The European elections in Cyprus were marked by four things: the very high rate of abstention (57.2%); the stabilization of the left party AKEL at around 27% following a period of electoral backlashes; the losses of the governing right-wing party DISY (-8.5%); and the sixth consecutive rise of the far right party ELAM.
Cypriot voters went to the polls to elect their European representatives for a fourth time since joining the EU. Overall, there were 641,181 registered voters, 80,862 of which Turkish Cypriots (TCs). The elections were contested on the system of proportional representation. However, the small number of seats allocated to Cyprus (six) suggests that the threshold for achieving representation amounts to 16.6%; a high barrier to entry for any small or new party. There were 13 parties/platforms contesting the elections (compared to 10 in 2014) and three independent candidates (eight in 2014). The total number of candidates increased to 72 compared to 61 in 2014. Eighteen (18) women run in the elections compared to 14 in 2014. Two TC electoral platforms took part with six and two candidates respectively, whereas another TC featured in AKEL’s ballot (overall nine TC candidates).
Electorally, the polls initially predicted an easy win for the right-wing DISY. Gradually though, as the campaign progressed it became evident that the left party, AKEL, had significantly closed the gap even challenging for the primacy not least because the party appealed directly to the TCs by including –for a first time- a TC candidate in its ballot.
The most significant question (and battle at the same time) of these elections, however, was the winner of the sixth seat: a very close contest between social democratic EDEK (holder of the seat) and the extreme right party ELAM (a branch of the Greek Golden Dawn).
The campaign was entirely Cyprus-centered: only national issues featured. These included, inter alia, the status of the economy particularly in relation to the government’s decision to sell the large cooperative bank to another private bank, issues of corruption and criminality, the Cyprus problem, the participation of a TC candidate with AKEL and the introduction of the national health system. European issues were sidelined and the stakes were directly linked -by all parties- to national questions and issues. The political setting became increasingly polarized in the last couple weeks of the campaign with AKEL and its TC candidate becoming a focal point of discussions and controversies receiving a host of nationalist attacks.
Table 1: Electoral results
Electoral result (%)
Number of seats
EDEK (social democrats)
ELAM (extreme right)
CYPRUS SOCIALIST PARTY
* In 2014 the Greens contested the European elections in a joint platform with EDEK, whereas in 2019 they joined forces with the Citizens Alliance; therefore the comparison of electoral results between these parties is not easy to make.
In terms of party results the outcome of the elections revealed winners and losers which must be separated in electoral and political terms. Electorally, ELAM (+5.56%), EDEK (+2.9%), DIKO (+3%) and DHPA (newcomer) for the most part and to a lesser extent AKEL (+0.5%) were on the winning side. DISY (-8.48%) and the Greens-Citizens Alliance were those that lost the most. The far right party ELAM (+5.56%) continued to rise for a seventh election in the row, which is arguably the most worrying trend.
Two other things singled out in terms of electoral results beyond party percentages. First, the persisting high rate of abstention which rose once again (from 56.03% in 2014 to 57.20% in 2019). Second, the increased, albeit overall small, number of TC voters: 5604 TCs voted representing 6.93% of their total eligible number compared to 1856 and 3.19% in 2014. Moreover, in terms of party-systemic variables the fragmentation of the party system was once again verified.
Politically, the results revealed three important messages: a) a disapproval of the governing DISY, the government and their policies; b) despite the increased vote share of the far right, the results showed a democratic reflexive response by the public barring their entrance in the EP. A number of citizens mobilized on a democratic agenda regardless of party affiliation in order to avert the possibility of the extreme right to enter the parliament; c) AKEL’s bi-communal ballot and particularly the election of a TC candidate with AKEL was a strong message regarding the need to solve the Cyprus problem particularly because he was targeted by nationalistic circles and the governing party during the campaign.
Given the above, there are some general observations that can be inferred from these results that are related to the qualitative dimensions of the Cypriot party system. First, it seems that a political society of 50-50% is created. This term is a loan from the respective sociological term of societies of two third and it implies those societies where abstention is not only high and systematic but it has reached such levels that half of the population does not participate in the political/electoral process. If we take into account those who chose not to enlist in the electoral lists -the majority of which is found among the youth- the problem with abstention becomes even more worrying. Almost half of the population abstains either consciously and purposively or as a result of marginalization and exclusion from the political process. This state of affairs has two important political implications: on the one hand, those who abstain leave the others to make decisions for them. On the other hand, the parties’ actual influence in society is much weaker than their electoral percentages (see table 2). The most worrying thing though is that all parties seem to have accepted this and compromised with the withdrawal of so many citizens from politics.
Table 2: Parties’ results as a percentage of the valid ballots
Second, the ideological balance of power has shifted and stabilized to the right in recent years. Since the early 2010s the ideological balance of power within Cypriot society has shifted to the right. This is reflected not only in party percentages but also in political opinions and political culture. In terms of party percentages the aggregated results of the center-left and the center-right show that the center-right hovers between 55-60%. If we factor in only the left (i.e., AKEL) then the picture becomes even gloomier. In the European elections the losses of right-wing DISY became the gains of the extreme right and other center-right parties. In terms of political culture more rightist opinions gain ground constantly: for example, the number of people who see a positive role for the state or who are in favour of publicly owned enterprises is shrinking. At the same time, institutions such as the army, the police and the Church are trusted a lot more than political parties and other political institutions. This highlights a right-wing ideological hegemony.
Third, there are significant gaps in political representation. Both the large size and the persistence of abstention reveal that many citizens do not feel that any of the existing parties could politically represent them. This in turn creates a ‘market’ for newcomers to enter (e.g., populists).
Fourth, these elections have proven once again that many parties are short-lived. Although the four-party Cypriot system had opened-up since the mid-1990s with a number of new parties emerging since, the majority of them has proved short-lived. This was once again the case with the EP elections with some recently-founded parties (Citizens Alliance and Solidarity) aligning with other parties to avoid electoral disappearance. There are only two political parties/tendencies that have endured in these years: the Greens and the extreme right.
Fifth, the centrifugal tendencies of the party system persist. The Cypriot party system has entered a period of fragmentation. Mainstream parties still remain strong, however there is increased fluidity and electoral volatility which is reflected in the reduced accumulated electoral strength of the two big parties. This allows newcomers or parties with a small life-cycle to take advantage of circumstantial or more persistent gaps in representation and do well in particular elections each time.
Sixth, the extreme right is here to stay. The elections revealed a seventh consecutive rise of the electoral strength of ELAM which verifies the endurance of the far right in Cyprus. Their rise did not result in winning a seat in the EP; however, it proved that ELAM represents a factual sociopolitical tendency in Cyprus society, which is durable and appealing to a part of society. Moreover, the right-wing ideological shift that Cyprus society is experiencing creates a favourable structure of opportunities for the extreme right.
Seventh, we might be witnessing an opening of the party system. The reference here is linked with the participation of the Turkish Cypriots both as voters and candidates. Despite being small in numbers, their participation creates prospects for an opening of the party system, an osmosis of the political parties across the dividing line and perhaps a gradual shift in the basis of confrontation: from an ethnic to a class basis. Whether their increased participation was circumstantial or not is something to be seen since a lot will depend on the developments regarding the Cyprus problem and the political actors in both communities.
Three different leftist platforms/parties contested the elections, the most significant among them AKEL, which eventually polled 27.5%. The others were two small TC political platforms, the Turkish Socialist Party and the Jasmine that scored a mere 1.76% between them.
AKEL seems to have exited a very difficult period which begun in 2011. After consecutive unpleasant electoral performances since the 2013 presidential campaign, which also included one European (2014) and one national parliamentary (2016) election, the party slightly increased its vote share compared to 2014 which indicates a stabilization. Moreover, the party maintained its two seats in the EP. However, a significant portion of the party’s past voters continue to refrain from voting the party, thus leaving AKEL with the difficult task of finding ways to approach them again.
In terms of campaign, AKEL framed the elections in a purely national context asking the Cypriot people to strengthen the party in order to be able to fight on all fronts and send a message to the right-wing government that their policies and practices are no longer accepted. AKEL positioned itself as the only barrier to the government’s neoliberalism, indecency and arbitrariness. Although, it did not succeed to persuade the electorate and attract new voters, this strategy allowed the party to coil its own hard core. The party’s message did not travel beyond its core audience, probably because the memories of the party’s tenure in government are still fresh. AKEL’s experience in government still exerts a negative influence on its ability to mobilize but most importantly on its ability to convey the message to the people that it can be trusted again.
AKEL invested heavily in the last few years on its position vis a vis the Cyprus problem and particularly its genuine willingness to find a solution to the problem in the frame of a bizonal, bicommunal federation, as opposed to the government and all other parties. This enabled AKEL to attract the vast majority of the Turkish Cypriot voters who took part in these elections and also a smaller number of liberals who favour a solution. Without their electoral contribution the party would probably score lower than the 2014 European elections.
Overall, the Cypriot Left did not succeed to capitalize electorally on the failures of the rightist government and the problems caused by the ongoing economic crisis. However, it managed to reverse the trend of losing electoral ground and stabilize.
For the Cypriot Left there are two important conclusions from these elections: a positive one and a worrying one. The positive one is that the party managed to increase slightly and stabilize around 26-27%. This is arguably a good thing given the recent past and the fears of even further shrinkage. What is worrying is that the left has lost a significant number of actual voters, as well as 6-7% of its electoral share; people who persistently don’t vote for AKEL anymore. The party seems to have a new, lower ceiling which is around 28%, whereas in the very recent past the ceiling was around 35%.
For the European left the elections presented a reversal. These elections, probably more than ever, unveiled the most important problem facing the Left all over Europe: the continuous quest for its identity. As a result, a number of questions present themselves for the European Left over and over again, which are easily asked but very difficultly answered:
Can the European Left propose an alternative, viable and trust-worthy economic plan?
Can the European Left go beyond the social democratic paradigm?
Does the European Left want to go beyond that?
Can the European Left really change the EU from within or is it just a way of covering its compromises?
Can the European Left move beyond identity politics and focus again on class issues?
For me there is only one certain answer: mimicking the European social democrats or wanting to be social democrats in their place is a strategy without a future.