Election preview: Cyprus

There are two national elections being held on Sunday, in Cyprus and Ecuador. Neither gets a lot of media attention here, but they’ve both got a lot of interesting features – although, as it happens, neither election looks like being close. I’ll get to Ecuador a bit later; for now let’s have a look at Cyprus.

The dominant issue in Cyprus is the division between the ethnically Greek south and ethnically Turkish north. Although the government is internationally recognised as responsible for the whole island, its writ does not run in the northern third, the self-proclaimed “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, which has enjoyed de facto independence since the Turkish invasion of 1974.

Prior to Cyprus’s admission to the European Union, the international community made strenuous efforts to try to heal the division. Former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan produced, after lengthy negotiations, a peace plan that would have unified the country in a loose federation. It was put to a referendum in each community in 2004; the Turks accepted it, but the Greeks, believing (with considerable justice) that it had conceded too much to the Turkish point of view, rejected it by a margin of about three to one.

Somewhat paradoxically, the result of the referendum was that the Greek Cypriots got to join the EU anyway, while the Turkish Cypriots remain outside.

Then in 2008, presidential elections in Cyprus (i.e. the Greek part) brought communist Demetris Christofias to power committed to making a new effort towards reunification. The UN again put its toe in the water, and appointed none other than Alexander Downer as special envoy for the dispute. Perhaps not surprisingly, no progress was made, and last year the UN admitted defeat.

There is periodic talk of “confidence-building measures”, which tends to be diplomatic code for “nothing is really happening.”

Part of the problem is that, most unusually for Europe, Cyprus has a full presidential system: just as in the United States and most of the Americas, the president is head of government and is elected separately from the legislature, so a hostile majority in the legislature can lead to deadlock.

Sure enough, since 2011 the centre-right Democratic Rally has been the largest party in parliament (whose term runs until May 2016), and with the centrist Democratic Party has been able to keep the president’s party, AKEL, in a minority. The subsequent frustration no doubt contributed to Christofias’s decision not to seek a second term.

In Sunday’s election, the two main opposition parties are both backing Nicos Anastasiades, the parliamentary leader of Democratic Rally, for president, making him an overwhelming favorite. Opinion polls (Wikipedia has a summary) show him with about double the support of each of his two rivals, AKEL’s Stavros Malas and independent Giorgos Lillikas. The only question seems to be whether Anastasiades will get a majority in the first round or whether he will go to a runoff the following week.

That might do something about the problem of divided government, at least in the short term. Unfortunately it doesn’t tell us very much about the prospects for reunification, since left and right have a confusing habit of switching positions depending on who is in power.

Anastasiades was one of the few Greek Cypriot politicians to back the Annan plan in the 2004 referendum, when the Democratic Party was in power. He may now try to revive talks, but he may also find that peace has dropped somewhat on his country’s list of priorities with the onset of the European financial crisis.

International lenders have agreed on a bailout to recapitalise Cyprus’s banks, and proposed austerity measures have led to the usual round of street protests. Nonetheless, as Mediterranean EU countries go, Cyprus seems to be reasonably well placed. Time will tell whether having a conservative rather than a communist in the top job makes any actual difference.

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