Cyprus votes for new parliament amid anger over graft scandal

A Cypriot man holds his son up to cast his ballot at a polling station in Nicosia on May 30, 2021
A Cypriot man holds his son up to cast his ballot at a polling station in Nicosia on May 30, 2021 Iakovos Hatzistavrou AFP
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Nicosia (AFP)

Cyprus voters went to the polls Sunday for parliamentary elections amid simmering public anger over the "golden passports" corruption scandal on the Mediterranean island.

Despite the furore, initial exit polls showed the conservative DISY party apparently poised to remain the largest force in parliament, but again without a majority, forcing President Nicos Anastasiades to continue to rule through a minority government.

Ultra-nationalists who had looked to exploit the anti-establishment mood and had played on concerns over migration instead appeared to have made gains, while smaller parties seemed to have failed to attract the protest vote.

Unusually for Cyprus, the decades-old division between the island's Greek and Turkish communities has played little part in this year's election campaign.

A record 658 candidates, representing 15 parties, were vying for 56 seats in parliament before an electorate of more than 550,000.

The election was limited to government-held areas, excluding the northern third of the island where a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state holds sway.

An exit poll by state broadcaster CyBC gave DISY 29 percent, and the main opposition party, communists AKEL, 24 percent.

Exit polls also suggested ultra-nationalist ELAM party could almost double its share to reach over 6 percent of the vote, and may secure more than the two seats they currently hold.

ELAM originated as an offshoot of Greece's controversial Golden Dawn party and first entered parliament in 2016.

Official results were expected later Sunday evening.

- 'Fed up' -

Analysts said DISY had held its share of the vote, with other major parties unable to exploit public dissatisfaction with the government.

Votes have to be redistributed as part of the proportional representation system, so the two main parties could still lose seats.

Last November, Cyprus dropped its controversial passport-for-investment scheme after Al Jazeera aired a documentary showing reporters pretending to represent a Chinese businessman seeking a Cyprus passport despite having a criminal record.

Parliament was at the centre of the furore after speaker Demetris Syllouris and an opposition lawmaker were secretly filmed allegedly trying to facilitate the passport for the fugitive investor.

They later resigned, although both insisted they were innocent of any wrongdoing.

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"There is a very unhappy electorate fed up with the political elite and parliament," said Hubert Faustmann, professor of history and political science at the University of Nicosia.

"People are fed up with corruption in public life."

Cyprus has an executive system of government with the president elected separately, but the vote is also seen as a gauge of the popularity of Anastasiades, whose term expires in 2023.

- 'State of emergency' -

Cyprus has the highest per capita number of first-time asylum seekers in the 27-member bloc, according to the Eurostat statistics agency, and immigration is a hot-button issue for the European Union's most easterly member state.

The government has said Cyprus is in a "state of emergency" due to migrant streams from war-torn Syria and elsewhere.

Early polling station results indicated that ELAM and socialist EDEK were fighting to become the fourth-largest party.

According to chief returning officer Costas Constantinou, turnout hit a new low with 63.9 percent, down from 66.7 percent in 2016.

However, he said he was "very satisfied" with the figure, considering the vote was held during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a column in the English-language Cyprus Mail under the headline "From corruption to an honest state", prominent lawyer Achilleas Demetriades had called for a vote for reforms and change.

"New coalitions and new policies are necessary," he wrote. "The autocratic approach and arrogance must be replaced with modern approaches to politics."

The last round of UN-backed Cyprus reunification talks collapsed in acrimony in 2017 and a UN summit in Geneva last month failed to reach an agreement on resuming talks.