Our View: Local government reform welcome, but it could have gone further
Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides is set to announce the mergers of municipalities and local communities on Monday, the final part of the central government’s plans to reform and streamline local government.
The announcement was scheduled to be made last Thursday but was put off until Monday, presumably because the horse-trading and political machinations by local authority leaders were still going on and the ministry was trying to find compromises that would allow the reforms to go through with as little opposition as possible.
It is the Anastasiades government’s second attempt to reform local government. The first was made just before the last municipal elections in 2016 but was rejected by the majority of the parties in the legislature. This time though, the government has been in consultation with the parties to ensure that the reform – proposed by the Troika as a rationalisation and cost-cutting measure – is approved. Most parties now agree that 30 municipalities (39 if we count the occupied municipalities) for a country with a population of less than a million is not just farcical but also very costly and have agreed to reduce them to 16.
The halving of the number of municipalities through mergers has created a host of problems for the government with mayors and their councils not wanting to surrender their power and positions, others not wanting to merge with specific municipalities and so forth. Dealing with these objections and grievances and trying to find acceptable fixes to make for a smooth transition has been a nightmare for the interior ministry, which has been chopping and changing its plans until the last minute. This was inevitable considering the many interests at stake.
Once provisional merger plans became public, the bickering began. Yeroskipou municipality mobilised residents against being merged with Paphos, the Ayia Napa mayor declared that his municipality would never agree to come under Paralimni, while Athienou (a village close to the ceasefire line that should never have been a municipality in the first place) sought assurances from the president that it would not be merged. Meanwhile community councils which were to be merged into complexes are being lured into joining municipalities with promises to community leaders of vice-mayor positions with good pay and pensions.
For instance, the Oroklini community was to be merged with Aradippou but it wants to join Larnaca. Will Paphos communities such as Lemba, Emba, Chlorakas merge with Peyia municipality which does not want them or with Paphos municipality, a move which they oppose? Will Yeroskipou merge with Paphos or be preserved and join with communities? Meanwhile, as late as last Thursday, Ayia Napa took out advertisements in the media to push its demand for a merger with Sotira and Liopetri rather than with Paralimni. It is anyone’s guess what the interior ministry will finally announce on Monday and what the reaction would be.
The government has handled the matter smartly and in all likelihood will implement its reform to devolve power from central to local government – a very good thing. Yet, there is a sense that it has not gone far enough. The 16 new municipalities, or 17 if Ayia Napa gets its way and is not merged with Paralimni, is still too big a number for our population size. Less than half that number – one for Paphos, Larnaca and Famagusta and perhaps two each for Nicosia and Limassol – would have been much more sensible. This would have allowed the municipalities to be financially independent, enjoy more powers and thus have a big role in the administration of their jurisdiction.
This is how local democracy is built. When a municipality has more decision-making powers within its municipal boundaries, its residents become more active in the decision-making processes because these directly affect their lives. At the same time a mayor and the municipal council become more accountable. The EU has been encouraging the devolution of power from the central state to local authority because it makes democracy more representative by engaging people in decision-making. Hopefully, this will be how things will eventually work out under the government’s reform plan. But we cannot help thinking that this may have been a missed opportunity for more radical reform that would have paved the way for a greater degree of local democracy.