Cyprus: First months of ‘communist’ presidential rule

Christofias promises ‘worker-friendly’ policies and resolution of national question – Will he succeed?

First months of ‘communist’ presidential rule

Elections held earlier this year in the southern, overwhelmingly Greek Cypriot, part of Cyprus are, in many ways, of historical significance. After 48 years of independence, it was the first time a left candidate, Demetris Christofias, from AKEL, (the “communist” party of Cyprus), stood in presidential elections. Christofias competed with two openly pro-capitalist candidates: the ex-president, Papadopoulos, from DIKO (a centre right wing party), and Kasoulides, from DISI (the traditional right wing party).

In the first round elections, Papadopoulos gathered around him some of the most reactionary sections of society. He was supported by established far-right parties, like EUROKO and Neoi Orizontes, and by all the neo-fascist organizations, like Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) and EFEN. He was also supported by the island’s archbishop, who, for the first time in the history of the Cypriot Church, openly supported one candidate.

In contrast, Kasoulides tried to play the role of the “progressive European candidate” that wants to turn Cyprus into a “real European country”; conveniently dropping nationalist slogans that his party used throughout its past.

Christofias was clearly supported by the working class. This was shown from the beginning of his candidateship. A huge majority at the AKEL party conference voted for Christofias to stand, despite hesitations by the AKEL leadership.

The pre-election period lasted eight months, which is the longest ever in the history of Cypriot elections. It was the first time, as well, that the polls predicted wrongly. All of them, prior to the elections, showed Papadopoulos in the lead and predicted he would easily go to the second round. But Papadopoulos was defeated. Christofias and Kasoulides went to the second round – the two “traitors”, according to Papadopoullos, “the conciliators”, who “bent to the imperialists” (i.e. Britain and the US).

Blow for nationalism

Papadopoulos wanted to turn the presidential elections into a new referendum over the national question. He was trying to capitalize on the 76% that voted “No” in the 2004 referendum on Kofi Annan’s (the then UN Secretary General) plan for a “solution” to the Cyprus issue. But the percentage that Papadopoulos received in the first round was much less than half of the “no” vote (31.79%).

The first round of the 2008 presidential elections can be seen, among other things, as a defeat for nationalism and as the “end of an epoch”, as the mass media commented. The regime that Papadopoulos was trying to construct – with authoritarian powers for the president, intimidation of opposition opinions, censorship in the country’s artistic and cultural life, and economic scandals – is now gone.

The two candidates that passed to the second round did not hesitate to call upon DIKO supporters and the rest of the parties that supported Papadopoulos, in the first round, to support them.

Christofias clearly showed that he was not willing to fight the second round with a pro-working class programme, which would mean opposition to neo-liberalism and capitalism. Christofias called for collaboration with the parties that made up the former governing coalition, under Papadopoulos’ presidency (DIKO and EDEK). Christofias finally got their support. This indicates that during his presidency, Christofias will try to find alibis for not carrying out real changes that will harm the interests of big business. Christofias even assured capitalists (in a meeting with the bosses’ federation) that he will not harm their interests.

The other second round candidate, Kasoulides, did not have the support of any party other than DISI, and so he played the ultra-right card. Kasoulides revived the Cypriot version of McCarthyism; attacking Christofias for being an “atheist, a communist” and, therefore, a “danger” to the Greek Orthodox identity of Greek Cypriots.

Kasoulides gathered around him all the ultra right elements in society that initially supported Papadopoulos and even got the support of eight right wing football clubs from the country’s premier league. The Archibishop openly supported Kasoulides and accused Christofias of wanting to “destroy our education and children” by “abolishing the subject of religion in schools”. Kasoulides played a dirty game. By using bogus sms messages and emails, his supporters tried to trick EDEK and DIKO members into believing their party leaderships, at the last moment, changed their positions and had decided to call for a vote for Kasoulides!

These methods by Kasoulides supporters polarized society and finally worked against Kasoulides.

‘Communist’ Christofias elected

Christofias won the elections; with a significant lead of almost 7% (Christofias won 53.4 % and Kasoulides got 46%6 %). The foreign media declared Cyprus now had Europe’s “only communist president”.

Is this the case? Christofias comes from a working class background. He calls himself a ‘leftist’ and a communist. He celebrates the 1917 Russian Revolution and speaks in the name of the working masses and the poor.

His political programme was very pro-poor and working class. He promised not to increase the retirement age and instead to raise pensions, to give more welfare to people in need, and to provide good quality public health and education.

Equally important, Christofias raised the hopes of many people that he had a solution to the national problem. He managed to unite around him the vast majority of the very small number of Turkish Cypriots that vote on the South (Greek side) of the island, as Christofias was the only candidate that referred to them during his election campaign. Christofias stated that he wants a “just solution for all” to the national question.

There are now many expectations and illusions amongst the working class that Christofias will be able to provide solutions to their problems. More importantly, the success of Christofias shows that the polarization around the “Yes” or “No” UN referendum (in 2004) is over. The people did not vote in the 2008 presidential elections according to the way the voted in that referendum. They basically voted along class lines – polling for who they regarded as best representing their interests. The voters also closed the door to past stereotypes. Instead of being influenced by right wing propaganda – that “communism is bad” and “nationalism is good” (which Kasoulides tried to utilize) – working people voted for what they saw as “the modest supporter of the poor”, as they now call Christofias.

Three months after the elections

Three months on, it is clear the presidential elections marked a turning point. On the economic front, from the very first week after the elections, Christofias started giving promises and he accepted the demands of some sections of the populations that for years faced deep economic problems, for example, hospital workers and farmers. Days into his term of office, Christofias announced he would provide extra pensions during Easter.

The most important changes concerned the national question. During his first meetings with Turkish Cypriot journalists, Christofias and other members of AKEL holding public positions, spoke to them in Turkish! None of the former presidents did that previously.

Christofias constantly declares that the national question will be solved by the two communities, and he seems to have persuaded the so-called ‘international community’ (i.e. the UN, EU etc) of his claims.

He met with Talat, the president of the Turkish Cypriot side of the island, on the 21 March. They met each other without any other representatives or officials present. The two presidents drank coffee and agreed ‘technical committees’ that will study the national question and which will bring back proposals to the two men three months later. This was something that Papadopoulos was supposed to be trying to achieve for almost 2 years before he lost office.

Christofias and Talat also decided to open a gate in the centre of Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, allowing free entry, on foot, to both communities in Nicosia (Greek and Turkish). Two weeks later and the gates were indeed opened. This is the oldest and most symbolic of the gates (really barricades) that divide the peoples of the island. Two years ago, former president Papadopoulos and Talat “Could not agree on the way” they could open the same gates. This was at a time when the majority of the island’s people wanted the gates opened, helping to create a grass roots movement for this objective, on both sides, mainly made up of progressive and left wing people. Therefore, this year’s opening of the gates was seen by many people as a good-will gesture towards resolving the national question.

All these actions by Christofias got acceptance from the traditional right wing. The DISI party declared their support for all actions taken by Christofias (despite the fact that before the elections they were saying that Christofias will ‘destroy’ Cyprus). DIKO, the centre right party, did not raise any serious differences with Christofias’s actions. Even though some of DIKO’s members publicly disagreed with Christofias, the party’s president, who is also the president of the parliament, did not criticize Christofias. On the contrary, the president of the parliament takes initiatives to show his complete backing for Christofias.

The social-democratic party, EDEK, which in the last years became a completely pro-capitalist and nationalistic party, now tries to present a “left” face. EDEK claims to have “many things in common” with AKEL, “especially on the ideological level” and is “trying to find common grounds” to build long-term collaboration.

Can Christofias succeed?

Christofias is the general secretary of AKEL, which is the so-called “communist party” of Cyprus. But on the socio-economic level, his programme is not at all “communist”, in the sense of attacking, in any way, the fundamentals of the capitalist system. Christofias’ programme includes some ‘worker- friendly’ demands but the president openly supports the ‘mixed economy’, promoting collaboration between workers, bosses and the state, to ‘resolve’ problems. During his election campaign, Christofias’ gave many assurances to the bosses and the private sector, making clear that he will not harm their interests.

What can Christofias succeed in doing with this promotion of a “mixed economy” and class collaboration? The economy of Cyprus is still relatively strong but the developing world economic crisis will hit it hard. In a scenario of economic slowdown and possibly deep recession, how will Christofias find the money to pay for all his promises? Moreoever, Christofias has also stated that when he is faced with (essentially neo-liberal) policies imposed by the EU, he will have “no choice” but to apply them.

The expectations of working people in Cyprus concerning the national question are great. Christofias is the main proponent of ‘re-approachment’ i.e. the coming together of the two communities on the island. However, Christofias’ collaboration with DIKO and EDEK, which are nationalist parties, and the conflicting interests of the island’s two ruling classes, will make it very difficult to put Christofias’ policies into practice. This is particularly as the Turkish-Cypriot ruling class “needs” a solution to the national question much less than before, since there is currently significant economic growth in the north of the island, based on tourist development and the building industry.

What does the Christofias presidency hold for the future? Events never develop in a straight line, particularly in Cyprus, where the national problem is so dominant in politics and in every day life. The precise path that developments will take is something that we have to be open about, even though the general course is unavoidable. It is clear the working masses will be willing to give Christofias time, even an extended honeymoon period, to show what he can do. However Christofias has made it clear that he will step back from any serious clash with the fundamental interests of big business. With this policy, and particularly as the economic situation deteriorates, like so many other ‘reformist’ leaders in the past, Christofias can end up attacking the interests of the working class. In this situation, the working class will be forced to defend itself against “left” and “communist” leaders!

The working people of Cyprus, on both sides of the national divide, need genuine political representation – mass parties of the working class that put forward bold socialist policies to counter nationalism and capitalism. The recent election win for the ‘communist’ candidate Christofias shows the potential support for such a socialist alternative.