Republic of Cyprus: a Historic Victory for the Left

Phaedon Vassiliades (Workers Democracy Group)

A resounding defeat for Greek Cypriot Nationalism and Neoliberalism

The crucial presidential runoff in (Southern) Cyprus on Sunday 24 February 2008 brought to office Dimitris Christofias the Communist Party leader who clinched 53 percent of the vote in an unprecedented victory for the island’s Communist AKEL party, beating the conservative Yiannis Kasoulides, who polled 46 percent of the vote. As the biggest Greek Cypriot political party, AKEL controls one-third of the vote, but for the first time in its 82-year history fielded its own candidate for president. The Communists have previously preferred to form a strategic alliance with a contender from the centre or left and play a back seat role in government. It is no surprise then that last Sunday’s results led its jubilant supporters, among them many Turkish Cypriots who crossed from the North to the South, to flood the streets of capital, Nicosia, waving red and Che Guevara flags, honking car horns and lighting flares.

Nationalism defeated

Christofias’s victory added to another surprise victory in the first round when Tassos Papadopoulos, the incumbent president of the Republic of Cyprus was ousted.
All previous opinion polls leading up to the first round on 17 February 2008 showed the three main candidates for the presidency—Demetris Christofias, Yiannis Kasoulides from the right wing DISY party and Papadopoulos, who was supported by two other small parties—to be neck and neck.

The 74 year old Papadopoulos, a renowned anti-Turk who adopted a hardline approach to the Cyprus issue, was the undisputed favourite to win the elections. Papadopoulos was the president who led a nationalist “no” campaign during the 2004 referendum on the Annan Plan, when 76 percent of Greek Cypriots rejected it. During the recent election campaign the Papadopoulos camp made nationalism and his hardline approach towards the Turkish Cypriots the central themes of their rhetoric, declaring that these elections were a second “referendum”. The other two rival candidates had campaigned on a platform of resuming peace talks—frozen for five years under Papadopoulos—and in favour of a solution based on respect for both communities.

Interestingly, of those who voted against the Annan Plan in 2004, 60 percent supported the two main challengers sending them through to the second round. The results of the first round confirm what we in Workers Democracy have been arguing in our analysis of the referendum: that not all Greek Cypriots who voted “no” were nationalists, but that many rejected the Annan Plan because they did not trust George Bush and his accomplice Tony Blair to promote peace in Cyprus—only their own plans for Cyprus as the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the region.

AKEL’s recent record

In February 2003 Papadopoulos won the presidency with the support of Communist AKEL and another two smaller nationalist parties. As a result AKEL joined a coalition government with four out of a total of 11 ministers.

Papadopoulos’s election coincided with massive anti-war demonstrations, internationally as well as in Cyprus, against the invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain.

Despite Papadopoulos’s rhetoric, that he would be an obstacle to the conspiracy by Great Powers against “little Cyprus”, he proved to be a faithful ally to the USA and Britain, and Bush’s “war on terror”. During his five-year administration he offered every facility to the US for logistics and communications in attacking Iraq, and offered the use of Cyprus ports, airspace and the two British bases by US warships and aircraft carriers, much to the embarrassment of AKEL, its major partner.

During his term Papadopoulos, apart from his nationalist-intransigent stance towards the Turkish Cypriots and the racist measures he adopted towards immigrants, followed a neoliberal agenda, while AKEL took a tolerant stance. During this period Papadopoulos clashed repeatedly with sections of the working class and the youth when he increased the retirement age for public sector workers from 60 to 63 and also tried to increase it in the private sector. Large scandals also engulfed his government, much to the discontent of ordinary people.

All these factors forced the leadership of AKEL to withdraw from the coalition government six months prior to presidential elections when it became clear to the leadership that its rank and file would not stomach another five-year term of a Papadopoulos government. It was on this basis that AKEL decided, for the first time, to stand its general secretary, Christofias, as a presidential candidate.

Class polarisation

What became a determinant factor in these elections was not nationalism, but the unprecedented class polarisation seen in society, the clash between left and right.

The choice for Greek Cypriot workers was clear: people had to choose between the Tory DISY party and the reformist AKEL. The candidate of DISY, Kasoulides a genuine candidate of the Greek Cypriot ruling class, endorsed “Helleno-Christian” ideals, an insistence on “Greekness”, anti-Communism, an alliance with Great Powers and the full acceptance of the Papadopoulos’s hardline on the Cyprus issue. It is no surprise then that Kasoulides enjoyed the open support of the employers, of the Archbishop and of the ultra-nationalist “Association of ex-EOKA fighters”.

During the second round run-off, Christofias, the candidate of AKEL, pulled in the support of the other two parties who previously formed the coalition government. AKEL’s candidate is seen by a large section of ordinary people as the representative of the working class, and a symbol of peaceful coexistence with Turkish Cypriots and a historical commitment to the reunification of the island. The preference shown for Christofias as the new president among Turkish Cypriots is rated at 85 percent according to the Turkish Cypriot daily, Kibrisli.

AKEL may still boast busts of Lenin and red flags at its headquarters, but it is a reformist, “patriotic” party, which has been associated for decades with the policies of the Greek Cypriot ruling class and Greek Cypriot capitalism. Christofias repeatedly stated that as president “will manage capitalism, but in a humane way”. However, the majority of the people who voted Christofias with enthusiasm last Sunday, anticipating a better life, a more “just society” and an “equitable settlement” of the Cyprus issue as declared by Christofias, will not return home after the elections. They want to see these promises delivered.

There is a large left wing section of the population, inside and outside AKEL, who united to battle to elect Christofias. They will be the same people who be in the front line to defend Christofias when he comes under pressure from the right, but they will also oppose him mightily when he turns against working class interests.

Now is the time to start building a left alternative, fighting for socialism, the only real just society that can exist—building a left alternative that will wage a persistent war against nationalism and racism, which will confront and not appease the imperialists in return for diplomatic gains in “our national question”. We must build an anticapitalist left that will support working class struggles.

The unity among the left that was brought about first by the candidature of Christofias and the euphoria and the self-confidence reigned by his victory can give a robust impulse in that direction.