When Cyprus is on European or world news, it will either be about Satanism in Eurovision, that cheese that Jean Claude Juncker disliked, a money laundering scandal or the latest episode of its reunification saga, a minefield of byzantine complications.
Don’t worry however, this article is about what you came here for: electoral politics ahead of the May 30th legislative elections for 56 of the 80 seats of the House of Representatives. The rest of the 80 seats belong to the Turkish Cypriot community and have been vacant since the 1960s. So just to get some things out of the way before we talk about polls and prospects, let us deal with what seem to be everyone’s…
Frequently Asked Questions
How is the first party in the polls not a minority government? How does it rule? It doesn’t seem to have the majority of seats, and is not likely to get it after this election.
Yes, because as Europe Elects members have to clarify every time a Cyprus poll is posted on Twitter, the Republic of Cyprus is the only EU country that doesn’t have a parliamentary system. It is in fact a presidential republic, kind of like a cheap version of the US or a simpler France. The government is not led by a prime minister, but by a President, who is both the head of state and the head of government.
That sounds dysfunctional and problematic for rule of law.
So just how are governments formed?
Governments are formed by the President, who is elected every five years and forms his or her cabinet, often with ministers from parties that supported his (or her) candidacy. Legislative elections happen about halfway through a presidential term, that is three years after the last Presidential election for President and two years before the next.
This can turn a legislative election into a referendum on the popularity of the current government and can be a bellwether for the relative strength of parties and the potential for alliances ahead of the next presidential election.
That’s all the House of Representatives does? Is it essentially powerless? Why are we even bothering with this?
Because the House of Representatives is the body that creates legislation, and can amend or reject laws proposed by the government. It can also approve, amend or reject the state’s budget (which it just did in January for the first time since independence). With the exception of the first elections in 1960 and the 1976 elections, the first after the Turkish invasion, no party has ever gained the absolute majority of the seats.
It goes without saying that the party which holds both the Presidency and the plurality of seats is pretty powerful, but still needs to forge alliances with smaller parties to pass legislation. For example, DISY (EPP) was able to govern by allying with DIKO (S&D), particularly on legislation related to the economy.
Judging from the polls, should we be expecting a shift to the left and to Green politics? AKEL (LEFT), DIKO (S&D) and EDEK (S&D), along with KOSP (Greens/EFA) are all opposing DISY and have the numbers for an absolute majority. Could they also elect a President in two years?
Yes, and no. Now that we have the basics down, it’s easy to see that alliances depend on the issue. In Cyprus, the socioeconomic positions of the parties on a traditional political compass are not quite enough to explain their behaviour. The ongoing Cyprus Problem colours their stance depending on their position on the form reunification could take, on relations with the Turkish Cypriots and on issues related to ethnic Greek Cypriot identity. These concerns can be decisive in creating alliances for the Presidency, but also in the House of Representatives itself.
Without complicating things too much, DIKO might be affiliated with S&D but it is in practice centrist on the economy and somewhat nationalist in its outlook, EDEK is unapologetically nationalist, and KOSP (i.e. the Greens) has hardline positions on the Cyprus Problem which it is now tempted to soften off as it tries to appeal to a broader audience of progressive voters.
What about the rest of the parties?
Out of the rest of the parties, ELAM is what it says on the tin: a nationalist party that was created as an offshoot of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn, but has distanced itself carefully when it became clear that the Greek neo-Nazis were about to end up in jail.
The other small parties include movements formed around specific personalities, of the type that come and go in Cypriot politics, as well as new movements focused on specific issues.
The first category includes KA (ECR) which is shedding followers to DISY and ELAM, and AG (formerly Anex) which was formed by a former MP for SYPOL (which, in turn has now had to run jointly with EDEK if it is to remain in parliament). Also, DIPA (RE) has been making a splash after breaking away from DIKO over long standing ideological issues and internal power struggles.
The second category includes special interest parties like the APC, an animal rights party that split off the Greens, the Hunters’ Party (KEKK) which is exactly what it sounds like—a special interests party focused on the demands of that particular hobby group—and A2020 is a populist movement campaigning on grievances dating back to the 2013 banking crisis. The main exception in this category is Ammohostos gia tin Kypro (Famagusta for Cyprus) which focuses on the Cyprus Problem, that is the ongoing process to reunify the island, but has also developed positions on corruption, the economy and the environment.
So could we be seeing an alliance between AKEL, DIKO and the Greens or EDEK for the Presidency in the future? And what about the future balance of power in parliament?
Of course. The alliance between AKEL and DIKO is being discussed behind the scenes already and the results of this election will give indications on the relative strengths of each party. In parliament, AKEL, DIKO, EDEK and the Greens could team up to frustrate the DISY government for the remainder of President Anastasiades’s term, while DISY could rely on a boost from DIPA and even ELAM, but alliances are fluid.
What to watch out for
One could mistake this election as being boring since, on the surface, the main three parties of the Cypriot political system are expected to more or less retain their MPs with minor losses. But some interesting trends have become apparent through multiple polls since March.
ELAM has been challenging EDEK for the position of the fourth largest party for a while, after entering parliament in 2016, and came close to gaining EDEK’s seat in the European Parliament in 2019. In this election, KOSP is also challenging EDEK for fourth place after seeing a surge in support due to increased public opinion interest in climate change, but also due to discontent with corruption in which most traditional parties—with the exception of the Greens—are seen to have partaken.
Polls have shown the three parties compete head to head, and the small size of the samples make predictions on the behaviour of their voters difficult. We cannot also discount the possibility that ELAM voters are not stating their intentions truthfully in polls, as well as the effect that undecided voters or voters that said they would abstain (which has fluctuated but is rather high) could have.
The undecided could also decide the gap between DISY and AKEL, even tilting the balance to bring AKEL to the first place, though it’s unclear whether that is possible.
Finally, the trend that has seen the Cypriot political system fracture into multiple parties (a record eight parties entered the parliament in 2016, compared to six in 2011) is not expected to reverse. The number of parties in parliament could increase from 8 to 9, and small parties are expected to increase their seats at the expense of the bigger parties, which could either revitalise democratic dialogue, or further polarise political discourse.