the public. But even worse, he does not seem to regret this. He does not even realise that he made a grave mistake. Does he think that all this rage targeted against him and his government is just opposition tactics? Can he truly not realise how spectacularly he has already failed the citizens that voted for him? We’re only seven months into his presidency and it seems that every week a new scandal erupts.

I’m wondering how things can change for the better. Can the president make the decisions needed to rectify his original problematic decisions? Can we trust his word again, after he has blatantly lied to our faces so many, many times already? Will a government reshuffle be enough to give his presidency some hope of success down the road? Not all his ministers are bad choices, but can he fix this untenable situation if he replaces the ones that have proven to be less capable early enough?

What worries me more, to be honest, is that his government is not operating in a vacuum. This parody is unfolding in an international setting, with our allies and enemies monitoring how things develop in real time. There is no way to sugar-coat the narrative, no matter how hard he tries. Does he not feel ashamed of how our Republic is being viewed by other states and international actors? We already have a bad reputation as a money laundering, fugitive-protecting, rogue state. Do we need the presidency to keep piling onto that?

Efi Xanthou is a political scientist and coordinator of the Cyprus Greens-Citizens Cooperation interior committee