Cyprus – The 2018 presidential election: A war of all against all

In less than two weeks’ time, the people of the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) are going to the polls for the 12th time in Cyprus’ presidential electoral history to elect the 8th president of the Republic (the first elections were held in 1960 when Cyprus gained its independence from Britain). As already mentioned in a previous post, five major candidates will contest the elections with a clear favorite to win: the current right-wing president Nicos Anastasiades. In this short post, I will try to summarize the most basic things that one has to bear in mind with regard to the forthcoming presidential elections in Cyprus.

1. The first round of the elections is scheduled for 28 January 2018 and if a second round is needed (almost certainly), this will take place on 4 February.

2. The President of Cyprus (Greek Cypriot by constitutional provision) is the highest authority in the country with very strong powers in his/her possession, unmatched in any other country of the EU. The president is both head of state and government. The only check on the institution’s power was the Turkish Cypriot vice-president as was envisaged in the London-Zurich agreements that established the Republic of Cyprus (1959-1960). However, the withdrawal of Turkish Cypriots from all state and government institutions in 1964 following inter-communal clashes and the subsequent Turkish invasion in 1974 mean that the president has concentrated all powers in the office.

3. Presidential elections are held every five years under a majoritarian two-round system, i.e., a successful candidate needs to receive a majority of the votes to be elected. With some exceptions, the rule in Cyprus is that a second round is needed to determine the president.

4. Given the majoritarian system and the absence of a dominant party that has more than 50% support on its own, all political parties and candidates try to strike bargains between them, particularly after the first round has ended.

5. In the past, presidents from all ideological currents have governed, including the self-declared communist AKEL (2008-2013), rendering the elections a matter more of political efficiency than ideology. Cyprus’ EU membership also limits the space for competition based on ideology and clearly distinct between policies and elevates issues of transparency and corruption on the agenda.

6. All types of elections in recent years have been held under conditions of extreme popular discontent towards political actors and very low levels of trust in them. This election is no different, particularly following the 2013 bail-in that saw a significant haircut in bank deposits of many Cypriots and the collapse of the powerful banking system of the country.

7. Apart the current president who is running for re-election (supported by his own party, the right-wing DISY), the other four major candidates are: N. Papadopoulos, president of DIKO and who is supported by an alliance of four parties (center-right DIKO, center-left EDEK, Solidarity Movement and the Greens); S. Malas, an independent who is supported by the left-wing AKEL; G. Lillikas, president of the Citizens’ Alliance; and C. Christou, president of the extreme right National Popular Front-ELAM.

8. The electoral strength of the major parties is as follows: the right-wing Democratic Rally (DISY) 30.69%; the left-wing Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL) 25.67%; the center-right Democratic Party (DIKO) 14.49%; the social democrats EDEK, 6.18%; the right-wing, nationalist Solidarity Movement, 5.24%; Green Party, 4.82%; Citizens Alliance, 6.01%; and the extreme-right ELAM, 3.71%. Based on these figures alone and bearing in mind which candidates the parties support, it is likely that that N. Anastasiades and N. Papadopoulos are the favorites to progress to the second round. However, one plus one does not always equal two in politics.

9. It was thought that the inglorious conclusion of the discussions for finding a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem between the leaders of the two Cypriot communities last July would dominate the campaign. However, the polls indicate that most people are primarily concerned with the economy, with the Cyprus problem coming second. Issues of corruption are also significant in these elections.

10. Programmatic discourse has been de-emphasised during the campaign. This has been complimented by a move towards the personalization of politics and electoral campaigns; this trend has been under way in Cyprus generally in recent times and is not confined to this electoral campaign. Most polls indicate that the personality of the candidate and not party affiliation will play the most crucial role in the voter’s final decision. In turn, this trend enhances the role of the leader at the expense of the party organization. Additionally, the majority of the polls also reveal voter choice is based on whom they perceive as the least bad among the candidates and not the best option.

11. Abstention is expected to reach the highest ever level in any presidential election. In the last presidential elections abstention rose to almost 20% in the second round (17% in the first) and is now expected to climb further. Moreover, approximately 30,000 of the eligible 40,000 voters did not register until the deadline of 18 December 2017; the vast majority of them being persons under the age of 22, which shows an aversion of young people to politics and adds to the abstention rate.

12. The campaign thus far, and with no indication of change going forward, has been one of a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’. This is particularly true for the three main candidates, Anastasiades, Papadopoulos and Malas. Accusations are exchanged constantly and on a daily basis between them, as well as between their supporting parties on all issues. For example, Lillikas indirectly accused Papadopoulos of offering him money and public office to withdraw his candidacy and support him. On another occasion, all candidates demanded that the president replace his minister of interior because of his partisan behaviour and partiality while being responsible for the organization of the elections. This polarization between the candidates, in turn, questions their ability to form alliances at the second round and arguably places the strongest candidate (N. Anastasiades) in an advantageous position since the bridges between Papadopoulos and Malas and the parties supporting them seem broken.

13. President Anastasiades has focused on three issues that are believed to be his strongest assets: his strong personality and authority; the fact that he improved the economy, successfully guiding the country’s exit from the memorandum and the crisis; and his ability to strike new and also enhance old international cooperation agreements with neighboring countries. Papadopoulos has highlighted his new agenda/strategy for disengaging from former presidents’ concessions with regard to the Cyprus problem; his reliability with regard to the economy; and his ability to act as a unifying figure between several parties. Malas has campaigned on the freshness that his candidacy brings to political life, and that has no links to the corrupt political and party system. He has also tried to stress the independent status of his candidacy vis-à-vis claims that he is nothing more than AKEL’s puppet.

14. If we believe the polls, President Anastasiades is favorite not only to win through to the second round but also to win at the second round, regardless of who stands against him. The polls suggest that N. Papadopoulos stands a better chances than S. Malas in a possible second round with N. Anastasiades. However, if Anastasiades were not to win, it would not be the first time in Cyprus that the polls got it wrong.

15. Given the belief that N. Anastasiades will win the election, the most significant issue in this election campaign is who will win through to the second round with Anastasiades. This raises the stakes for AKEL as a party and N. Papadopoulos as a person. Both AKEL and Papadopoulos face significant blame-gaming if they fail to win through.

16. The day after the election matters primarily with regard to the new president’s stance on the Cyprus problem and less on his economic policies. The latter point connects the presidential elections in the RoC with the ‘parliamentary’ elections held just a few days apart in the northern, occupied part of Cyprus; these elections took place a few days earlier (7 January 2018). While the elections did not concern the new leader of the community, they were crucial with regard to the parties’ results and their positions both regarding the Cyprus problem and relations with Turkey. A first reading of the results reveals tricky times ahead, since the political parties of the right that are more sceptical and more hardline regarding the Cyprus problem and more receptive of Turkey’s wishes and demands won a majority amidst increased abstention.

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