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    Here’s what I think: The sacking of Dr. Ali Pilli

    Politics is a funny thing, as, at times, is this pandemic. The meteoric rise of Dr. Ali Pilli from “who?” to a man people are actually planning a protest march in support of, has been the latest head-turningly strange yet perfectly explainable revelation in the long story of the Covid-19 pandemic in Cyprus. The story defies absolutely no logic, but is telling of how things are right now.

    Here's what I think: The sacking of Dr. Ali Pilli 1
    Tom Cleaver

    I’ll start right at the beginning: Ali Pilli was born in Pafos in 1955, which immediately endears him to me. He studied medicine at the Çukurova University in Adana, and was a GP in Morphou until 2013, when he was elected as a Member of Parliament. He belongs to UBP, and when the party entered government in 2019 in coalition with HP, then Prime Minister Ersin Tatar decided that Pilli’s vast experience as a doctor made him an ideal fit to be Minister of Health.

    Being Minister of Health is doubtless an important government role, but very rarely a front-facing one. When he was appointed in May 2019, no one took much notice, least of all me. It was my birthday, after all. We all know how things have transpired since then. With the onset of the Covid-19 Pandemic, every Minister of Health in the world became a household name in his own jurisdiction, with probably the most delicate and important set of responsibilities of any profession there is.

    Northern Cyprus dealt with the first nine months of the pandemic very well. Case numbers were usually low, deaths could be counted on one hand, and there was a brief period in the early summer where there were officially zero cases. Ersin Tatar, eyeing a presidential run, took much of the acclaim, but it was generally acknowledged that Pilli was doing quite a good job. Instructions from the Ministry of Health were often clear, which in my opinion is the most important thing. That’s not to say that mistakes were not made – they were – but Pilli was both competent, and doing his honest best. The public cannot ask for much more than that.

    UBP found itself thrashing around in an attempt to get its house back in order

    As is ever the case, it was inter-party and intra-party politics that began to rock the boat. Following Tatar’s trip to Ankara in October where he promised to open up Maraş / Varosha, HP withdrew from the government, leaving UBP on its own without a working majority. A week later, Tatar was elected President, and UBP were now bereft of both a majority and a leader.

    UBP found itself thrashing around in an attempt to get its house back in order. The leadership race between Hasan Taçoy and Faiz Sucuoğlu was somehow won by Ersan Saner, who was installed on a temporary basis until September 2021. As Prime Minister, he managed to form a working majority in coalition with YDP and DP, and Dr. Ali Pilli was retained as Minister of Health.

    The new year began, and this was where things began to go even more pear shaped. With cases rising across Cyprus, the south re-entered a strict lockdown in mid-January. I am not party to what is said in cabinet meetings, but it appears that there was a reluctance among some cabinet members to be seen to be “following the south”. Lockdown was avoided, and cases continued to rise.

    Over the following weeks, cabinet was recalled on numerous occasions in order to attempt to reduce the infection rate, until after one of them it seemed an agreement had been made. However, following the meeting, the Ministry of Health and the Prime Minister’s Office published two very different sets of guidelines. At this point it was clear that all was not well in cabinet, and rumours began to swirl of Dr. Ali Pilli potentially being sacked.

    Pilli stood next to Saner like a boy dragged to a neighbour’s house to apologise for smashing his greenhouse

    On 9th February, the rumours went one step further, as various news outlets began to report that he had in fact been sacked. These were swiftly denied by Saner, who called a Press Conference to make this clear, with Pilli standing beside him like a boy who had been dragged to a neighbour’s house by his father to apologise for smashing his greenhouse. From there, it took just ten days until Pilli was sacked for real.

    How did this all make Dr. Ali Pilli the nation’s sweetheart overnight? Simply put, through all the chaos that has been happening to the government over the last few months, he just continued to do his job. Whatever one may think of the decisions he took, it is difficult to argue against the notion that he was doing his honest best throughout. He exhibited an unfortunately rare trait – he was working for the people who elected him to do that job.

    That much was exemplified by his reaction when he found out about the march – discouraging it, as, in his own words, his “priority is still public health”. Now, I’m as cynical as the next hack, but unless Pilli is playing the very long game here, it seems genuine. Things move fast in politics, Dr. Ali Pilli will be chip paper by this time next week, and so discouraging a protest in his favour seems more likely to be an act of genuine concern than a cynical attempt to pretend to be nice.

    There appears to be near-unanimous disgust at how he has been treated

    Prime Minister Ersan Saner, meanwhile, has probably blown a big hole in his own personal popularity. He, as much as everyone, underestimated the backlash that would come from sacking Dr. Ali Pilli, from both inside and outside his party. The way in which it was done, too, reflects terribly on him. Pilli learnt of his sacking via TV news, rather than a telephone call or anything vaguely resembling common courtesy. The given excuse, too, that Pilli was somehow “tired” was insulting, and the combination of these two factors smacks of hubris on Saner’s part. Some are calling for his head to be the next to roll.

    If nothing else, Saner seems at the very least to have united a country split down the middle by October’s presidential elections. Whether it be First Lady Sibel Tatar, or supporters of the ‘Biat Değil Özgürlük’ movement, there appears to be near-unanimous disgust at how Dr. Ali Pilli has been treated, and appreciation for the way he has conducted himself. There are a small number who disagree, but on this occasion at least it appears that an attempt on their part to alter public opinion would be to urinate into the wind.

    I hope Ünal Üstel will be a competent and diligent Minister of Health, and I hope that vaccines and gradual herd immunity can make his role less and less important as the year goes on, and that some time soon I will hear the word “lockdown” and eventually the phrase “social distancing” for the last time. Until then, in this dark, desolate time in all of our lives, it has, I guess, been nice to share this fleeting moment of unity and popular consensus about something. I’m glad all it took was to sack the Minister of Health in the middle of a global pandemic.

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