In less than four months European citizens are going to the polls for the 9th time to elect their representatives for the European Parliament. For Cyprus it will be the 4th time. Going into these elections the scene is still fluid and this is mainly the result of two factors. First, the fact that partisan attachments are fading away in Cyprus extremely rapidly in recent years with younger generations not feeling bound by their families’ choices. Cyprus is experiencing a process of dealignment for a few years now (e.g., abstention is constantly increasing) but without realignment yet, except in the case of the extreme right ELAM. Second, because the European elections have never been important for Cypriot voters.
Having said these, the electoral strength of the major parties as this was reflected in the results at the latest parliamentary elections in May 2016 stands as follows: right-wing Democratic Rally (DISY) 30.69%; left-wing Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL) 25.67%; center-right Democratic Party (DIKO) 14.49%; social democrats EDEK, 6.18%; centrist Citizens Alliance, 6.01%; right-wing, nationalist Solidarity Movement, 5.24%; Green Party, 4.82%; and the extreme-right ELAM, 3.71%. The above suggest that the balance of forces clearly leans towards the center-right.
Although the center-right -as a bloc- has always been the dominant actor in Cyprus politics the present situation as this is defined by the above cited electoral results indicates a shift in the Cyprus party system’s ideological center of gravity: the center-right, albeit more fragmented now than in the past, has increased its vote share at the expense of the center-left. In 2011 the center-left represented by AKEL, EDEK and the Greens polled approximately 44%, whereas in 2016 their overall share dropped to approximately 37%. The center-right and the extreme right, taken together, rose from 51% to approximately 60%. AKEL -the only party of the left in Cyprus- has lost a significant portion of its electoral strength since 2011 (approximately 30%) paying both its mistakes in government and the intense polemic against it by all other parties and the media.
As already mentioned European elections have never been of great importance in Cyprus. The Cypriot party system was never polarized over the question of Europe particularly after the early 1990s with all parties supporting EU and Eurozone participation. EU salience increased immediately after the bail-in with the majority of parties emphasizing aspects of criticism, particularly the left. However, since 2016 debates about the EU have once again taken a backstage position. ‘Europe’ featured much less in the political debates after 2016. In view of the forthcoming European elections the only party bringing forward important issues regarding the EU (character, workings, etc.) and in a critical perspective is AKEL: e.g., lack of democratic legitimacy, neoliberalism, the rise of xenophobia and the extreme right, etc. AKEL asks the voters to trust the party and fight with it and the other left forces in Europe to change the current state of affairs in the EU which is clearly one-sided against the forces of labour and in favour of capital. All other parties usually emphasize the importance of being member of the EU and the mainstream center-right parties are in favour of the policies of the EU as they currently stand. However, the main concern of all parties is the possibility of increased abstention following the extraordinary 60% abstention rate in the last European elections.
Political debates are mostly concerned with four major issues which are mostly of national concern. First, is the huge crisis of legitimation of the entire political system. This crisis was intensified by the many political and economic scandals that had come to the fore in recent years and the inability of the political parties and the governments to protect the people from the economic crisis. This, in turn, led to the widespread perception among the public that all politicians are corrupt and selfish and that all parties are the same and unable to help the citizens. Therefore, the dichotomy here is not so much between parties but between voters and parties. Second, is the state of the economy with the repercussions of the bail-in of 2013 still being at the heart of these discussions. Here the main dividing line is between the right-wing government and the left regarding issues such as the role of the state in the economy, privatizations, the welfare state, the prospects of growth and for whom, etc. Third, is the always present Cyprus problem. Although not the sole focus of political campaigns anymore it makes the headlines regularly. Here the dividing line is more complex although in a more general sense there are those who oppose a federal solution and can be found in most parties of the right and the center right and those favouring a federation which are mostly found in the left and some liberal center-right forces. In the context of the Cyprus problem there is a revival of nationalism with the left (AKEL) being the most vigorous force resisting any perceptions against the continuation of the current dividing status quo. Fourth, are the many unresolved issues of internal administration with the most important ones being the question over the introduction of a national health system, the reform of the judicial system following accusations of nepotism and favour towards the banks, and the golden visa processes for third countries citizens. On these issues the left struggles against most other parties and particularly the right-wing government for solutions that will favour the majority of the people and particularly the working class.
Going into these elections and unlike other countries, one has to note that in Cyprus there is only one left party standing in the elections, AKEL. For the time being, there is no other left political force that has shown an interest in standing in the elections. AKEL contests the elections under the electoral platform of AKEL-Left-New Forces; this scheme was firstly introduced in 1991 and remains in effect until today allowing the party to cooperate with forces and politicians beyond the left but who agree with the major policies of the left. Moreover and for a first time, AKEL included a Turkish Cypriot in its ballot paper. AKEL is an active member in the GUE/NGL and an observer in the European Left Party.
Given the above, AKEL has declared that the forthcoming elections do not only concern the balance of power within the EU but also in Cyprus and therefore is of high importance that the left comes out of these elections more empowered than before.
By Yiannos Katsourides, Director of Promitheas Institute