A far-right party with links to Greece’s defunct neo-Nazi Golden Dawn appears to have doubled its support as widespread disaffection over corruption scandals dominated elections for a new parliament in Cyprus on Sunday.
The vote, a key indicator of public opinion ahead of presidential polls, has been contested by 659 candidates from a record 15 political groups and formations as anger holds sway among Greek Cypriots shocked by revelations that have emerged about malpractice in the highest echelons of power.
“Corruption has lead to an unprecedented alienation of voters,” said Christophoros Christophorou, an analyst specialising in electoral behaviour. “All four mainstream parties are on course to record a further decline in support with a fragmentation of the political landscape not seen before.”
Voter turnout was low by mid-afternoon, a sign of the apathy that many predicted may ultimately prevail.
An exit poll published by state TV suggested that the far-right National Popular Front (Elam) had taken 5%-7% of the vote, almost doubling its support from 2016, when it first elected two MPs to the 56-member parliament.
The projected result would mark a clear victory for a party whose affiliation with the now outlawed Golden Dawn has done little to dent its appeal for a nationalist-minded constituency also enraged by reports of wrongdoing among mainstream politicians.
In power since 2013, President Nicos Anastasiades’ administration has been badly hit by allegations of corruption linked mostly to a controversial cash-for-passports scheme that has helped transform the seashore city of Limassol with gargantuan apartment blocks built with the sole purpose of luring investors.
In a rare display of public opprobrium that has not gone unnoticed by Turkish Cypriots in the island’s breakaway north, Greek Cypriots have held mass demonstrations to deplore corruption and demand a solution to Cyprus’s division. The 74-year-old president has robustly rejected any accusations of wrongdoing.
According to the exit poll, Anastasiades’ rightwing Democratic Rally was expected to attract between 24% and 28 % of the vote, followed by the leftwing Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL), polling at 23%-27%. The poll was based on 75% of 3,200 exit poll respondents being counted.
“Politically we have become deeply polarised, with younger people clearly not willing to put up with the corrupt practices of the past,” said Nicos Trimikliniotis, professor of sociology at the University of Nicosia.
Trimikliniotis said Elam’s rise was testimony to the tolerance the extremists had been granted by an administration that often needed the party’s support to pass legislation.
“By allowing the neo-Nazi Elam to operate as a reserve force, the government has helped undermine the democratic fabric of society and trust in institutions,” he said. “Elam has played a destructive role in shifting the rhetoric more to the right and enabling public discourse to become more racist and anti-immigrant at a time when ever more asylum seekers are arriving on Cyprus.”
The party is led by Christos Christou, a 40-year-old former bouncer who previously lived in Athens, where he was a member of Golden Dawn and had close ties to its now imprisoned chief, Nikos Michaloliakos. Unlike the mainland Greek group, however, whose entire leadership was jailed after it was judged to be a criminal organisation last year, Elam has not been accused of attacking migrants or embracing tactics of blind violence.
Smaller parties – many running for the first time – are likely to benefit from the high levels of disgruntlement and protest votes the disillusioned electorate is expected to cast. The exit polls suggested that the Green party, fielding a diverse group of mostly young candidates who support the island’s reunification, would take 4%-6% of votes, up on 2016.
Anastasiades has been accused of missing the opportunity to pursue a peace settlement when the pro-solution Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci, was in power. The moderate was ousted by a hardliner last year.
With so many candidates contesting the poll, analysts predicted the result being so dispersed that parliament could ultimately remain unchanged even if AKEL emerged the biggest political force.
“There is a mood for change for sure,” said Hubert Faustmann, a professor of history and politics at the University of Nicosia. “A lot of the electorate is unhappy but the protest vote is fragmented and with high abstention rates and no unifying figure that can attract it the composition of the legislature may well end up looking the same.”