Christodoulides’ leaks to the press followed by retractions sowed needless uncertainty

President Nikos Christodoulides’ handling of the cabinet reshuffle amounted to a colossal bungle, commentators say, illustrative of his relative inexperience in governing but also with people management.

Not only did he force himself into a position to rush the government shakeup, but he also managed to alienate virtually the entire media community by first feeding them information and then repudiating the press for publishing it.

It all started on New Year’s Eve, when Phileleftheros ran an interview with the president where he said he would “certainly” reshuffle his cabinet before the first 18 months of his five-year tenure, adding that some ministers “met expectations and some less”.

The allusion to the 18 months referred to the time served after which a minister is eligible for a ministerial pension. Perhaps the president’s intention was to signal he’d operate ‘differently’ to his predecessors, that he wanted to ‘break with the past’ – but it backfired spectacularly.

Over the next couple of days, more reports surfaced about the coming reshuffle, placing it timewise at the end of January. Newspapers even named the ministers likely to get the chop – the leaks presumably coming from the presidential palace itself.

The president’s remarks appear to have rattled members of his government, prompting Christodoulides to tell his cabinet during the first week of the year to discount media speculation, and assuring them that they’d hear any changes personally from him. And, importantly, he made that comment while the journalists were still in the room covering the cabinet meeting – making sure they heard it. That must not have gone down well with members of the press corps. More on that later.

Next a couple of days later, Philippos Hadjizacharias, the deputy minister of innovation, research and digital policy, quit abruptly. Though citing “personal reasons”, it was fairly clear the resignation had everything to do with the reshuffle rumour mill. After all, Hadjizacharias had been one of the four individuals mentioned as facing the sack.

Philippos Hadjizacharias

Philippos Hadjizacharias, the deputy minister of innovation, quit abruptly citing personal reasons

Perhaps Hadjizacharias thought why wait to get replaced, why not get ahead of the curve and leave himself. It’s reasonable to assume others in the cabinet may have felt the same and planned to tender their resignations as well. If so, Christodoulides would have faced an embarrassing mass-resignation episode. The reshuffle – initially planned for end of January – now had to be brought forward.

That seems to have precipitated the frantic last-minute wheeler-dealing by the presidential palace throughout Sunday, January 7. According to media reports, Christodoulides called up Diko MP Christiana Erotokritou, offering her the post of justice minister. Erotokritou herself confirmed this call later. She turned down the offer. The president then reportedly reached out to Anastasia Papadopoulou – sister of Diko chief Nicolas Papadopoulos – with the same offer. She, too, declined.

Moreover, it is said the president approached these two Diko persons without alerting Papadopoulos.

The following day, Monday, January 8, the presidency went ahead and announced the reshuffle. Vasilis Palmas took over from Michalis Giorgallas as defence minister; Maria Panayiotou from Petros Xenophontos as agriculture minister; Marios Hartsiotis from Anna Procopiou as justice minister; and Michalis Damianos from Popi Kanari as health minister.

At the confirmation ceremony, Christodoulides told the new appointees:

“Close your ears to the sirens, as I do… and dedicate yourselves only to carrying out your work for the public interest. Close your ears to facile criticism, seek constructive criticism and do not get sidetracked from your goals.”

These remarks suggested the president was playing up a siege mentality – harkening to his trademark style during the 2023 election campaign. Moreover, one could ask, who gets to decide what is constructive criticism and what is not?

The Cyprus Mail contacted two of the persons who got booted out of government. Neither wished to make a comment.

“Pre-announcing a cabinet reshuffle might well be a world first,” Michalis Papapetrou, former head of the United Democrats party, tells us.

Papapetrou, who did a stint as government spokesman in the Glafcos Clerides administration, recalls how back in the day journalists bombarded him with questions about a possible reshuffle.

“And I’d always tell them the same thing – that we don’t announce such things beforehand. You just don’t do it in politics.”

The former politician thinks it “very likely” that Christodoulides manoeuvred himself into the government change-up.

“It speaks to his inexperience. To make matters worse, he gathers his ministers and tells them not to listen to media speculation about an impending reshuffle, and then a few days later he goes ahead and does that very thing. Talk about botching it.”

Stavros Tombazos, professor of political science at the University of Cyprus, agrees:

“The rumours about a reshuffle only served to undermine his ministers. Think of it as an own goal.”

But other than that, the president’s handling of the affair is unprecedented.

Nicolas Papadopoulos

Diko leader Nicolas Papadopoulos was not informed that the president had approached two party members, including his sister, to take up ministerial posts

“As president, when you want to replace a minister, you call them in for a private chat, thank them for their service and let them announce their resignation – so they can at least save face,” says Tombazos.

What’s more, what are the new appointees to think – that they may get the same treatment a few months down the line?

And according to another commentator, it turns out the reshuffle fiasco gets even worse.

“We read in the media that Hadjizacharias, the now ex-deputy minister for digital policy, learned from an acquaintance of his that he was going to get fired,” said political analyst Christoforos Christoforou.

“And how did Hadjizacharias find out? The acquaintance who told him was the very person whom the president contacted as a replacement for Hadjizacharias. This is amateur hour.”

But beyond the Snafu on the management side, why did the president intend to change his cabinet in the first place?

Both Christoforou and Tombazos point out that rumblings of a reshuffle go as far back as September last year. The president was said to be dissatisfied with the performance of some of his ministers and the bad press they generated for his administration.

Still, it is a minus for the president that he got rid of ministers he personally picked, just 10 months into their stint. Some suggest this doesn’t reflect very well on his judgement. Nor did he give these ministers much of a chance to get to grips with the job.

But there’s another angle to this whole debacle – the president has estranged the entire media.

Even daily Phileleftheros, up until now friendly to the president and whose columnists had backed his candidacy as a ‘breath of fresh air’, have turned on Christodoulides. During the past week, one after another of the newspaper’s hard-hitters penned blistering critiques of the president and his handling of the affair.

Likewise harsh words were heard by journalists on the Alpha news network, until recently very warm to the president.

“Not a surprise,” offers Christoforou. “When the presidential palace leaks information about the reshuffle, with names and all, but then the president pointedly tells his ministers to close their ears to the media speculation, how would any journalist feel? Would they not feel played, betrayed?”