Demetris Christofias passed away on 21 June 2019 at the age of 72. Christofias was the sixth president of the Republic of Cyprus (2008-2013), the first leftist to be elected at the highest office in Cyprus. Prior to that he was also the first communist president of the Cypriot House of Representatives (2001-2008).
Christofias was born and raised in a family of humble origins from the now occupied village of Dikomo in Kyrenia district. He studied history in the Soviet Union (Moscow) from 1969 to 1974 and he served as (the fourth) General Secretary of AKEL for 21 years (1988-2009) succeeding the longest serving leader of the party Ezekias Papaioannou (1949-1988). Christofias had come through the party ranks serving as Secretary General of AKEL’s youth, EDON, for 10 years (1977-1987), member of the AKEL’s Central Committee since 1982 and member of the Political Bureau since 1986. He was also a member of the parliament from 1991 until 2008 when he was elected president.
His two decade-long spell at the leadership of AKEL was instrumental in shaping the contemporary face of the party. His tenure in AKEL was marked by important decisions that produced a rupture with past party policies on the one hand and an adaptation to the new changing environment on the other. Faced with the threat of marginalization after the end of the Cold War he pioneered a number of ideological, political and organizational modifications in the party structure and programme that kept a balance between maintaining basic Marxist-Leninist principles along with flexibility in everyday politics. Most prominent among these decisions were the change of the party’s negative stance towards the EU in 1995 and the decision to claim and eventually administer executive power in a capitalist state through a policy of alliances. Whatever, the judgement on these particular decisions, and probably many others, the fact remains that AKEL, under his leadership, not only survived the electoral disappearance of other communist parties in Europe in the early 1990s but it increased its already very high vote share (more than 30%) making AKEL the most successful of all left parties in the EU. These successes owed much to the leadership of Christofias.
Christofias was elected at the head of AKEL at the age of 42 as the personal choice of the former leader E. Papaioannou and a small part of the old communist guard against the will of a host of historical and powerful cadres of AKEL and the left trade union PEO at the time who adhered to the reformist left. His election marked one of the most severe crises in the history of the party with the defeated historical cadres leaving AKEL and founding a new party at a time when the communist left was experiencing worldwide the severe consequences of the collapse of the socialist bloc. Many predicted -at the time- that he and the party would not survive. They were proven wrong. Christofias held the party wheel steady to the left together with his other young comrades of the newly elected party leadership in a very turbulent environment.
Demetris Christofias has taken a prominent place in the history of the Cypriot Left not only because he led the party to government office. However, he considered that achievement his biggest legacy. As he wrote in his book (How Need becomes History, 2016): ‘Victory in the presidential elections of 2008 constitutes a historical landmark for the history of our party and the popular movement. It’s a historical achievement’. He wrote that because, as he declared on many occasions, it was the turning point for showing to the people of Cyprus that leftists are equal to all other Cypriots and they deserved to be acknowledged as such.
Regardless of how someone values his political choices and their effectiveness, Christofias life was dedicated to the struggles of the working class and his presidency to the need to find a solution to the Cyprus problem. At the same time, his presidency highlighted the many unresolved and hotly debated issues among the European and the world Left (e.g., participating in the EU, claiming power in a capitalist state, the limits of compromises, etc.). He remained faithful to communism until the very end.
His biggest qualities as a politician were proximity to the people and spontaneity; qualities that made him stand out in Cyprus’ political microcosm. His humane approach was universally admitted as his most distinguishing characteristic as a person.