Cyprus’ main opposition communists AKEL’s newly elected General Secretary, Stefanos Stefanou, has an uphill struggle to rebuild its image as the party of the left and defender of the working class.
Stefanou, 56, a former government spokesperson, replaces Andros Kyprianou, who stepped down after holding the post for 12 years.
Communist AKEL had its worst election showing in recent history at the May parliamentary elections, garnering just 22.3% of the vote despite the government’s popularity nose-diving.
While it suffered a 3.3% deficit compared to the 2016 vote, ruling conservative DISY held its ground, remaining the largest party with 27.7% of the vote.
AKEL’s decline in May came after losing another 7.1 percentage points in the previous elections in 2016.
The party in recent years has seen its electoral base shrink as it is perceived as less of an anti-establishment party and part of the politically corrupt status quo.
With links to scandals including the golden passport fiasco and supporting the erection of towers in Limassol, AKEL is no longer seen as an alternative, fresh choice.
Long-standing AKEL members hope Stefanou can win back the voter’s and party’s popularity.
“Stefanos is the best the party has to offer,” a veteran AKEL politician told the Financial Mirror.
“He is a member of a generation which has lived through the good and bad times of the left with memories of all the recent significant political events in Cyprus.”
Stefanou was politicised in the 1980s, living in a politically polarised Cypriot society, while witnessing the rise of Neoliberalism, Thatcherism and Reaganomics, the collapse of the Soviet Union and AKEL’s struggle to define itself.
In 1996, Stefanou was elected as the General Secretary of AKEL’s youth branch EDON, where he started building a name for himself, gaining the party’s trust.
In 2008, he was appointed as the spokesperson in the AKEL-backed administration of Cyprus’ first communist President, Demetris Christofias.
The first predominantly AKEL government was tainted with leading the country into a punishing EU bailout to save the bankrupt economy in 2013 and the 2011 Mari naval base disaster.
Christofias, for some, will always be remembered as the communist president who called in the Troika to bailout Cyprus under a neoliberal agenda that included a haircut on bank deposits, slashing of wages in the public sector and privatisation.
Respect and trust gained by Stefanou amongst the working class and party members may not be enough to set the party back on track.
AKEL is criticised for having a weak voice in opposition, lacking in ideas or alternative policies to ones they shout down.
Despite the current administration tainted by corruption allegations, and popular public protests against the government, AKEL failed to take advantage, losing 50,000 voters since the 2006 election.
An AKEL member said: “How could it when the party itself was harbouring developers who had direct involvement in scandals like the golden passport scheme?”
Former AKEL MP Christakis Giovani was exposed by Al Jazeera’s gotcha video portraying him as being in cahoots with high-ranking officials with then-House Speaker Demetris Syllouris to provide “services” to dubious foreign investors.
Stefanou must also deal with an antiquated party structure, a democratic deficit reminiscent of the party’s old ties to the Stalinist regime of the USSR.
Many party members are disgruntled over the way AKEL designates candidates for parliament, the party’s governing body, the central committee, and other posts.
They say the process is non-transparent while party members are dictated to like robots where dissent is stifled.
Furthermore, AKEL members were shown the ‘yellow card’ because they dared to call out the party for betraying its leftist roots.
In one instance, AKEL members were given a warning when they opposed the party’s support for Costas Kortas candidate for Mayors in Aglantzia, Nicosia.
He had joined forces with far-right ELAM to demand that a municipal building not be used to house unaccompanied migrant children.
Other members were warned after criticising Greece’s Communist Party’s (KKE) for rejecting a federal solution to the Cyprus problem.
Allegedly, Giovani, the developer brought to shame after Al Jazeera’s gotcha video, has yet to have his party membership revoked.
Under Stefanou’s leadership, AKEL will have to improve its image as a modern democratic party representing all parts of society.
Just 24 out of the 105 (23%) members of the newly elected central committee are women, while the party lacks representation among the working class.
Even if AKEL could magically rid itself of its regressive image, it still has to convince the electorate it is a safe, reliable alternative in government.