By Giorgos Venizelos
Cyprus 2023 Elections
On Sunday February 5th, 2023 Cyprus is heading to elections to choose its 8th president in the 13th electoral contest since the institution of the Republic in 1960. Cyprus is a presidential democracy, meaning that the president is elected directly from the people upon receiving 50% plus one vote.
There are 14 candidates bidding for office in the 2023 election, which is a record number for small Cyprus. Another 5 have already withdrawn from the race – the vast majority of them are men. This comes as no surprise as Cypriot politics is male dominated and discussions on gender equality are largely absent from the local culture.
If none of the 14 candidates receives an outright majority – which is most often the case – a second round will be held on February 12th when the two most popular candidates will be competing against each other. According to polls, 3 out of the 14 stand out as the most prominent: independent Nikos Christodoulides who is backed by centrist EDEK and DIKO as well as smaller formations, Averof Neofytou who is backed by his own Democratic Rally party (DISY, right-wing) and Andreas Mavroyannis, a long-standing diplomat and former ambassador for Cyprus to both the UN and the EU who is backed by the centre-left Progressive People’s Party (AKEL).
Neofytou’s style of public deliberation exhibits degrees of political theatre that is not always convincing. Mavroyannis may be knowledgeable and sophisticated but lacks charisma. Meanwhile, Christodoulides is calm and rarely engages in rhetorical conflict. His profile seems to appeal to the median Greek Cypriot voter. Differences between their agendas are not significant, however this is not to say that their programs are entirely the same. Neofytou advocates for a neoliberal model of governance. Christodoulides is also on the right, but shows some social sensitivity. Both of them though propose strict measures on immigration. Mavroyannis, on the other hand, represents the most progressive choice of the three. Yet, his economic policy does not pose any challenge to the economic status quo. They all talk about the environment and sustainability – as it constitutes a key aspect of contemporary political discourse – but their takes only differ slightly. Issues such as green politics, as well as social rights, are usually secondary in Cypriot political discourse.
One of the most striking particularities of the upcoming elections is found in the fact that the three leading candidates are or were close collaborators to the incumbent right-wing President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiadis. Christodoulides, a diplomat, has served as Foreign Minister between 2018 – 2022 as well as Spokeperson for the Government between 2014 – 2018. Neofytou succeeded Anastasiades in the leadership of DISY. Finally, Mavroyannis has served as chief negotiator – thus advisor for Anastasiades – for the Cyprus problem.
Christodoulides’ resignation from the second Anastasiades’ government in January 2022, amidst speculations that he would run independently for office without the approval of his party DISY, sparked a bitter political fight on the right. However, polls show that, even without a solid party organisation behind him, Christodoulides is leading the race, leaving behind both AKEL’s Mavroyannis and DISY’s Neofytou who has struggled to get his party behind him. Instead, the projected president Christodoulides has appealed to a wide spectrum of voters from the right to the center as well as the center-left.
Corruption, Scandals and Representational Void
The 2023 elections take place amid a general sentiment of political disillusionment and alienation. Severe political scandals and corruption, which no member of government assumed responsibility for, have disrupted the political environment. Anastasiades’ name featured in leaked documents widely referred to as the Pandora Papers. However, according to The Guardian and Politico, it was not the president himself but his former law firm which retains his name ‘Nicos Chr. Anastasiades & Partners’ and where his two daughters are partners that were involved in the creation of off-shore companies with the aim of tax evasion.
Still, Cyprus also made headlines in light of its Golden Visa Scheme which provided citizenship and passports to more than 3,000 foreigners investing at least 2 million euros. An Al Jazeera documentary caught a former Chair of Parliament, prominent lawyers, and top-tier businessmen acting as middle men and lifting bureaucratic barriers for affluent individuals wishing to buy Cypriot passports that would give them travel-free access to EU countries. Investors were even requested to make significant donations to the ruling party or the Church of Cyprus. Tragically, among the Cypriot passport grantees were convicted criminals and fugitives who are under the radar of authorities internationally.
Cyprus’ corruption story does not end here as the country appears to be behind yet another international scandal. Israeli-owned intelligence service provider Intellexa operated, until 2019, in Cyprus where the legal framework regarding the export of spyware systems are loose. Intellexa’s Predator spyware has shaken Greek politics since August 2019, putting enormous pressure on the Mitsotakis government. The country’s National Information Service, placed under the direct monitoring of Mitsotakis as of 2019 when he assumed office, surveilled a large number of top politicians and businessmen including members of Mitsotakis’ party and family.
Despite calls from the European Union warning that democracy in the two countries is under threat, in Cyprus no official has assumed responsibility for any of these scandals.
Lack of Political Alternatives
Corruption scandals interwoven with increasing economic anxiety due to inflation dominate the public discussion and generate anti-political sentiments. The ‘Cyprus problem’ that has previously dominated the public discussion and structured political competition in the country is losing its prominence, at least for now. However, no established party seems able to provide any alternative narrative. Even under conditions of severe corruption and economic frustration, the ‘left’ party of AKEL is, once more, failing to capitalise upon this political opportunity. This is because AKEL’s administration (2008 – 2012) is generally perceived to have caused enormous economic damage to the country, inviting the European Stability Mechanism to the island and leading to subsequent austerity measures.
Furthermore, AKEL has traditionally sought to back neutral candidates with supposedly broader electoral appeal. This is the case with Mavroyannis too. But this has not worked because it has alienated left-wing voters. On many occasions this leftist party has formed coalitions with the political center, sparking discussions about its identity and political orientation. There is, arguably, political space on the left of the spectrum available to captured, but no potent alternative has emerged. On the contrary, the political terrain seems to be moving to the right.
The Far-Right on the Rise
Besides the three main candidates in the presidential race, the growing force of the neo-fascist ELAM can no longer be ignored. ELAM maintained strong ties with the Greek Golden Dawn but it has gradually adapted its discourse in an attempt to turn more mainstream and compete politically. However, its xenophobic language remains dangerous. It makes appeal to the people on the basis of purely toxic messages that tap into socio-political anxieties. ELAM’s campaigning billboards are simple and crude: ‘170+ million euros spent on illegal immigrants. You have the power to stop this’ – ‘Not a single penny to illegal immigrants as long as Greeks of Cyprus suffer’.
ELAM’s emergence cannot be understood in isolation from mainstream political discourse framing immigration in the country as a problem. Incumbent Minister of Interior, Nikos Nouris, has often adopted similarly harsh language against refugees and migrants. In an attempt to appeal to the right end of his constituency, Averof Neofytou has implied Nouris would be minister in his cabinet if elected.
The projected victory of the Independent candidate Nicos Christodoulides raises crucial questions for the Cypriot party system as it manifests the failure of the two major parties to appeal to their own constituencies. However, the day after the elections will raise questions for Christodoulides himself as well. Ousted from his party DISY, will he form his own political project? Amid corruption scandals and economic exclusion Cypriot politics is clearly moving rightwards. Will Christodoulides prioritise his center-right values or his socially-oriented platform?
About the Author
Giorgos Venizelos is Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Cyprus. He is the author of Populism in Power: Discourse and Perfomativity in SYRIZA and Donald Trump. He co-convenes the Populism Specialist Group (Political Studies Association, UK) and tweets occasionally @GiorgoVenizelos. You can find more information about his work on his website www.giorgosvenizelos.com.
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