Cyprus, the communists and anti-European populism

We know the drill now. A eurozone member finds itself in dire financial straits. A cabal of finance ministers, European officials, domestic technocrats and global financiers pushes the stricken national government towards severe public spending cuts and tax rises. The social unrest caused by these policies bleeds into some form of populism, be it left-orientated (Syriza in Greece; 15M in Spain), right-orientated (Golden Dawn in Greece) or somewhere in the fuzzy middle (Beppe Grillo in Italy).

William Brett is a researcher and writer on politics, anti-politics and European democracy

We know the drill now. A eurozone member finds itself in dire financial straits. A cabal of finance ministers, European officials, domestic technocrats and global financiers pushes the stricken national government towards severe public spending cuts and tax rises.

The social unrest caused by these policies bleeds into populism, be it left-orientated (Syriza in Greece; 15M in Spain), right-orientated (Golden Dawn in Greece) or somewhere in the fuzzy middle (Beppe Grillo in Italy). This fosters serious political instability with as-yet unknown consequences.

It is reasonable to expect that something similar will happen in Cyprus after recent developments.

The protests against the original bailout deal, which would have penalised all savers and not just those with more than E100,000 in the bank, bore the hallmarks of demonstrations in Greece and elsewhere. Anti-troika, anti-German, anti-EU and generally anti-elitist slogans predominated.

And as further austerity begins to bite – Cyprus must reportedly find E351m in tax rises and spending cuts this year alonesuch protests will likely grow more frequent.

So will we see a new populist party emerging in Cyprus and destabilising the system?

Perhaps not. Cypriot domestic politics is a strange brew, dominated by the indigenous question of unification and by the presence of AKEL, by far the most consistently successful communist party in Europe. The party has retained around a third of the Cypriot vote ever since independence in 1960 (despite the fall of the Soviet Union), and the country had a communist president from 2008 until earlier this year.

AKEL has bucked the downward trend for communist parties in Europe, and contributes to a surprisingly stable party system in Cyprus.

The chief reason for  AKEL’s electoral success has been its staunchly maintained pragmatism. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, and arguably before, the watchword for the party has been moderation. On the big questions facing Cyprus in the recent past – EU accession and the re-unification of the island – AKEL has pursued a distinctly centrist path.

Unlike its counterparts in France, Greece and Portugal, the party has broadly (although ambiguously) been in favour of European Union membership and played an important part in Cyprus’s accession in 2004. And AKEL maintains a popularly held desire for a peaceful, federalist solution to the Cyprus question.

But it is this very pragmatism which could see AKEL drifting away from the European mainstream. Once the prospect of at least four more years of austerity embeds itself in the Cypriot psyche, anger at European elites (or their perceived proxies in the German government) will seek a political outlet, just as it has elsewhere.

AKEL, which has always retained the patina of radicalism, does not need to shift very far to accommodate this anger. And since AKEL is an embedded party which already commands the support of a third of the electorate, it would not take long for a populist tide to engulf Cypriot politics.

From a European perspective, this represents a significant threat. Cyprus is a livewire which could undermine regional stability. One commentator has optimistically suggested that the relative economic parity between northern and southern Cyprus brought about by the financial crisis provides a route to a peaceful resolution of the Cyprus question.

The other possibility is that a wave of anger against external elites brings with it one of populism’s closest companions: nationalism. Nothing could be more threatening to the prospect of peace in the region. For those committed to a stable and pluralist Europe, Cyprus is yet another canary in the coal mine.

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