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Record abstentions predicted in euro elections

Ballot boxes being delivered on Friday but how full they will get remains to be seen

By Angelos Anastasiou

IN 2009 WHEN Cyprus last held elections to allocate its six spots on the European Parliament, voter turnout hit an all-time nadir of 59 per cent, but pollsters predict abstention rates for Sunday’s election could be far higher.

Initial polls suggested a clear win for ruling DISY, hovering around the 35 per cent it won in the 2009 election, and a significantly weakened AKEL which is expected to suffer serious losses, dropping from an approximate 35 per cent in 2009 to a little over 20 per cent. Two of the six seats are projected to go to the ruling party, and one each to AKEL, DIKO and EDEK. The final EMP spot has been deemed too close to call, with DISY, AKEL and the Citizens’ Alliance coveting it. Although some polls have predicted the abstention rate will fall between 35 and 40 per cent, other pollsters, while emphasising how difficult abstentions are to predict, suggest it could reach as high as 53 per cent.

Abstention from voting has long been attributed to young voters’ indifference and voter discontent with traditional politics and parties. In the 2009 Europarliament elections, Cypriots who decided to turn up to vote had to do so in the middle of a three-day local holiday, and “leaving the beach to vote” was widely cited to explain the record abstention. But things seem slightly more complicated than that.

Firstly, it proved impossible to get pollsters to peg expected abstention, even in terms of ballpark figures. “It’s a black box,” one expert pollster said. “Things are extremely volatile, not just in terms of how many will actually turn up to vote, but also in terms of what they will vote.” Additionally, it seems hard for professionals to even pinpoint the meaning of abstention, high or low. Despite his latest poll on the Euroelections having been done before Easter, our expert ventured a more daring guess.

“The lower the abstention rate, the more subversive results we might get, as discontented voters tend to make non-traditional voting decisions,” he argued. “A high abstention rate means mostly party loyalists will show up to vote,” translating to the prevalence of traditional trends. So when candidates from traditional parties called for everyone to exercise their civic duty, they might just have been working against themselves.

Pulse Market Research has reportedly carried out more polls on the Euroelections than anyone in Cyprus. When asked what the abstention expectations are, director Panayiotis Panayiotou couldn’t help but chuckle, before echoing the ‘black box’ analogy. “What can I tell you?” he asked. “It could be higher than last time,” he said, referring to 2009’s embarrassing display of national apathy. “Whether it’s going to be 45 per cent, or 50, or 53, nobody knows,” he said, but one cannot help but suspect the numbers he chose didn’t exactly come out of a hat.

Panayiotou also raised another point, one that reveals probably the single most convincing obstacle to accurate predictions. “On the one hand, respondents are more likely to respond with conviction to the question of who they are going to vote for – if they were to vote for someone – than whether they’re going to vote at all,” he said. The distinction is subtle, but the difference is powerful.

But crucially, there is no effective way for the statistical sample to be accurate, and therefore produce meaningful results.

“As pollsters, who do we ask? We ask Greek Cypriots,” Panayiotou said. “But the list of eligible voters includes some 60 thousand Turkish Cypriots living in the occupied areas and a few thousand EU citizens. And I would bet you anything that the voter registry includes tens of thousands of dead people. You can’t look for credible predictions in such a mess.”

One prediction however – AKEL’s loss in support – is deemed likely to prove accurate and can be traced back to the poor job the party has done engaging its traditional followers into action. While the communist party has long enjoyed the highest loyalty on election day, with over 90 per cent of its supporters voting, recent polls have indicated that today only 68 per cent of AKEL voters will turn up at the ballots. Commentators have suggested that this will mostly be due to a disastrous administration after it assumed the Presidency in 2008, during which the country was faced with the worst economic downturn since 1974.

The 2004 Euroelections were probably seen as an exciting novelty in Cyprus, one of the first things being an EU-member state meant for Cypriots. Voter turnout was low by the country’s election standards – 72.5 per cent – but impressive by European ones. Five years later, the figure collapsed with a thump, and it wasn’t just because of the three-day weekend.

Since 2009 Euroskepticism in Cyprus has risen, most significantly in the wake of last year’s Eurogroup decisions. In a University of Cyprus survey in April, 63 per cent of Cypriots said joining the EU has had a negative effect on the island’s economy, and 55 per cent reported a negative view of the Euro. The same poll found that 52 per cent of Cypriots thought that joining the EU actually hurt efforts to solve the Cyprus problem.

Nowhere has such Euroskepticism been expressed clearer than in the campaign run by the Citizens’ Alliance, which has sought to capitalise on public sentiment through ambivalent rhetoric.

“It is a fact that the EU has let us down with its tolerance towards Turkey, and the European Commission’s inclination to diverge from the acquis communautaire in order to patch up the Cyprus problem,” Alliance leader Giorgos Lillikas said.

“The EU has also let us down with the Eurogroup decisions [of March 2013], where it operated not in solidarity but punitively. We will fight to restore the EU’s basic principles and values.”

The Eurobarometer also reflected the level of indifference suggested by the expected abstention. Its December 2013 edition had Cypriot interest in the European Parliament marking the third biggest drop in Europe by a whopping 38 per cent, while positive perceptions of the European Parliament marked the single sharpest decline in Cyprus, with 7 per cent.

So maybe the ‘black box’ isn’t so black, after all. Most indicators point to voter turnout hitting record lows in Cyprus. European institutions may need to take a closer look at the Parliament’s function, image and impact if they’re going to salvage its depleting perceived usefulness.

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