The word progressive is defined as favouring or advocating progress, change, improvement or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain the status quo, especially in political matters. Progressive is also defined as making progress toward better conditions, employing or advocating more enlightened or liberal ideas, and new or experimental methods.
On the other hand, a conservative is defined as someone disposed to preserve existing conditions and institutions and to limit change. A conservative favours the preservation of established customs, opposes innovation and is reluctant to change or consider new ideas.
These two terms are often used to characterise political parties, with the former describing leftist parties and the latter right wing parties. In the case of Cyprus, at least, this does not apply.
As we have seen many times in the past, leftist AKEL is by no means a progressive party, even though it portrays itself as one. The policies of AKEL have always aimed to preserve established customs and policies, promote the continuation of the status quo and prevent any form of change or new ideas. This in fact makes AKEL one of the most conservative parties and by no means a progressive one.
Even when Cyprus was considering entry in the European Economic Community (EEC), as the European Union was then called, AKEL was against it. Much later on, when Cyprus was a member of the EU, and was about to adopt the euro as its currency, AKEL once more objected and asked for more time before switching from the Cyprus pound to the euro. For AKEL any change is a bad thing.
When the government under President George Vasiliou was considering adopting the Value Added Tax (VAT), like most European countries, AKEL again objected. Yet, it was during the current AKEL administration that VAT was imposed on food and medicine for the first time and the VAT rate was increased from 15 to 17 per cent for the rest of the products and services.
Currently, a major debate revolves around finding ways to increase the effectiveness and the efficiency of the state-owned semi-governmental organisations by increasing the private sector’s role via private strategic investment or increased shareholding, while at the same time allowing the state to focus on to its supervisory and monitoring role. Once again, AKEL has objected, even if the state keeps the majority of shares of these semi-public organisations. Even communist China has adopted a programme of privatisations, but it seems that the Communist Chinese Party, which by many is considered as a party of hard line communists, seems to be more progressive than its Cypriot counterparts. Any proposal for an increased involvement by the private sector is dogmatically treated as a “red line” by AKEL and its leaders. Nevertheless, it was during the AKEL administration that the state-owned Eurocypria declared bankruptcy, as the government ignored the realistic possibility of attracting a private strategic investor capable of inserting funds that would have helped the company to remain operational and its employees to retain their jobs.
Examples of AKEL’s resistance to any form of change can be found in all aspects of Cypriot life. Cyprus was an on-line casino heaven, with shops found in every street corner, advertising their products in neon lights. However, President Christofias and AKEL strongly oppose licensing casinos on the island, without considering the benefits for the empty state funds in the form of taxes, the benefits to tourism from the enrichment of the tourist product, and the benefits to employment from the creation of new jobs. Their reaction was always a blunt no, without any hesitation and without any consideration of the possible benefits, even though dodgy, unregulated on-line casinos were continuing to pop up in every neighborhood.
In its latest recommendations, the European Commission, with the consent of President Christofias, suggested that the retirement age in Cyprus be linked to life expectancy. This would imply that the existing age of retirement would need an immediate slight upward adjustment from the current age of 63 years, with further revisions at the end of a said time period (perhaps every five or 10 years). AKEL and the government rejected this. No surprises here. After all this is what they do. They reject every aspect of change, any new idea that comes up. They do their best to ‘conserve’ things as they are by opposing innovation.
If it were up to them, life expectancy would reach 100 years and people would still be retiring at the age of 63. Life expectancy now is a mere 78 years for men and 82 for women. They simply don’t mind if our children face the risk of not receiving any pension.
AKEL’s policy on retirement ages is hypocritical. They object to increasing the retirement age of white collar workers to the age of 64, whereas a decade ago they accepted that a retirement age of 65 for blue collar workers. Furthermore, they abstained from voting against increasing the retirement age of public sector doctors to the age of 65, because if they had done so the bill would not pass parliament. So they were forced to abstain from voting, making it clear that they were serving other interests. Even President Christofias agreed and signed the law as voted by parliament without appealing it to the Supreme Court.
Another recommendation by the European Commission was the need to improve the competitiveness of Cyprus’ economy and especially the pressing need for wage increases to reflect increases in productivity. This implies reform of the current CoLA system because it is not linked to productivity but to inflation. Once more AKEL is strongly opposing any discussion, characterising CoLA reform as another “red line”. They refuse to accept that such a reform will increase economic competitiveness, while improving the redistribution element of CoLA will benefit those in need and therefore make the system socially fairer. Such changes, although beneficial for the entire population, would deviate from the norm and is by no means acceptable to AKEL. The status quo must be maintained in labour matters as well, even though for the first time ever in recent Cypriot history - and during AKEL’s administration - CoLA has been frozen.
As we have seen, AKEL opposes anything that can be considered as a change without hesitation. It makes no difference to them if the public benefits from a change or not. Change is simply unwanted and has to be stopped.
Through the unprecedented economic difficulties we are experiencing, there are two areas of great social sensitivity: unemployment, which is a real nightmare for those who experience it; and inflation, which erodes the purchasing power of households by making products more expensive. And what does the government do to mitigate the problem? Firstly, it refuses any debate about the extension of the working hours in shops which could create new jobs. Secondly, they drag to the courts those traders who sell their products at a discount. And I wonder to myself, is there any rationalism left in this place?
AKEL’s ‘conservatism’ is also inherent in the party’s external policy. It dogmatically opposes Cyprus accession to the Partnership for Peace on the basis that is a NATO-linked organisation, even though all the rest of the domestic political parties favour such a development.
The indisputable fact is that AKEL opposes any form of change. Nothing new is to be implemented and no deviation from present practices should occur. And despite this, they still classify themselves as being a ‘progressive’ party.
As we have seen, this is by no means true. They are a hardcore conservative party that rejects any form of progress and do their best to block any innovation. AKEL and its ideology are the main obstacles to real change in Cyprus.
Averof Neophytou is deputy leader of DISY