By Giorgos Charalambous (University of Cyprus and PRIO Cyprus Centre)
It has been repeatedly observed how little Cypriot politics has changed since the onset of the post-2008 crisis in relation to the rest of southern Europe, in spite of a growing dissatisfaction with democracy and a rapidly decreasing sense of trust. But the parliamentary elections of 2016 were the first such elections after economic problems affected the island and the politicisation of the crisis (both in its economic and political sense) became the norm. In this vein, there emerges a justified question on whether these parliamentary elections fit the patterns of those between 2011 and today in the rest of southern Europe? Four characteristics stand out that have been witnessed elsewhere in southern Europe as well, especially in Greece. Although they need to accompanied with qualifications, they exhibit that eventually the crisis has led to instability in Cyprus in the systemic sense, in a manner similar, but not identical, to the rest of southern Europe.
Bipolarism has been eroded further but it has not been totally undermined, now standing at around 55%. The governing right-wing DISY could claim a sufficient legitimisation of its austerity policies since 2013, if only because comparatively with other parties of the centre-left and centre-right that implemented austerity in post-2008 southern Europe, it has coped well electorally. The left-wing AKEL has been punished a second time (the first being the European elections of 2014) for the unpopularity of the Christofias government (2008-2013) and perhaps also for the beginning of austerity. DISY lost two seats and AKEL three. The main looser has been EDEK (social democrats), which had been recently shaken by a controversial change in leadership and protracted internal divisions. EDEK has lost approximately one third of its real numbers and two out of its five seats. Although the centrist, pivotal party, DIKO, lost less than the other ‘big three’, retained its 9 seats and claimed a ‘victory’, all four parties that have so far constituted the main pillars of the party system in the post-1974 period, suffered losses in the tens of thousands of votes since 2011; they lost a little below 100.000 votes compared to the previous parliamentary elections.
The big winner of the elections was ELAM, the far right that was established in 2008 and has close relations with Greece’s Golden Dawn, initially starting out as a Golden Dawn branch. This is the second main change in the party system. Although in Cyprus the far right has always been diffused in various organisational spaces on the centre and right, often occupying positions of institutional power and in any case exercising ideational and behavioural influence, never before has it claimed parliamentary presence as an organised force, with the ‘appropriate’ characteristics. ELAM more than tripled its percentages and more than doubled its real numbers, attracting both those who are positioned on the far right on national and ethnic issues (one of its slogans was ‘Think nationally’) and those who chose ELAM as an alternative or protest vote to corruption, establishment politics and austerity.
ELAM benefited out of a higher fragmentation of the vote, that affected mostly the centre of the political spectrum, in spite of the recent increase in the electoral threshold from 1.08% to 3.60%. If one includes the Greens, then currently ‘the centre’ οr the ‘in-between space’ is occupied by five political parties, that all happen to be also quite nationalist. In fact, at a time when there is still some hope for an agreement on the Cyprus problem to be found between the two negotiating sides, there are no less than six parties (adding ELAM), with a total of approximately 130,000 votes, that position themselves, either implicitly or explicitly, against the bi-zonal, bi-communal federation as a solution to the Cyprus problem.
Fourthly, abstention has reached a climax at 33.6%; the elections had the lowest turnout for a parliamentary election in the history of the Republic of Cyprus. But the results also documented a rapid deterioration in electoral participation that started after 2001 and now continued with a 13% increase (one in eight out of those who voted in 2011 did not vote in 2016). There is a clear case to be made for a crisis of representation, that channels itself into political apathy and not so much in social contention and mobilisation. Considering that more than 30,000 new voters did not register to vote, then currently, approximately only about 60% of the population with the right to vote is being represented by the process of election in parliament.
Change should not be overemphasized in the sense that it’s not unlimited. Bi-polarism is still substantive and most of AKEL’s losses went to abstention rather than other formations. Therefore, in terms of volatility, this has certainly increased considerably but not to dramatic levels when allowing for party switching or ideological repositioning. More importantly, establishment politicians still constitute by far the majority in the new parliament, although there were 24 new entrants. Whether they belong to an old or new party, a left-wing or a right-wing one, experienced and partisan politicians have been the most popular choice among those who voted in the election. In this sense, unlike in Greece, there has not been any significant recomposition of the main elites, partly because parties mobilise from the centre outwards. Policy deadlock may be difficultly avoided but still not happen.
Yet, the party system, the relationship between government and opposition and by extension governance at the highest level, and public rhetoric may still be affected. In all these respects, the alignments that have taken shape after the elections will likely have an impact. Concerning the party system, beyond constituting a rapidly formed peak in terms of fragmentation and disintegration, that attests to a potential period of transition towards another or a differently constituted balance of power, these elections may also reinforce arguments in favour of horizontal voting, in an anyway highly divided politics where many choose to abstain.
Government-opposition dynamics will depend on a more fluid system of coalition-making, although DISY and DIKO can still form a majority, as they did to pass the most crucial austerity legislation of the post-Memorandum period. The latter has evidently not lost much due to its association with the right and in this sense it is likely to continue supporting through the government’s wishes, but on the other hand, coalescing with the rest of the centre will allow it to form political alliances and potentially a front that can marshal considerable force on Cyprus problem-related developments. At the same time, for public rhetoric the results of the elections suggest that more ‘centrist’ actors in parliament and the addition of the far right may lead to a shift towards more conservatism, nationalism, anti-system profiles and populism.
This is clearly a crisis-influenced election, both in the objective sense of worsening economic conditions and political fluidity, and in the more subjective sense of a widely and intensely constructed and uncontested notion of decadence.