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12° Nicosia,
27 May, 2024
 
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Elections: The political 'crash test' in Brussels

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is largely responsible for the EU's perceptions of the presidential election in Cyprus.

by George Kakouris

In the interim between the two rounds of presidential elections, EU leaders will convene in Brussels for an extraordinary European Council on migration management and ensuring Europe's economic competitiveness. And the irony is that, while President Anastasiades will almost certainly be present, this time for the last time, the leaders will be staring at the chair, wondering which of the two remaining leaders will (barring a miracle) succeed him.

Aside from the positive and negative tendencies, each of the leading candidates has his or her own strengths, and as a result, positive elements emerge, as do challenges.

Of course, Mr. Anastasiades' successor is not the primary concern of the political staff in Brussels, but the election is not a non-issue for many. The Russian invasion of Ukraine - and the fear that it will result in a "second Orban" - will undoubtedly shape European perceptions of the election. Second, the elections are interpreted in the context of the energy and geopolitical matrix in which the Cyprus issue is embedded.

What is certain is that a country's foreign policy does not change overnight, and regardless of what is said about each candidate, he or she would be hard-pressed to change his or her position from what all three are currently saying.

However, beyond the positive and negative hyperbole, each of the leading candidates has their own playing field, complete with advantages and challenges.

Averof Neofytou has a stronger foothold and contacts in the European People's Party's political family, Andreas Mavroyiannis has more access, experience, and a positive track record at the Commission's technocratic level, and Nikos Christodoulides is well-known as a representative of the Council Presidency and has diplomatic contacts.

Averof and the EPP

Averof Neofytou invests communicatively and politically in DISY's identity as a member of the European People's Party, a broader right-wing space that includes the center-right and the popular right, as well as, a few years ago, Viktor Orbán's Fidesz. Furthermore, one could argue that DISY is an "umbrella" of various inclinations.

This political family is thought to be dominant in EU politics, with members in the Commission and Parliament leadership, but in recent years it has been "losing" governments in member states and thus seats in the European Council, while the latest forecasts from platforms such as Europe Elects and Poll of Polls show the Social Democrats (S&D) to have significantly reduced the gap between the second and first place.

In this context, the EPP is irritated and concerned about the possibility of an electoral defeat in Cyprus, because a seat in the Council carries both symbolic and practical weight, despite the country's small size. The political party currently holds nine of the 27 seats for heads of state, and if it loses in Cyprus, it will remain first but will be weakened in comparison to the Social Democrats (six member states) and the Liberals (six).

It is no coincidence that Neofytou, through statements made by Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, attempted to capitalize on rumors of Christodoulides' ties to Russia early in the campaign, a political line that fizzled out when no concrete evidence or references emerged in the public debate.

Indeed, if Christodoulides wins, it is not impossible that the EPP will view any support for his administration from DISY favorably, especially given that this is a largely right-wing candidacy that is less affiliated with the S&D, which includes DIKO (with its own peculiarities) and EDEK.

The good news for Neofytou, if he is elected, is that he will have access to the EPP, with which he agrees on many issues, from the narrative of economic stability to openings to the far right. Indeed, the EPP is the political group in Brussels that actively supports its national candidates.

Mavroyiannis: AKEL and the EU

Andreas Mavroyiannis' CV elevates him in the Commission's technocratic services, not only as a former negotiator for the Greek Cypriot side with active involvement in the European dimension of the talks but also as a former permanent representative of Cyprus in Brussels and Minister of State for the Presidency during Cyprus's Council of the EU presidency in 2012.

As a result, Mavroyiannis' European contacts in Brussels and Nicosia include officials from the Directorate General for Structural Reforms, who are involved on the ground in supporting TC and reunification efforts. At the same time, he is known for his involvement in consultations on, among other things, the negotiation of a Multiannual Financial Framework, an exercise considered particularly difficult even for the most experienced Presidency.

At the same time, Mavroyiannis may be said to bear the weight of the AKEL government's economic performance, which backs him. However, due to the candidate's profile, there is little concern in Brussels about "communist" (with different readings of the term in Western European, Eastern European, and Cypriot contexts) ideologies. However, Mavroyiannis' staff is well aware of this dimension, as evidenced by efforts to correct substantive and communication errors in the economy, with the average Cypriot voter as the recipient.

However, a government's flexibility on many economic issues is constrained by Community legislation and joint decisions; budgets are scrutinized before they are approved; and the European Semester and the European Fiscal Council serve as checks on economic sustainability. Something that AKEL may have to explain to its voters as a footnote in relation to its economic policy declarations.

Given the EU's political balances, Mavroyiannis will be called on to use his centrist profile more than the correlations with the Left group, while keeping the door open to both the Left and the Greens.

The Christodoulides conundrum

Nikos Christodoulides' image in Brussels is dual because while he may have a sympathetic relationship with journalists as Cyprus' EU Presidency representative, his tenure as Foreign Minister has been linked to a period when the Anastasiades government was scrutinized for its supportive stance toward Russia, as well as his stance in the debate over sanctions against Belarus.

The Christodoulidis team used the former Foreign Minister's diplomatic contacts in the video with former and current Foreign Ministers from various countries inside and outside the EU, with the importance of each name being checked based on each person's beliefs, or positive or negative predisposition, towards the candidate.

While it is certain that Christodoulides will capitalize on these and other contacts, the question is whether he will be able to overcome the negative stigma associated with his previous stance on the Belarus issue (when Cyprus effectively threatened a veto on sanctions if there was no progress on the sanctions that Nicosia was seeking against Turkey).

The picture was further complicated by the shadows of Russian support that Margaritis Schinas appeared to have adopted (without naming names), shadows that faded from the public debate as the EU's shift away from Moscow became more pronounced and the Cypriot government stood for the common European line.

Mr. Christodoulides' political identity is also unclear at this point, as he is supported by Social Democratic parties (DIKO and EDEK), the PPP, which has approached the Liberals for membership, and Solidarity, which was a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists until 2019. (ECR).

However, it is understood in Brussels that the candidate's profile is more communicatively and substantially centrist, with a distance from traditional S&D policies, but this does not mean that the party and the political group will not "challenge" him if he is elected. 

[This article was translated from its Greek original] 

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