Cyprus – Continuity and change after the 2018 presidential election

The 2018 presidential election in the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) saw the re-election of incumbent president, Nicos Anastasiades, although in more difficult conditions than five years previously. In 2013, he was elected relatively easily, riding the wave of anti-government feeling at a time of worsening economic conditions and intense critique of the former leftist government. In 2018, the situation was different in many respects. This included the fact that he had lost the backing of his former centrist ally (DIKO) and was supported only by his (rightist) party DISY and because of the standard negative effects of incumbency, particularly after some harsh economic decisions, notably the first ever ‘bail-in’ in the EU, which led to increased economic uncertainty and distress among the population.

However, and despite the above, in last Sunday’s election President Anastasiades won 56% of the vote against 44% for Stavros Malas. This was a very similar result to the 2013 election when the same contesters polled 57.48% and 42.52% respectively. For many people, the result made it seem as if the previous 5 years had not taken place. In analysing the results and identifying the reasons and the consequences, this post must be read as a follow up from my previous post in which I analysed the context within which these presidential elections took place.

The issue in the first round was centered on who would face Anastasiades in the second round and whether there would be any room for cooperation between that candidate and the candidates and parties who failed to qualify. In the end, Malas and AKEL polled 30.24%, which was a lot more than anticipated. Therefore, Malas and AKEL were among the definite winners of the first round. The first round had another winner though: the extreme right candidate Christos Christou, the leader of the extreme neo-Nazi party ELAM, who polled 5.65% (up from the 3.7% that his party scored in the 2016 parliamentary elections).

Anastasiades, though coming first, scored 35.51%, which was much lower than expected. He can, therefore, be ranked among the losers of the first round. However, the definite loser of the first round was Nikolas Papadopoulos, who campaigned mostly on the Cyprus problem and who polled 25.74% (approximately 6% down from the total sum of the aggregate vote of the four parties that supported him). The latter seemed to be an indirect indication that the majority of the voters still support the bizonal bicommunal federation as the most acceptable solution to the Cyprus problem.

Abstention reached 28.12%, almost 10% up from 2013, showing that it is a structural feature of Cypriot electoral behaviour, while at the same time it has not reached its ceiling. Exit polls revealed that abstention was much higher among younger cohorts.

The second round revealed an entirely different setting. There, Anastasiades cruised to victory by a clear margin. Although abstention was a little lower than the first round (26.03%), it was still high by Cyprus’ usual standards. More worryingly, the president-elect was actually voted in by a minority of the electorate. Abstention excluded, Anastasiades’ polled 39.1% of the electorate compared to his 43.4% in 2013 and Christofias’ 44.6% in 2008; these figures do not include those who did not register to the electoral lists, or approximately 30,000 people.

Anastasiades’ election can be explained by a variety of factors. The include, first, the fragmentation of the opposition. They won a majority in the first round, totalling approximately 65%. However, its different constituent parts could not strike an agreement for the second round. This placed Anastasiades in an advantageous position allowing him to maneuver effectively. All the parties and candidates who failed to qualify for the second round decided to support neither of the remaining candidates, which was arguably more damaging to Malas.

Second, Anastasiades’ narrative focused on the need to continue a cautious policy with regard to the economy but a decisive attitude with regard to the Cyprus problem; this combination seemed to appeal to voters more than the narratives of his major opponents, Papadopoulos and Malas. Papadopoulos’ new strategy on the Cyprus problem was ambiguous and unclear, thus causing anxiety and uncertainty, whereas Malas’ association with AKEL reminded them of Christofias’ presidency which was judged as bad, particularly in the economy. Both candidates failed to produce and present a convincing, coherent and applicable programme to the voters.

A third reason lies with Anastasiades U-turn in regard to the Cyprus problem in the last few months. The president adopted a more hard-line position, projecting himself as the only candidate who could assertively defend Greek Cypriots’ rights at the negotiation table. This U-turn enabled him to reach out to the more nationalist voters of his own party (DISY) who had considered him too soft towards the Turkish Cypriots and also of other center right and right-wing parties. The nationalist portion of the electorate in Cyprus remains high and this U-turn proved decisive.

The elections revealed interesting insights with regard to Cyprus’ political and party system, indicating mixed signs of change and continuity. Signs of change have been evident for some time now. Partisan attachments are fading away with younger generations not feeling bound by their families’ choices. Cyprus has been experiencing a process of dealignment for a few years now, but without any realignment except in the case of the extreme right ELAM. Interestingly, their party leader achieved a bigger percentage in the presidential elections (5.7%) than his party did a year and a half back in the parliamentary elections of 2016 (3.7%), which is something that he could potentially capitalise on in the near future. However, increased abstention, protest voting and citizens’ dissatisfaction with the overall workings of the political system indicate the existence of a political vacuum in which new organizations, movements and/or parties could enter.

Another interesting new feature of this election which might be revealing for the future was the inability and unwillingness of political parties to reach agreements and make alliances with each other. This was the first time in Cyprus’ presidential election history that candidates and parties did not seek an agreement between the first and the second round. This was justified by their wish not to water down their positions. This was well-received by part of the media and their supporters, but it could also be a sign of their inability to reach a consensus. Moreover, the intense and polarized confrontation between most of the parties, as well as their divergent positions on several dimensions of party competition shows that most opportunities for cooperation have been severely damaged, which in turn points to the difficulties ahead for the president.

The parties that populate the space between the leftist AKEL and rightist DISY have declared their intention to further enhance their cooperation beyond the mere joint support of a common presidential candidate. Their intention is to create a powerful ‘third pole’ in the party system that will pursue power and policies autonomously. Although this is a difficult task to achieve, given their different political and personal agendas and their internal problems, if they do succeed it could change the nature and format of party politics in Cyprus given the fragmentation of the centrist political space hitherto. At the same time, it will place significant pressure on the new president since he will face harsh opposition from two discrete blocs (left and center).

Signs of continuity are also evident particularly with regard to the effects of bipolarism (left and right). The mainstream parties of both left and right, AKEL and DISY, continue to dominate their respective political spheres and have proven their endurance despite their problems. In this regard, the ‘old’ party system has once again proven powerful enough to absorb the shocks and survive.

What is the future for the president elect? It has been pointed out by many commentators that the president will immediately face numerous challenges and will not benefit from any honeymoon period. These challenges include, inter alia, the possible resumption of the negotiations over the Cyprus problem, difficult decisions in the economy (e.g., privatizations, seizure of properties by the banks and many more), the developments with regard to Cyprus’ natural gas deposits, etc. All these decisions must be made in the context of a polarised and hostile environment, particularly in parliament where president Anastasiades does not enjoy a majority anymore. Although Cyprus is a presidential democracy, the president nevertheless has to achieve consensus or at least a majority in many bills. Both AKEL and the parties of the so-called middle space have declared their intention to oppose the president on all fronts. Achieving consensus will be increasingly difficult from now on.

Overall, President Anastasiades has to walk a very thin line. He was voted in with 21,000 votes less than in 2013. More importantly, 335,000 voters did not vote for him (143,401 who abstained, 12,173 blank votes, 10,778 spoilt ballots, and 169,243 citizens who voted for Malas) compared to the 215,281 who did vote for him. To ignore this arithmetic would be a huge mistake, particularly on high salience issues such as the Cyprus problem and the economy. Moreover, he can no longer blame the previous government.

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