Fragmentation and Dealignment: the 2016 national elections in the Republic of Cyprus

On 22 May 2016, Cypriots went to the polls to elect their deputies for the 11th time in the short 56-year-old history of the Republic of Cyprus. There were 543,186 eligible voters and 494 candidates– the most ever in Cyprus’s electoral history, and which corresponded to one candidate for every 1099 voters. There were a total of 13 parties and platforms ranging from the left to the far right and covering niche agendas such as the Animal Party as well as individual candidates.

In the end, the elections were basically little more than a fight among the political parties amidst a largely indifferent electorate. It was a fight between big parties and smaller parties; a fight between the two largest parties to secure the lead in the balance of power and in view of the forthcoming presidential elections of 2018; a fight between the smaller parties for survival and for the lead in the so-called middle space; a fight among all parties against abstention; a fight within the parties for who would be elected.

The context of the elections was defined by three parameters. First and foremost was the huge crisis of legitimation of the entire political system.

Second were the repercussions of the bail-in of 2013, which caused the economy—for the first time in parliamentary elections– to be the most important issue of the elections but not the only one since negotiations for a possible solution to the long-standing Cyprus problem had been revived, bringing the issue into headlines again.

Finally, there was the decision to increase the electoral threshold from 1.8% to 3.6% just a few months before the elections. This was a joint decision of the two major parties (AKEL and DISY), an obvious attempt to keep out unwanted newcomers (e.g., the extreme right ELAM) and also limit their losses to smaller parties. This act invited the severe criticism of the smaller parties as they accused the larger, mainstream parties of authoritarianism, criticizing their decision as undemocratic.

The campaign was rather short by Cypriot standards and was a far cry from the passionate campaigns of the past. Indifference among the voters was the principal characteristic of these elections; polls indicated that approximately one-third of the voters would abstain.

The parties focused on a variety of different issues: the two major parties (AKEL and DISY) stressed the economy in lieu of the Cyprus problem and the ongoing negotiations; this was done to highlight their differences in the face of accusations by the smaller parties that their stances on the Cyprus problem were too similar. Thus, the other parties focused on the Cyprus problem while criticizing the two main parties of cooperation and of making too many concessions towards the Turkish side. This perceived cooperation necessitated, according to smaller parties, a decrease in the total vote for these two main parties.

In terms of the results, the most telling story of this election was the high degree of abstention, 33.26%; this sets a record for Cyprus post-1974 and reveals an 11.96 % increase from 2011. This figure is even more important if we factor in the 22,000 (out of the 32,000) youth who were eligible to register yet declined to do so. Although not confined to the younger cohorts, exit polls revealed their turnout to be the lowest.

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The results reveal that the biggest winners are center-right DIKO and all the smaller parties except EDEK; the biggest losers are the two main parties and especially left-wing AKEL (table). DIKO is the only historical/mainstream party that managed to maintain its seats despite the loss of approximately 13,000 voters; the party also managed to retain its modulatory role in the middle space.

Together, the newly founded parties polled 14.26% (including those that did not enter the parliament), a clear indication of voter frustration with the mainstream parties. In contrast, the entire ‘middle space’ –i.e., all other parties except the two big ones– polled 36.73%, a very important development since together they have the largest representation in the parliament. This fact does not mean that these parties are ideologically similar; at the same time, however, their differences should not be underestimated. Their parliamentary representation shows that they can have a considerable say in all future developments on the island, and especially with regard to the Cyprus problem: these parties all profess a more hard-line position, albeit to varying degrees.

Messages from the elections

These elections reveal interesting patterns and offer important insights.

First of all, the elections reinforce the trend in Cyprus towards dealignment, which indicates a crisis of representation. Abstention has become a systemic feature of Cypriot electoral politics. However, election results also revealed a partial realignment, with up to 25% of voters, according to the exit polls, changing party allegiance.

Second, if we consider the election results in Sartorian terms, the party system of Cyprus seems to resemble the polarized pluralism model. For a second time in its history, the Cypriot parliament houses eight parties compared to only six previously; this has significant implications both for the internal working of the parliament and for the relations between the legislature and the president. In this regard, cooperation and alliances between parties will become more complicated than ever before, which will definitely affect the president’s ability to pass legislation. In turn, this will affect coalition building with regard to the forthcoming presidential elections.

Third, the elections also reveal a shift in the Cyprus party system’s ideological center of gravity: the center-right, albeit more fragmented now, 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 (including the extreme right), represented by DISY, DIKO, Citizens Alliance, Solidarity and ELAM, rose from 51% to approximately 60%. This could be related to, and could also explain, as many scholars argue, the inability of the (center) left to provide feasible alternatives for overcoming the huge economic crisis, which reinforces conservative reactions among the electorates.

Fourth, the strength of bipolarism has declined considerably. Although AKEL and DISY still command more than half of the votes, together their vote total 56.36%, down from 66.95% in 2011. These losses represent the price they paid for holding the executive in this turbulent period, which saw both parties failing to meet the expectations of their constituencies. This decrease combined with the increased vote share of smaller and new parties verifies the trend shown in other recent elections, i.e., that Cyprus has entered an era of increased fluidity. Nevertheless, the new parties’ breakthrough does not prove their endurance, which must be tested in consecutive elections.

Fifth, these elections are the first in which an extreme, ultra-nationalist, right-wing party garnered enough votes to win seats in the House of Representatives. ELAM, sister party of the Greek’s Golden Dawn, tripled it vote share to elect two MPs. Their presence in parliament offers them an institutional/legitimate channel to air their (populist) views, while their anticipated marginalization by other parties will probably act as a public signifier of their fake ‘anti-systemeness’. In turn, this could help them fuel their propaganda and consequently their electoral fortunes, especially amidst the ongoing negotiations for a possible solution to the Cyprus problem. However, their mere participation in the parliament is also an expression of their incorporation in the political system and their acceptance of the political rules.

Finally, the two big parties’ decision to increase the electoral threshold to their benefit not only failed but even backfired. Many analysts now say that this act has created a reverse dynamic against the big parties and actually helped the smaller parties gain seats in the House.

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