The 2016 parliamentary election in the Republic of Cyprus: Centrifugal tendencies and dealignment

Yiannos Katsourides

On 22 May 2016, Cypriots went to the polls to elect deputies for the eleventh 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. This was a crisis intensified by the many political and economic scandals that had come to the fore in recent years and led to the widespread perception among the public that all politicians are corrupt and selfish and that all parties are the same.

Second were the repercussions of the bail-in of 2013, which caused the economy, for the first time, to be the most important issue of the elections. The Cyprus problem is usually the focus of political campaigns, and during these elections the negotiations for a possible solution to the long-standing Cyprus problem had been revived, bringing the issue into headlines again. Nevertheless, the economy won out as the major issue.

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 – the Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL) and the Democratic Rally (DISY), an obvious attempt to keep out unwanted newcomers – for example, the extreme right National Popular Front (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.

Lacklustre campaign

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 them 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 for co-operation and 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.

The governing right-wing DISY’s campaign called upon voters to place their trust in the party, reminding them that its realistic policies had led the country out of the crisis and out of the memorandum of understanding (‘success story’). They also warned of the risk and consequences of relying on the former governing party (AKEL), with their populist proposals. The opposition left-wing AKEL, on the other hand, stressed the need to terminate the austerity policies resulting from the Troika demands but also from the government’s policy choices, and blamed DISY and the government for the downfall of the economy.

The centre-right DIKO emphasized its pivotal role in the functioning of the entire political system, and called on voters to move forward, instead of left or right. The social democratic United Democratic Union of the Centre (EDEK), amidst internal tensions, initially underlined the importance of maintaining the sovereign Republic of Cyprus, which it accused the two main parties of aiming to abolish. Later in the campaign, the party changed tactics and focused on the economy, proposing that all debts be frozen. The other smaller and newly founded parties campaigned on a platform asking for an end to the dominance of the traditional mainstream parties, which they accused of corruption.

Winners and losers

The most telling story of this election was the high degree of abstention, 33.26%; this set a record for post-1974 Cyprus and revealed an 11.96 % increase from 2011. This figure is even more important if we factor in the 22,000 (out of the 32,000) young voters 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. 

Table 1: Results of the May 2016 Cyprus parliamentary election

Party % (seats) Votes Difference from 2011 (%)(seats) Difference from 2011 (Votes) Results if abstention is included (%)
DISY(Democratic Rally) 30.68 (18) 107,825 -3.99 (-2) -30,857 19.85
AKEL (Progressive Party of the Working People) 25.67 (16) 90,204 -7 (-2) -41,967 16.6
DIKO (Democratic Party) 14.49 (9) 50,923 -1.28  (-) -12,840 9.25
EDEK (United Democratic Union of the Centre) 6.18 (3) 21,732 -2.75 (-2) -14,381 4
Citizens Alliance 6.01 (3) 21,114 3.88
Solidarity Movement 5.24 (3) 18,424 3.39
Greens 4.81 (2) 16,909 +2.6 (+1) +7,949 3.11
ELAM (National Popular Front) 3.71 (2) 13,041 +2.6 (+2) +8,687 2.4
Others 3.21 11,217 -1.86 (-) -9,317 4.26 (including blanks and void)
Abstention  33.26 180,644 +11.96 +67,468 33.26

Source: Author’s compilation of data based on official results at http://www.ekloges.gov.cy

The results reveal clear winners and losers. The biggest winners were the centre-right DIKO and all the smaller parties except EDEK; the biggest losers are the two main parties and especially the left-wing AKEL. AKEL lost 7%, 42,000 voters and three seats compared to the 2011 elections when they were in government. DISY lost 4%, more than 30,000 voters and two seats. 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 parliament), a clear indication of voter frustration with the mainstream parties. In contrast, the entire ‘middle space’ – that is, all other parties except the two big ones – polled 36.73%, a very important development since together they now have the largest representation in the parliament. This fact does not mean that these parties are ideologically similar. 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 hardline position, albeit to varying degrees.

What do these elections tell us?

These elections reveal interesting patterns and offer important insights. First of all, they reinforce the trend in Cyprus towards de-alignment, which indicates a crisis of representation. Abstention has become a systemic feature of Cypriot electoral politics, with many voters deliberately abstaining to punish the political parties and to convey their anger at the entire political system for its failure to respond to their concerns. However, election results also revealed a partial re-alignment, with up to 25% of voters, according to the exit polls, changing party allegiance. Those who benefited were, of course, the newer parties, which garnered votes and parliamentary seats at the expense of the more traditional ones.

This disconnect between people and politics (see the last column of the table), most likely accounts for the increase in younger candidates who are not tarnished by accusations of corruption; 28 new MPs were elected (24 for a first time) which represented half the total number of deputies in the House of Representatives.

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, co-operation and alliances between the 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 centre of gravity: the centre-right, albeit more fragmented now, has increased its vote share at the expense of the centre-left. In 2011 the centre-left represented by AKEL, EDEK and the Greens polled approximately 44%, whereas in 2016 their overall share dropped to approximately 37%. The right and centre-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 (centre) 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 commanded more than half of the votes, together their vote total 56.36%, down from 66.95% in 2011. Moreover, these two parties together now have 34 deputies compared to 39 in the last elections. 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 for smaller and new parties verifies the trend shown in other recent elections, that is: 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, the sister party of the Greece’s Golden Dawn, tripled its 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.

Sixth, the number of female MPs increased in these elections from 7 to 10 (it would have been 11 but E. Theocharous, the leader of Solidarity and an MEP, opted to stay in the European Parliament). This is definitely a positive development in a country where civic and equal gender rights tend to be respected on paper but not in actuality.

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.

Yiannos Katsourides teaches in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cyprus.

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