Derek Henry Flood
Cyprus Votes: Growing Rifts and Eastward Drift
With the first round in the Republic of Cyprus’s presidential election complete, The Red Line’s Derek Henry Flood reports on the ground in Nicosia about the issues facing the fractured Mediterranean island nation and the tense geopolitical flashpoint it remains between regional rivals Turkey and Greece.
On 5 February, voters went to the polls in the Republic of Cyprus, often referred to as Greek Cyprus, to elect a new president to lead the European Union’s only fractured member state. A field of fourteen candidates was narrowed down to just two, who will now compete for the nation’s highest office in a runoff election this Sunday, 12 February.
With a 72 per cent turnout of some 560,000 registered voters, independent candidate Nikos Christodoulides, a long-time stalwart of the ruling centre-right Democratic Rally party (DISY) and ally of outgoing President Nikos Anastasiades, came out on top with approximately 32 per cent of the first round of voting. Trailing not far behind and also running as an independent was Andreas Mavrogiannis, who has the backing of the island’s nearly century-old Marxist-Leninist Progressive Party of Working People, known as AKEL in Greek, who gathered just over 29 per cent of the vote.
Averof Neophytou, who serves as head of DISY and was third in the polls heading into
the 5 February ballot, was knocked out after the first round for failing to beat Mavrogiannis by just a few percentage points. While DISY can be considered a good portion of the backbone of the republic’s democratic establishment, withering corruption scandals under Anastasiades have tarnished the public’s trust in the party while embarrassing the island as a whole.
This can be seen in the now defunct ‘Golden Passport’ scheme that offered Cypriot citizenship — including to Kremlin-aligned Russian oligarchs—who invested at least €2 million in the local economy, often via the real estate sector. As Cypriot citizenship equates to EU citizenship, obtaining a Cypriot passport even by the most questionable means therefore allows holders unfettered access to all 27 member states of the bloc. This is not to say that voters here are thrilled to vote for an AKEL-backed candidate, with that party’s disastrous economic policies a major factor contributing to the rise of Anastasiades a decade ago. In the minds of many voters, the runoff may be reduced to choosing the lesser of evils.
A Living History
This election’s first round wasn’t particularly heated as the three principal candidate’s positions on major issues affecting the island more alike than different on many of the most pressing issues; namely a significant increase in cost of living and a migrant crisis vastly larger in per capita proportion to other much larger EU member states who have a more robust infrastructure by comparison. The two finalists both espouse a federal solution to reunify the island with the Ankara-supported Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) statelet recognised only by Turkey.
This is in line with the long-held position long proposed by the United Nations and other international and supranational bodies. This would ideally be what is referred to as a ‘bizonal, bicommunal’ reunification of the island since its de facto division in 1974 in the wake of a failed Greece-backed Greek Cypriot coup d’etat coupled with an invasion mere days later by the Turkish military that has isolated the island’s two primary ethnic communities from one another ever since.
Each side accuses the other of being maximalist aggressors who are to blame for the failures of the peace process to date. The constant repetition of intransigent talking points has had the effect of hardening the status quo, much to the detriment of now stagnant hopes for imperfectly articulated reunification. Furthermore, nationalist Turkish Cypriot President Ersin Tatar, deviating from his predecessors, has been calling for a two-state solution borrowing from the well-worn diplomatic speak of another nearby such conflict.
"In the minds of many voters, the runoff may be reduced to choosing the lesser of evils."
The two-state concept, if somehow actualised and midwifed by Ankara, would end the last hopes for healing Cyprus’ festering wounds that date back to the mid-Cold War period when the US and its allies were genuinely concerned about communist political movements here and in Greece itself, at a time when Turkey served as a bulwark of perceived anti-communism while abutting the then Soviet South Caucasus. Should the incoming leader of the internationally recognised Republic want to prioritise rejuvenating what can only be deemed a moribund peace process, it isn’t specifically clear that Tatar, backed by the often bellicose, erratic rhetoric of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who has already demonstrated the political will to assert Turkish interests militarily in both Iraq and Syria) would feel compelled to negotiate. A troubling indicator from the Greek-administered side, along with its allies in Athens, Brussels, and New York, was Erdogan’s proud announcement of the TRNC’s largely symbolic elevation to observer status to the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS) alongside Turkmenistan and Hungary.
There are concerns in the eastern Mediterranean that Ankara may either push other members of the OTS to recognise the TRNC as a sovereign state. Worse yet, the more troubling prospect of a Crimea-style option whereby Turkey unilaterally annexes the TRNC militarily unopposed, thereby cementing a rupture in NATO between itself and arch-rival Greece. The Turkish military has already spent nearly five decades preparing in the north and it might not be that far-fetched for the Turks to finish consolidating this territorial project in waiting. Turkish successes in aiding Azerbaijan against ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh while facing no real actionable consequences may embolden Erdogan on the Cyprus issue. Much the same can be said for its actions in northern Syria.
The highly contentious issues over sovereignty have animated Cypriot politics south of the UN-monitored buffer zone known as Green Line for many years post-1974. Yet in this election it fails to be the central theme it once was, as domestic economic issues coupled with the steady influx of both economic migrants and authentic war refugees are stoking at least some degree of nationalism amongst the indigenous polity. It is in this space where grievances meets ethno-linguistic nationalism that the National Popular Front, known by the Greek acronym ELAM, exists on Archbishop Makarios III Avenue, the high street running through the Nicosia’s CBD.
ELAM, ideologically connected to the now banned Golden Dawn party in Greece, conflates resentment toward the stream of migrants with collective bitterness toward the Turkish-controlled north of the island to brew a local brand of nationalism. When The Red Line approached the ELAM offices, uniformed police officers rushed to emphasize this particular party’s offices were off limits to unaccompanied foreign journalists as an ELAM functionary repeatedly shouted “go away” from a window on an upper floor.
"Turkish successes in aiding Azerbaijan against ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh while facing no real actionable consequences may embolden Erdogan on the Cyprus issue."
Although ELAM currently reflects only a small percentage of the Greek Cypriot electorate, its hardliner views on both immigration and the TRNC became a demonstrable reality in Greek Cypriot politics after winning a pair of seats in parliament in 2016. Following the 2021 parliamentary elections, President Anastasiades pragmatically approached the far-right populists to consider being part of a DISY-led coalition government.
Now, front runner Christohoulides, who is supported by the centrist Democratic Party, or DIKO, representing his base in the western city of Paphos, may have to consider the far-right reality, garnering support in a realpolitik framework when forming a future government following ELAM’s leader Christos Christou fourth place finish on Sunday.
Another Round of Voting
This presidential cycle in Cyprus may appear to be a story of little consequence whereby the small, fissured nation will get on one way or another, as it always has. Here within the region, it is seen as a precursor to parliamentary elections in Greece, which are likely to be called “at some point in the spring” according to a statement Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis made at the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Meanwhile Turkey has elections officially slated for 18 June, though President Erdogan has indicated he may move them to 14 May despite the very legitimacy of his candidacy of dubious merit under Turkish election law. This will undoubtedly be a captivating six months for eastern Mediterranean geopolitics from the Ionian Sea to the Gulf of Antalya, with Cyprus containing many of the most complex issues within its finite ancient shorelines.
Written by Derek Henry Flood, reporting from Nicosia.
Edited by Wade McCagh.