News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Southeastern Europe - Europe2024 The European Elections in Cyprus

New issues and a growing Turkish Cypriot vote may prove decisive in the upcoming contest


President of the Republic of Cyprus, Nikos Christodoulides, speaks to the media at a press briefing after the end of a European Council summit in Brussels, 24 March 2023. Photo: IMAGO / NurPhoto

The 2024 European elections are particularly significant, since they mark twenty years since Cyprus joined the EU and will provide the fifth opportunity for voters from both Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities to participate in the European Parliament (EP) elections. The lead-up to the elections is taking place in a rather peculiar political environment characterized by ambiguity, fluidity, and complexity, as the EP elections are taking place in tandem with the local elections.

Yiannos Katsourides is an Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Nicosia.

The Social and Political Context

In recent years, Cyprus has witnessed a continuous evolution of its political landscape, characterized by a gradual yet persistent transformation. This shift is evidenced by diminishing ties between political parties and the electorate, declining trust in political institutions, voter apathy, a wane in party loyalties, and the growing trend of individualized voting behaviour. If one were to choose a single word to sum up the present character of Cypriot politics, one might settle on “fluidity”.

The current political landscape is largely informed by economic and social developments that have fostered an environment of constant change. These developments have largely been shaped by the series of crises that both the planet and the EU have encountered over the past 15 years or so, instilling a pervasive sense of ongoing turmoil. These crises include the huge economic crisis in the late 2000s and early-to-mid 2010s, increased immigration and refugee influxes since the 2010s, Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, and, more recently, the armed conflicts occurring within or near Europe. These crises have had acute impacts on Cypriot society and its electorate, for example, through increased numbers of refugees and migrants arriving in the country.

The Cypriot economy reflects the global landscape, which is rife with uncertainties extending beyond the economy, primarily rooted in geopolitics (e.g., the wars in Ukraine and Gaza). In light of these circumstances, the Cypriot economy experienced a slowdown in 2023, with projections indicating a decline in GDP growth. Nevertheless, it maintains a position above the EU average, buoyed by tourism much like other Mediterranean countries. That said, beneath the surface of this seemingly robust performance are underlying weaknesses that risk evolving into chronic vulnerabilities. To give some indications of this, I will refer to two, which are thoroughly analysed in the 2023 annual report of the Cyprus Labour Institute.

One of these weaknesses is the reduced share of available resources that firms have been allocating to productive investment, despite business profitability reaching historic levels. The decline in productive investment, in turn, leads the country’s productive potential to stagnate, putting a brake on GDP growth and the creation of new jobs. Thus, in recent years, unemployment has remained high, hovering between 6.5 and 7 percent, which is 3 percent higher compared to 2008.

A second weakness is the fact that, while the economy is growing at relatively high rates, the produced value added (and wealth) is not shared fairly between labour and capital. Corporate profits are growing at a frenetic pace, but labour incomes are declining. In other words, a process of devaluation of labour is underway, which began in 2013 with the implementation of the adjustment programme agreed between the Troika and the previous government. Today, this process is continuing through inflation, which disproportionately affects working people. The losses in the purchasing power for workers total 11.7 billion euro for 2013–23.

Immigration in particular has taken on particular importance both because of the actual increase in migrant and refugee arrivals and because it is an important mobilizing issue for the far right.

The forthcoming European elections are taking place against this backdrop, adding further layers of complexity to an already fluid political landscape. Compounding this complexity is the fact that, for the first time in Cyprus’s electoral history, the European elections will be held on the same day as local elections. The decision to hold both elections together aims at stimulating voter engagement, since the sheer magnitude of offices for local administration (approximately 3,300) and the much higher number of candidates competing for these offices is expected to increase voter turnout.

However, this is far from a given. Both local and European elections are often perceived as second-class elections, characterized by minimal interest and low voter turnout. Historically, European elections in Cyprus have returned markedly low participation rates, with abstention surpassing voter turnout in the previous two cycles. For instance, in the 2019 elections, 55 percent of eligible voters abstained.

Moreover, the unique and opposing dynamics embedded within these two elections introduce substantial uncertainty regarding their outcomes, voter participation rates, and any potential interplay between them. European elections exhibit a partisan character, whereas local elections often revolve around personal factors.

The Campaign and the Parties

A total of 63 candidates representing 12 different parties and platforms, including two independents, are vying for the six seats allotted to Cyprus. Notably, three Turkish Cypriots are running under the banners of AKEL, the Greens, and the newly established Volt party, respectively. The electorate comprises 706,534 voters, including 103,269 Turkish Cypriots and 13,017 other European citizens.

The key parties competing in the elections include the right-wing Democratic Rally (DISY) which secured 29.02 percent at the last European elections, the left-wing Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL, 27.49 percent), the centre-right Democratic Party (DIKO, 13.8 percent) and Democratic Front (DIPA, 3.8 percent), centre-left United Democratic Centre Union (EDEK, 10.58 percent), the far-right National Popular Front (ELAM, 8.25 percent), and the Greens, who contested the previous elections jointly with EDEK. Currently, DISY and AKEL each have two members sitting in the EP (one of AKEL’s MEPs being a Turkish Cypriot), while DIKO and EDEK have one each. However, this balance is threatened mainly by the consistent rise of the far-right ELAM, now claiming the third position in the polls with percentages ranging between 12 and 14 percent. ELAM gained traction largely due to immigration having been placed on the political agenda, now the top concern for Cypriot voters according to Eurobarometer surveys, followed closely by economic issues such as high prices and the rising cost of living.

European issues have received only peripheral attention during the campaign, largely interpreted through the prism of domestic interests.

Yet ELAM has come under pressure from all sides, albeit with distinct motivations: DISY regards it as a substantial drain on their voter base, drawing dissatisfied party supporters and cadres. For DIKO, this presents a direct challenge to its position as the third-largest party and its pivotal role within the political system. EDEK sees it as a looming threat to its seat in the EP. For AKEL, it represents an ideological opponent. Furthermore, two fringe platforms have emerged to the right of ELAM in these elections, reflecting its ongoing shift towards the mainstream.

Shifting Agendas and the Rise of Immigration

The major social and political changes of the post-Cold War period and Cyprus’s EU membership have caused a gradual shift in citizens’ concerns. New issues have become more important than those that traditionally concerned Cypriot voters (i.e., the Cyprus problem). In a context of the multiple, enduring crises outlined above, popular feelings of uncertainty and insecurity are increasing. This in turn leads to a reordering of the political agenda, with issues such as the economy in its multiple facets (the welfare state, housing, the cost of living, poverty, unemployment, etc.), immigration, and corruption dominating citizens’ concerns.

Immigration in particular has taken on particular importance both because of the actual increase in migrant and refugee arrivals and because it is an important mobilizing issue for the far right. To a considerable extent, the latter has managed to impose its agenda on the debate on immigration. Immigration is an issue that causes insecurity among parts of the population, which the far right itself constantly feeds on with stereotypes and migrant-phobic narratives (e.g., the immigrant as allegedly criminal), from which it then benefits at the ballot box. Given that immigration is an issue over which the far right has established “ownership”, most of the debates and measures proposed to tackle the issue take place in a field favourable to it, which is reflected in its acceptance, normalization and electoral rise.

Alongside the issue of immigration, there is also the matter of populism, manifested in Cyprus primarily as anti-establishment sentiment. This sentiment reflects opposition to the practices and decisions of traditional mainstream parties, a phenomenon not unique to Cyprus but one that has surfaced relatively late compared to other countries. Anti-establishment sentiment embodies a distrust of what citizens perceive as the political establishment, notably traditional political parties. Consequently, this trend tends to favour new political entrants unencumbered by the trappings of established power structures, irrespective of the nature or content of their political messaging.

As in the past, European issues have received only peripheral attention during the campaign, largely interpreted through the prism of domestic interests. For instance, immigration gains prominence due to the EU’s inability to enact a cohesive policy that would adequately showcase solidarity with frontline states such as Cyprus.

What Are the Stakes?

Considering the supposedly secondary nature of these elections, seen primarily as serving as a way to convey messages either to the government or to the parties, it is crucial to consider what is at stake within this context. As a matter of fact, the outcomes are expected to have significant implications for Cypriot politics in several key aspects.

Initially, there is the question of voter turnout: How many voters, including Turkish Cypriots, will actually participate in the elections? This factor will directly influence the parties’ standings, especially the competition between DISY and AKEL for the leading position.

The overall performance of the governing parties will impact the stability of the governing coalition. Although it will not result in the government’s collapse, it will certainly impact its effectiveness.

The battle for the top spot is another crucial aspect of these elections, primarily because of its ramifications for the parties’ positions in the political system and their potential roles in future government alliances. Both major parties (AKEL and DISY) have faced significant challenges in recent years, with DISY still grappling with internal turmoil in the wake of the 2023 presidential elections. Compounding the stress for these historically dominant parties is the fact that both DISY and AKEL have seen a decline in their electoral support, dropping from a combined 68.71 percent in 2001 to 50.11 percent in 2021. Consequently, if either of these parties fails to secure more than 25 percent of the vote, their second seat may be at risk — a scenario not unexpected given that current polling data shows both parties vying for the top spot, but with average scores hovering around 18–21 percent. If either of the two main parties loses a seat, the competition for the fifth place among smaller parties becomes crucial, as it will result in gaining a seat in the European Parliament.

At stake in the elections is, thirdly, the eventual electoral outcome of the far right. These elections will define the extent of influence it wields, subsequently shaping the dynamics of the political agenda but also of coalition politics in the future, especially as ELAM has expressed an intention to participate in government coalitions.

Another critical aspect, directly impacting the administration of incumbent President Nicos Christodoulides, is the collective (and individual) performance of the three parties supporting his government: DIKO, DIPA, and EDEK. Christodoulides made history by being elected without the backing of either of the two major parties, but he now faces a potentially disruptive situation. All three parties participating in the coalition government seem to be faring poorly in the polls. EDEK appears poised to lose its seat, while DIKO is at risk of losing its traditional third position. The overall performance of the governing parties will impact the stability of the governing coalition. Although, given the Cypriot presidential system, it will not result in the government’s collapse, it will certainly impact its effectiveness, in view also of the fact that it does not enjoy a parliamentary majority either.

The Turkish Cypriot Vote

A fifth crucial issue relates to the Turkish Cypriot vote.

Since the tumultuous events of 1963–4, which saw the withdrawal of Turkish Cypriots from all government institutions, the two communities have effectively lived separately, without any meaningful political or electoral interaction. The Turkish invasion in 1974 and the subsequent de facto partition of the island further entrenched this division.

The European elections stand out as the sole platform since then that brings the two communities together politically. Since Cyprus’s accession to the EU, which happened for the entire island, European elections provide the opportunity for Turkish Cypriots who live and work on either side of the checkpoints and have official documents of the Republic of Cyprus (i.e., identity card and/or passport) to vote or run in the elections. Moreover, and to facilitate Turkish Cypriots exercising their voting rights, the Republic has provided for additional polling stations near the checkpoints so that those Turkish Cypriots who want to vote can do so more conveniently.

While AKEL shows some promise of taking top position after a prolonged period in second place, its overall performance still falls significantly short of its traditional level of support.

While Turkish Cypriot candidates have participated in previous European elections, it was not until 2019 that a Turkish Cypriot successfully ran on a Greek Cypriot political party platform (AKEL), marking a departure from previous political norms. In the upcoming elections, there are three Turkish Cypriot candidates running with Greek Cypriot political parties, a development that is expected to increase Turkish Cypriot voter participation. This, in turn, could have a significant impact on the election results and consequently on the workings of the political and party systems.

In 2019, there was a remarkable surge in Turkish Cypriot voter turnout, with 5,804 individuals casting their ballots compared to 1,856 in 2014. The majority of these voters, totalling 4,076, backed Niyazi Kızılyürek and AKEL, resulting in a 1.5 percent gain for the party. This underscores the electoral significance of Turkish Cypriot participation, potentially swaying outcomes for parties fielding Turkish Cypriot candidates and even influencing the closely contested race between AKEL and DISY in the current polls. Notably, existing polls do not consider Turkish Cypriot voters, leaving uncertainty about their voting intentions and preferences. Additionally, it is important to note that in 2019, a 1 percent share of the total electorate amounted to roughly 2,800 votes. Therefore, if Turkish Cypriot turnout significantly surpasses 2019 levels and follows a similar voting trend favouring AKEL, it could substantially enhance the party’s overall performance in the election.

The State of the Left and Its Prospects

AKEL, historically the primary representative of the Left, has encountered significant challenges over the past decade, particularly after assuming executive power for the first time under its former leader, Demetris Christofias (2008–13). This trend is evident in a cumulative 12.4 percent decrease in its share of the total vote since 2001, a drop of 10.4 percent over the two elections (2016 and 2021) since the end of its period in office, signalling a widespread perception among voters of the party’s shortcomings while in governance.

Moreover, the party’s electoral support base has undergone a striking transformation, exacerbating the challenge of crafting a coherent and persuasive programme. This shift in its constituency stems from both the marked and ongoing diversification and fragmentation of the working class — the primary demographic targeted by the party — and AKEL’s efforts to attract support from the middle class and other social groups, resulting in a significantly more diverse audience than in previous years.

With a new leadership since 2021 and a notable performance in the 2023 presidential elections, the party now appears to be in a much better position to compete in the upcoming dual elections. AKEL has also re-branded its electoral platform from “AKEL – Left – New Forces” to “AKEL – Social Alliance”, nomenclature that will see its inaugural test in these elections. This change signifies both a strategic communication endeavour aimed at projecting a fresh party image to the public and a novel approach to organizing the party’s interactions with non-leftist groups and individuals.

Nevertheless, current polling data paints a mixed picture. While the party shows some promise of taking top position after a prolonged period in second place, its overall performance still falls significantly short of its traditional level of support. This suggests that the passage of time since its tenure in government has not sufficiently addressed underlying concerns, failing to instil confidence in the electorate. The new party Volt also poses an electoral challenge to AKEL. Comprised mostly of activists who have previously supported AKEL and now unite under Volt’s banner, it predominantly appeals to a centre-left audience. Furthermore, to accurately assess AKEL’s performance, it is necessary to compare its results in the European Parliament elections, which include votes from Turkish Cypriots, with its performance in local elections, where Turkish Cypriots do not participate.