On the 28th January, Cypriots are heading out to polling stations to vote for their next President. With the country being the only fully presidential system in the EU, these elections constitute the most important political event in Cyprus: through them, citizens cast their vote for both the head of government and the head of state. The President (Greek Cypriot by constitutional provision) is effectively the highest authority in the State. Notably, he or she can appoint and fire ministers, but does not need a vote of confidence in Parliament and cannot be impeached by MPs.
This position is strengthened by the fact that the only check on the institution’s powers – a Turkish Cypriot vice-president as was envisaged in the London-Zurich agreements that established the Republic of Cyprus – is currently in abeyance. In fact, it has been this way ever since the withdrawal of Turkish Cypriots from all state and government institutions in 1964 following inter-communal clashes, and the subsequent Turkish invasion in 1974.
The election of the President is direct, by universal suffrage and secret ballot. Every citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote, and all Cypriot citizens over the age of 35 have the right to run for the Presidential office. The President’s term of office is for a period of five years starting from the date of his or her investiture before the House of Representatives.
Presidential elections are held under a majoritarian two-round system. For a candidate to be elected during the first round, he or she needs more than 50% of the votes validly cast. If none of the candidates reaches this absolute majority, the election is repeated between the two candidates with the most votes on the following week. The candidate who receives the relative majority during the second round is deemed elected.
There is an all-male panel of nine contestants in the elections, but only five major ones are backed by one of the country’s main political parties:
- The current right-wing President Nicos Anastasiades supported by his own party, the conservative Democratic Rally, who is a clear favourite for victory;
- Centrist Nikolas Papadopoulos, chairman of the Democratic Party and son of late President Tassos Papadopoulos, who in 2004 rejected a UN Cyprus reunification blueprint. He is supported by an alliance of four parties: center-right DIKO, center-left EDEK, Solidarity Movement and the Greens;
- Stavros Malas, running as an independent with the backing of the communist party AKEL, who was beat by the current president Anastasiedes during the second round of the 2013 presidential elections;
- Giorgios Lillikas, president of the centre-left, social-democratic Citizens’ Alliance;
- Christos Christou, president of the far-right National Popular Front (ELAM), which describes itself as promoting “popular and social nationalism” and has links with the Greek party Golden Dawn.
It is interesting to notice the continuation of a recent shift away from programmatic discourse during the campaign. This has been complimented by a move towards the personalization of politics and electoral campaigns;in line with a general trend in Cyprus in recent times. Most polls indicate that the personality of the candidate and not party affiliation will play the most crucial role in the voter’s final decision. In turn, this trend enhances the role of the leader at the expense of the party organization. Additionally, the majority of the polls also reveal voter choice is based on whom they perceive as the least bad among the candidates and not the best option.
With the shock of the 2013 financial crisis not yet over, the economy of the country has proven to be the most significant issue in these elections. While polls demonstrate that the matter of the economy is at the forefront of people’s concerns, the deadlocked peace process with the island’s Turkish Cypriot community is as always also a pressing issue. This latter has been especially relevant after the disappointing conclusion of the discussions for finding a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem between the leaders of the two Cypriot communities last July. Issues of corruption and the exploitation of hydrocarbon reserves of the island have also played a significant role in campaigning for these elections.
In 2013, Cyprus was on the brink of a financial meltdown which threatened the collapse of the foundations of its economy – largely its banking sector which was overexposed to debt-laden Greece. At the time, President Anastasiades clinched a deal with international creditors for a 10 billion euro bail-in, contingent upon shutting Laiki, the second-biggest bank, and imposing losses on depositors to recapitalise the Bank of Cyprus. These elections are the first since the country’s successful exit from the bail-in programme which saw a significant haircut in bank deposits of many Cypriots. While the economic situation has since improved, candidates are now attempting to show that they have a plan for Cyprus to move away from the lack of substantial growth and innovation.
Cyprus’s economy is now more stable, unemployment is still high, many people are in need of public allowances and the conditions in the labour market have worsened for the working class. While the current President and the government support the idea that their current stance on economy is leading the country into a phase of stability and growth, the opposition candidates accuse the government of scandals, favouritism and ephemeral growth. In particular, AKEL-backed candidate Malas is still struggling with the legacy of the economic crisis, as his Progressive Party is blamed for causing the financial meltdown when it was in government. On the other hand, much of the support for Anastasiades stems from his success in guiding the country’s exit from the crisis.
The latest UN-mediated effort to reunify the island broke down spectacularly at a peace conference in Switzerland last July. The talks, which were focused on the reunification of the island on the basis of the principles of a bizonal, bicommunal federation (BBF) between the island’s two main communities, got stuck on the status of the estimated 35.000 Turkish troops present on the island, as well as Ankara’s security guarantee for Turkish Cypriots as promised by Cyprus’ 1960 independence treaty.
During this election campaign, President Anastasiades has promised to resume talks from where they started and to continue pursuing BBF as a solution to the issue if he were re-elected. While supporting the principles of BBF himself, candidate Malas has criticised the approach taken by President Anastasiades during the peace talks, and accused the president of missing an “historic opportunity” to reach a deal with endless strategic mistakes during negotiations.
On the other hand, the remaining candidates has expressed their dislike of the direction the negotiations had been taking. Centrist Papadopoulos has has adopted an inflexible stance on reunification and has allied with the forces rejecting BBF, saying Anastasiades was leading Greek Cypriots to a “bad solution they won’t accept” and criticising the numerous concessions made by the Cypriot President. Equally, both Lillikas and ELAM president Christos Christou, with his party’s Greek ultranationalism, have both strictly rejected a federal solution for Cyprus, instead pushing for a unitary Republic of Cyprus.
All elections in recent years have been held under conditions of popular discontent and low levels of trust. Abstention is expected to reach the highest ever level in any presidential election. In the last presidential elections abstention rose to almost 20% in the second round (17% in the first). This time around, crucially, 75 percent of first-time Greek Cypriot voters didn’t register to cast their ballot.
President Anastasiades is tipped to the win the relative majority during the first round, where 550,876 people have the right to vote. In the second round, Anastasiades is expected to face off either Stavros Malas, who he beat in a 2013 runoff, or Nicolas Papadopoulos. Two other party-backed candidates, Giorgos Lillikas and Christos Christou, are not expected to reach the February 4 runoff.