The presidential election of 2008 made Cyprus a unique case among the 27 members of the EU in having a communist head of state, Demetris Christofias, the secretary general of AKEL – Progressive Party of the Working People. His party’s announced in 2001 intention of ‘assuming executive responsibilities like every big party’ was thus materialized in February 2008.

The climate in which Cypriots voted on 17 and 24 February 2008 had little in common with that of the previous presidential election in 2003. The context of an international mobilization, with high expectations for a solution to the Cyprus Problem and the reunification of the island, eas replaced by a stalemate. Greek Cypriots appeared divided between those favouring the status quo for fear of an undesirable form of a solution and those entertaining cautious hopes for a change in power that would open new prospects for the island.

A year before the 2008 contest, the continuation of the tripartite alliance of DIKO, AKEL and EDEK and the re-election of the incumbent President appeared almost certain. This certainty was upset in May 2007, when EDEK announced its support for an eventual Papadopoulos candidacy (not yet declared). AKEL reacted to the announcement and decided to consult its 14,000 members on the eventuality of continuing the tripartite alliance, but with a choice of either Papadopoulos or Christofias as its candidate. More than 80 per cent voted for Christofias, a proposal that neither the Presidential Palace nor the other two allies accepted. The tripartite alliance collapsed, with AKEL announcing its withdrawal from the government. A new governing alliance then emerged in support of Papadopoulos, based on DIKO, EDEK, joined by EUROKO and later the Ecologists. Meanwhile, in June 2007, Ioannis Kassoulides, having already made public his decision to run for President in March, officially announced his candidacy.

The contest thus developed as a three-legged race between Christofias, Kassoulides and Papadopoulos, a contest with an unpredictable outcome. Though party appeal in parliamentary elections has often been irrelevant to the support parties can secure for a candidate, it was indicative that each of the three candidates had the support of almost one third of the electorate.

Despite a similarity with the presidential election of 1993, also a three legged contest, 2008 was different in that support for the political forces beyond the two major poles of the party system exceeded each of them. Moreover, Papadopoulos appeared to enjoy broader support in addition to its advantageous position of being in power. Meanwhile, splits and dissensions that were caused by the Annan Plan referendum had weakened both AKEL and DISY, appearing to seriously impair their capacity to mobilize support for their respective candidates.

Demetris Christofias, 61, was elected AKEL’s secretary general in 1988, after the death of Ezekias Papaioannou, the party’s historic leader who had been in office for more than 40 years. He successfully faced challenges against his election and turned a crisis that caused dissensions and splits related to personal and ideological rivalries (1989-1990) into an opportunity for a large scale renewal and transformation of the party without changing its essence and nature. While the alliance with Papadopoulos enabled AKEL’s participation in executive power, it imposed hard choices in 2004. AKEL followed Papadopoulos’ lead in rejecting the UN plan against the party’s overall positive assessment of it. This was betraying their beliefs and longstanding moderate positions on the Cyprus issue and caused problems at both the leadership and the grassroots levels. In the legislative elections of May 2006 the party saw its vote share slip by 3.6 points, down to 31.1 per cent.

Ioannis Kassoulides, 59, a doctor, was elected to the House of Representatives with DISY in 1991. During the Clerides presidency, he served as Government Spokesman, 1993-1997 and Minister for Foreign Affairs, 1997-2003. In 2004, he was elected to the European Parliament on the DISY ticket. DISY was the only party to support the Annan Plan in 2004 and Kassoulides was a fervent supporter of both the Plan and the island’s European course.

In addition to the three frontrunners, there were six minor candidates, encouraged by minimal candidacy requirements

After an initial upset in terms of those declaring their intention to vote for Papadopoulos, caused by Christofias’ candidacy, opinion polls from September onwards showed a trend in Papadopoulos’ favour, which continued until the end. Of over 50 polls, all but one showed him in the lead. An initial trend indicating Kassoulides to be desperately losing ground was reversed after the DISY leadership and party machine became decisively involved in the campaign. However, the polls showed that this contest would be too close to call with no candidate sure of making it to the second round.

The Campaign

During the eight-month electoral campaign candidates deployed every effort to attract and focus media attention, holding many press conferences, meetings, visits and events, and disseminating a multitude of messages to the electorate. There were also cultural events, in particular concerts by well-known artists from Greece that could not be ignored by the media. Signed articles published by politicians in the press amounted to hundreds. Opinion polls played a prime role, with more than 50 published in eight months, transforming the contest into a horse-race and influencing decisions related to the campaign.

Under their influence, Kassoulides appeared gradually transformed from a mild and smiling politician to a rather aggressive candidate, while Papadopoulos abandoned his authoritarian style for a more conciliatory one. Messages, promises and offerings were diversified to target specific groups of the electorate, without neglecting subjects of general interest. Papadopoulos’s extensive use of figures to quantify his achievements and promises, followed to a lesser extent by Kassoulides and Christofias, gave the campaign the atmosphere of an auction for the higher bid.

Kassoulides also used negative advertisements, signed by his team of supporters, to criticize Papadopoulos for lies and unfulfilled promises, while Christofias was more cautious in his criticisms of the President.

Papadopoulos, while not avoiding hints against his rivals, left the ‘bad guy’ role of attacking his opponents to the leaders and officials of the parties supporting him. Papadopoulos’ central slogan was ‘A Choice for Trust – or Confidence’, a direct reference to his rejection of the Annan Plan and hard line on the Cyprus Issue. He presented the election as a new referendum on the Cyprus question, arguing that voters should confirm their 2004 choice and show no regret for it. In lengthy television spots, he claimed his stance had proved his skills in correctly assessing the situation and that he had saved Cyprus from the Annan Plan, guaranteeing Greek Cypriots ‘the solution they deserved’. In a clear attempt to revive the cleavage awakened during the referendum campaign, he cultivated the idea that international initiatives and proposals were imminent, bringing in the danger of a new Annan Plan.

On domestic policy, the incumbent President claimed that all his promises had been fulfilled ’We Said It, We Did It’ and this was a guarantee for the future. Promises for a social welfare state were publicized with concrete commitments for subsidies, increases in pensions and other benefits, all given in the form of figures and percentages. In November, the state treasury suddenly opened and the government distributed hundreds of millions of euros in the form of special subsidies, pension increases and sales tax deductions. Days earlier, such measures had been categorically rejected by ministers and by the President personally as dangerous for the economy.

Kassoulides started his campaign as a ‘Social Alliance’ for ‘A Winning Cyprus’. He later changed his central slogan to ‘Responsible Strength (or Power)’, to stress his readiness and capability to assume responsibilities. In the last days of the campaign he used ‘Ahead’, to show the momentum of his effort. DISY had been the only major party to support the Annan Plan in 2004. Kassoulides argued that Papadopoulos had failed in his handling of the post-2004 situation, causing negative developments which acquitted Turkey of any blame for the Cyprus problem and led to the international isolation of the Greek Cypriots. He also proposed the itinerary of a solution to be found by Cypriots themselves with the assistance of the international community. The main concepts in his messages referred to the need for common efforts for a future that Cyprus deserved. On domestic policy, Kassoulides concentrated on areas considered as problematic, such as housing, pensions and assistance to refugees, along with measures against corruption, high prices and reducing military service. Television spots with ordinary citizens expressing their views and concerns recalled the format used in anti-Annan Plan spots in 2004.

Christofias’ slogan ‘A policy for Unity and Humanity’ more directly reflected features of the candidate and the policies of his party; high popularity, moderation and caring for the ordinary citizen. On the Cyprus issue, Christofias stressed the need for initiatives to break the deadlock in the Cyprus talks, arguing that he could act as a uniting force as he had good relations with the Turkish Cypriots and could do better than Papadopoulos. He was the only candidate to combine his vision on domestic policies and the Cyprus question in the slogan ‘A Just Society and a Just Solution’. On internal matters he chose ‘10 + 1 sectors’ for action, covering the main sectors of government activity, including the Cyprus issue, education, health, culture, and refugees, and putting forward 10 + 1 proposals for each. These policy proposals were only publicized in newspapers: television airtime and billboard space were exclusively reserved for the general slogan, the vision of the candidate.

The results of the first round just confirmed that the election outcome was too close to call. Kassoulides, who was given by opinion polls and even some exit polls as the outsider, finished first, with less than 1,000 votes ahead of Christofias, more than 7,500 from Papadopoulos. The incumbent President, who had been given as the winner of the election for many months, by almost all opinion polls, was ousted from the by-election.

Soon after the announcement of the results, DIKO was courted by DISY and AKEL and by both candidates. An initial endorsement of Kasoulides by DIKO was almost immediately overturned and the party announced its support for Demetris Christofias.

During the short campaign before the election day, Demetris Christofias pursued his initial line of communication strategy and slogans. Kasoulides shifted almost completely to a very nationalistic campaign, a surprising move, given his image of a moderate politician that was also projected before the first round of the ballot. Moderate voters could not be convinced by this transformation.

Demetris Christofias won the election with more than 30,000 votes, almost 7 percentage points more than Kasoulides. His percentage was the second best since Kyprianou’s 56.5% in 1983 (Kyprianou, however, won in the first round).