‘No’ to the referendum on local government
Everyone agrees that reform is vital, so why do we need a referendum?
By George Koumoullis
In order to restore the sanity of those who may have worried about the implications of the title, I hasten to make it clear that I am not promoting another heroic ‘no’, by simply writing down my reaction. to the government’s proposal for a national referendum on local government reform.
The government has already sent to the House the proposed question to be put to the people, during the vote in the legislative elections of May 30: “Do you agree with the reform of local government based on the proposal of the executive power, for the creation of 17 new municipalities with administrative and economic independence? “
This story of local government reform has been going on for years. Everyone agrees that radical changes are needed. The number of municipalities is now 39 and is considered the largest number in the world in proportion to the population. During British rule there were 12 mayors, six in towns and six in large villages. After independence, but especially after 1980, there was an explosion in the municipalities. The areas of greater Nicosia – Aglanjia, Strovolos, Engomi, Ayios Dhometios which were once suburbs of the capital – have become full municipalities.
Something similar happened to other cities. Economically, this development turned out to be a spectacular failure because it led to the fragmentation of responsibilities and led to a surge in the operating costs of municipalities to the detriment of taxpayers. This is why the merger of the municipalities and their reduction to 17, as proposed by the government, is of the utmost urgency. For example, Nicosia, a rather small city in the EU, does not need to have five municipalities and therefore five times the expenditure for the remuneration of mayors, deputy mayors, councilors, accountants, architects, civil engineers, plus their retirement bonuses, etc. The merger and the reduction in the number of municipalities do not mean the contraction of the welfare state. The infrastructure and social protection programs in place in municipalities, such as health, environment and sports, would not only be unaffected by the mergers, but would even improve. The same goes for the principles of proximity to the inhabitants and democratic legitimization of the decisions of local authorities. Simply put, the costs will be drastically reduced and will benefit us all.
No party or sane person disagrees with these observations. Even the Union of Municipalities expressed satisfaction with the proposed changes. In other words, everyone agrees that reform is necessary. There is now also a strong incentive from the European Commission, which has committed to disburse the significant amount of € 968 million as long as the reforms are implemented.
The government’s national referendum proposal was brought to the plenum last Thursday. Diko and Akel assured that he was rejected. Their reasoning was perverse. As the head of Akel said, “the best way is to do synergies at the initial stage and organize local referendums so that citizens can decide locally how they want to shape their future”.
In the final analysis, the disagreement is that the government is in favor of holding a national referendum while the opposition wants a referendum for every municipality, with only one municipality having the power to block the reform. The question is, given that everyone recognizes the need for reform, why don’t they focus on resolving the very rare differences between parties so that the relevant bills can be approved as soon as possible without hold referendums?
Nowhere does our constitution say that changes to constitutional laws should be put to a referendum. After all, the most significant development in our history since 1974, our accession to the EU, did not materialize after a referendum vote, but through a vote by the legislature. A local government referendum could return a “no” vote, as inconceivable as that sounds. Cypriots can understand the benefits of reform, but when the time comes and as residents of a village or town, who must vote for the merger of their municipality with a larger municipality, it is possible that they will have doubts.
Referendums do not necessarily strengthen democracy, but often lead to national catastrophes, as many academics have argued. I recommend the excellent article by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, entitled “Why Referendums Aren’t As Democratic As They Look”, and published in the New York Times October 4, 2016. For example, the 1920 referendum in Greece on the homecoming of exiled King Constantine was the main cause of the disaster in Asia Minor. The Allies had warned the Greek people that if Constantine returned he would feel released from the obligation of solidarity with the Greek government. Despite this, the Greek people voted for the return of the king.
Cyprus also has its own example to offer, the 2004 referendum, when we voted against reunification. The catastrophic consequences of the “unheroic” are in motion and the permanent sharing with all its dangers seems inevitable.
George Koumoullis is an economist and social science researcher