The Cypriot European Elections, May 2014: The Political Parties Count their Losses

2014 marked the third time that Cyprus sent elected representatives to the European Parliament (EP). The Cypriot elections took place in a volatile and fluid setting defined by mounting anti-party sentiment and fury at the entire political system and the economic administrators that brought the country to the brink of financial collapse one year ago. However, and at first view, the long-stable Cypriot party system has shown remarkable resilience once again. The elections yielded no surprises with regard to the allocation of seats; these remained the same as in the 2009 European elections. The dynamics of change that have been gestating in recent years, however, are becoming more and more visible, although not yet reflected in the party system. The most significant change relates to the continuing increased levels of abstention, and this was clearly reflected in the European election turnout. Given the high threshold for representation (16.33%) that discouraged protest voting, and the absence of an anti-EU party to absorb such a vote, public discontent was largely expressed through abstention. At 42.37% (46.56% if Turkish Cypriots are not included), turnout was both down from 59.4% in 2009 and astonishingly low for Cypriot electoral standards.

The European elections were held just a little over three months after the dissolution of the governing coalition between right-wing Democratic Rally (DISY), centre-right Democratic Party (DIKO) and right-wing European party (EVROKO). The Democratic Party withdrew its support in February 2014 due to the renewed negotiations between the leaders of the two Cypriot communities (Greek and Turkish) to solve the long-lasting division of the island. As a result, the coalition lost its de facto majority in parliament only one year after it was formed.

The context

When the elections took place, the island was suffering from the repercussions of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed with the ‘troika’ (the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) in March 2013 and the harsh austerity measures stipulated in the agreement. The violent transformation of Cyprus’s economic and social landscape has shifted popular concern to a focus on the economy and the personal consequences of the crisis, rather than on wider politics. It has also contributed to a further decline of trust in political institutions, both European and domestic.

The Cyprus national problem, which monopolised party competition in the past, has taken a backstage position in public debates recently. However, the issue has entered a new phase recently, which could elevate its importance once again. This new phase is marked by two developments. First, there is the recent discovery of oil reserves and natural gas deposits in Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Second, there is an increased US interest in finding a speedy solution to the Cyprus problem. The discovery of hydrocarbons has injected new vigour into the process of finding a solution and the Americans seem to have taken the initiative from the British in guiding the process of finding a solution. US leadership on this issue was exemplified by a US Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to the island four days prior to the elections. Mr Biden is the most senior US official to visit Cyprus in over 50 years, as the quest to find alternative energy routes into Europe has focused international attention on the continent’s only divided country.

The campaign

The European elections sparked very little interest among the Cypriot public. The unprecedented degree of indifference can be explained by: the fact that: very few seats allocated to Cyprus (six); the perception that ‘we cannot influence Brussels (which is seen as quite remote) because of our small size’, resulting from the unfair treatment of Cyprus thus far; and the inability of political actors to relate EU decisions and workings to the everyday life of Cypriots.

Indifference stood out as the most important feature of this campaign, with citizens distancing themselves from the discredited political parties and the elections. Public debates centred once more on the national rather than the European arena, mainly revolving around Cyprus’s bail-in agreement with the troika and citizens’ profound distrust of political institutions. However, it was the first time that ‘Europe’ played a small part in any type of election campaign in Cyprus. In general, however, there was no clear and consistent vision of the EU’s future. Anger at the EU stood at an all-time high in Cyprus following last year’s Eurogroup’s decisions. This led to a major surge in public Euroscepticism. However, this was not reflected in any party manifesto, apart from the communist AKEL party.

Given the public’s indifference it was no surprise that the campaign was short and expenditure on it was minimal. The high rate of abstention and the question of who would win the sixth seat were the only interesting puzzles of an otherwise lacklustre campaign. It was evident in the polls that AKEL would lose a significant portion of its electorate, a factor that put its second seat in jeopardy. For that reason AKEL tried, not very successfully, to link the elections to the government’s austerity programme, whereas the Democratic Rally tried to avoid such polarisation.

Beyond that, three things stood out during the campaign. First, there were a high number of candidates competing for a place in Brussels: 61 stood in these elections, either on party tickets or as independents, the most since Cyprus first participated in European elections in 2004. Second, it was the first time that Turkish Cypriots were running for office. Two of these contested these elections under the banner of the (Turkish Cypriot) Socialist Party of Cyprus (KSP), two others as part of a bi-communal political platform (DRASY-EYLEM), and a fifth stood as an independent. Third, it was the first time that small protest groupings expressing various social and political messages contested these elections, ranging from niche agendas (e.g., the animal rights’ party) to anti-corruption and anti-party campaigns (e.g., the ‘Message of Hope’).

Overall, approximately 56,000 Turkish Cypriots were eligible in specially crated polling stations out of 550,000 in total. 10 parties (or platforms) and 8 independents contested the election. Two stood the elections on a joint ticket (social democratic EDEK in alliance with the Greens), whereas DISY included the European party’s president on its ticket.

Results

Although European elections are usually characterised by voters punishing incumbent parties, in this election Cypriot, as Table 1 shows, voters appear to have penalised the former governing AKEL party for the March 2013 bail-in. While maintaining its two seats and hard core vote, AKEL lost 8% of its vote share and 37,000 voters compared to the previous EP elections. The party was unable to overcome the problems caused by its five-year presidency and its anti-austerity message was not persuasive because the public remembered that it had actually invited the troika to Cyprus and voted in favour of most of the Memorandum-related legislation.

 

Table 1: Results of the May 2014 Cypriot European Parliament election

 

Party

% Vote

2009

Seats

2009

% Vote 2014

Seats

2014

Change

% (Seats)

DISY

35,65

2

37.75

2

+ 1,76% (0)

AKEL

19.6%

2

26,98

2

-8,37% (0)

DIKO

15.5%

1

10,83

1

– 1,48% (0)

EDEK/Greens

9.8%

1

7,68

1

– 3,76% (0)

Citizens Alliance

6,78

0

Message of Hope

3,83

0

European party

4,12

0

Greens

1,50

0

National Popular Front

0.22%

0

2,69

0

+2,47

Others

6.7%

0

3,46

0

Source: http://live.elections.moi.gov.cy/English/EUROPEAN_ELECTIONS_2014/Islandwide

At the same time the governing right-wing DISY enjoyed a comfortable win polling 37.75% of the vote, the highest score in its history despite its decision to implement the bail-in. The party had successfully run on an inclusive ticket accommodating candidates with divergent views, largely due to satisfy conflicting views among its electorate. However, and despite their cumulative losses, DISY and AKEL continued to constitute the majority in Cyprus, comprising 65% of the electorate. What changed was the balance of power between them, with a 10% shift in favour of the Democratic Rally. In spite of its relatively good result, though, Democratic Rally once again faces the spectre of isolation since all other parties oppose its policies, albeit to different degrees and on different issues.

The centre-right DIKO polled 28,044 votes, approximately 10,000 less than its membership but still the lowest fall in the percentage share of the vote since 2009. The biggest problem for the party lay with its intra-party disputes: DIKO is actually “two parties in one,” and this leads it to be constantly self-absorbed with the opposing factions clashing on every possible occasion. 

The socialist EDEK party avoided the worst scenario and managed to hold on to its seat but still lost a significant share of its electorate. Many commentators felt that its alliance with the Greens is what saved the day for the party, especially given that their distance from the next party, the Citizens’ Alliance, was less than 1% (2,345 votes). The latter tried to capitalize on its anti-establishment message and the favourable result of its president Giorgos Lillikas in last year’s presidential elections. The results proved that the party is here to stay and has to be taken into account in any future analyses of the Cypriot party system.

At the far right end of the ideological continuum it is worth noting that the National Popular Front (ELAM), the sister party of the Greek Golden Dawn, received 2.69% of the popular vote. Although not a high percentage as such, the Front increased its vote share tenfold. Moreover, the party demonstrated its endurance contesting its fourth consecutive election since its establishment in 2008. In the forthcoming May 2016 national elections a similar result would guarantee the party a seat in the House of Representatives for the first time.

Although most of the smaller parties, platforms and independents that took part in the elections did not perform well on their own, taken together (9.98%), they signal underlying currents of alternative and fringe agendas and issues that have so far been absent from Cypriot politics. They also constitute another manifestation of the challenges posed to the country’s party system and, for some citizens, an alternative channel for expressing their discontent with the established parties.

It was expected that Turkish Cypriot electoral behaviour would impact upon the results. However, at only 3.19% turnout among this group was exceptionally low. This was the result of a combination of causes. First, all Turkish Cypriot political parties called upon their voters to abstain. Second, there is the long-embedded culture and practice of separate political representation. Third, approximately one-third of the 90,000 eligible voters were actually left off the electoral roll due to an apparent error concerning their registration. However, this would not have resulted in any significant change in the outcome.

All the above, however, are secondary factors in relation to the high levels of abstention, which constitutes the most important story of this election. A post-election public opinion survey on the causes of abstention (See Phileleftheros, June 1) reveals that the vast majority (84%) of abstainers rejected the entire political system. The elections verified an underlying trend in Cypriot politics: the continuing divide between politics and society. In essence, we have two parallel and opposing worlds; those running the political and party system and who remain loyal partisans on the one hand, and the majority of the citizens on the other. The results showed clearly that the political parties engaged in an unsuccessful battle to convince the voters to go the polls. A process of de-alignment seems to have been put in place in Cyprus in recent years, and this serves to delegitimize the national political system.

Yiannos Katsourides

Yiannos Katsourides (katsourides.yiannos@ucy.ac.cy) teaches in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cyprus and is visiting fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London

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