This analysis was written by Nino Tsereteli, Research Officer at DRI, with consultation by Stéphanie Laulhé Shaelou, Professor of European Law and Reform, Head of the School of Law and Director of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence on the Rule of Law and European Values CRoLEV, UCLan Cyprus and Constantinos Kombos, Associate Professor of Public Law, Chairman of the Law Department, University of Cyprus.
Cyprus went to the polls on 5 February 2023 for the first round of its presidential election. Up to fourteen candidates joined the race to become the country’s new president. Since Cyprus has a two-round voting system to elect the President and no candidate received more than 50% of the votes, the second round of the election takes place on 12 February.
As expected, a former Foreign Minister, Nikos Christodoulides, running without the endorsement of his party, the Democratic Rally, took a lead, getting 32 % of the votes in the first round. Andreas Mavroyiannis, an independent candidate, backed by AKEL, the main opposition party, showed much better results than predicted. He came second with 29.6 % of votes and will compete against Christodoulides for the top post in the second round. The third contender, Averof Neofytou, the president of the ruling party, Democratic Rally, received only 26,1 % of the votes and left the presidential race.
All key candidates addressed rule of law challenges in their programs and campaigns, albeit with varied degree of depth and specificity. All candidates regard corruption as a major issue. This is hardly surprising, taking into account major corruption scandals and exceptionally high levels of perceived corruption in the public sector. Completion of the justice system reforms emerges as another priority, as the Cypriot justice system is one of the slowest in the EU.
Cyprus is a presidential Republic. The President is both the Head of the State as well as the Head of the Government. For more information on Cyprus's system of government and electoral system, see the cards below.
Cyprus: Top rule of law issues and recommendations
Overly powerful executive and weak oversight mechanisms before, during and after the pandemic: During the pandemic, the executive concentrated power based on an ambiguous and outdated colonial-era law and adopted a wide range of restrictive measures without offering any adequate justification to support the proportionality and necessity of these measures. Experts raised a lack of accountability through proper democratic (parliamentary) and judicial oversight as a major problem during this time. However, abuse of power by the executive and the absence of proper safeguards against such abuse was an issue long before the pandemic and remains so until present. Under the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, Cyprus scores are considerably lower than the regional average as regards to judicial constraints and various non-governmental checks (civil society, media, etc.) on the government's power.
Recommendation: Cyprus should strengthen the mechanisms of oversight/accountability so that the risks of governmental overreach and arbitrariness are effectively lowered. Achieving this goal requires reinforcing the positions of other branches of power, including courts, as well as facilitating better engagement of civil society organisations which currently are not consulted properly in legislative and other decision-making processes.
State Institutions are Widely Perceived as Corrupt: Perceived levels of corruption are at an all time high and much higher than the EU average. According to 2022 Eurobarometer, the public (94 %) and businesses (92 %) consider corruption to be widespread (EU averages are 68 % and 63 % respectively). Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index scores showing perceived levels of public service corruption have considerably worsened since 2012. The scandal surrounding Cyprus’s investor citizenship scheme (the so called “golden passports”) revealed the corruption risks inherent in this policy. Reforms implemented to prevent and prosecute corruption are insufficient. Cyprus failed at introducing a single regulation on conflict of interests for all state officials. Cyprus shows no results in terms of adjudicating high-profile corruption cases. The National Anti-corruption authority is not fully operational yet.
Recommendation: in addition to closing a few remaining legislative gaps, Cyprus needs to make new anti-corruption institutions fully functional. Actual results, for example, in terms of investigating and adjudicating corruption cases would be a more tangible proof of commitment than mere rhetoric.
Cypriot Justice System is one of the Slowest in the EU: efficiency of the Justice system continues to be an issue. The time needed to resolve civil, commercial and administrative cases and other cases in first instance courts remains among the longest in the EU. It remains to be seen if the new rules of civil procedure have a positive impact on the general efficiency of the justice system, including in terms of reducing backlogs. Until then, many citizens and businesses are left wondering when justice will be delivered in their cases.
Recommendation: Cyprus should finalise judicial reforms, addressing the backlogs.
Judicial Appointment Procedures Carry the Risk of Arbitrariness: A July 2022 reform split the Supreme Court into the Supreme and Constitutional Courts. Appointments to these courts are in the hands of the President. The latter acts on the advice of the newly created board consisting of judges (of respective courts) that have voting rights and non-judge members, including the Attorney General, who have no such rights. The reform raised questions as to the lack of safeguards against arbitrariness. The establishment of such a board can be a positive development only if it relies on clear, pre-established criteria and gives convincing reasons to unsuccessful applicants so that they can challenge the board’s decisions. The board’s establishment would make sense only if the President cannot easily refuse following its recommendations. On 22 December 2022, the outgoing president made appointments to top courts based on the new procedure.
The new Supreme Judicial Council (consisting of the Supreme Court judges with voting rights and some non-judge members without such rights) appoints judges at lower-level courts. Excluding political actors and letting judges decide on these appointments reduces the risks of political interferences and supposedly helps safeguard judicial independence. However, such insulation of the judiciary and the lack of external scrutiny or feedback create accountability deficits. This can be particularly problematic if reform concentrates powers in the hands of a handful of judges (in this case, top court judges). Notably, the Venice Commission and subsequently the European Commission expressed concern about the lack of representativeness of the judicial faction of the Council, suggesting that judge members of the Council should be elected by peers, instead of being determined by seniority.
Recommendation: Cyprus should minimise the risks of arbitrariness on the part of political and other actors involved in judicial appointments by reinforcing formal safeguards. This could help strengthen the external and internal independence of judges. Improving the quality of the procedures would lead to merit-based selection and make a career in the judiciary accessible and attractive for qualified lawyers.
Corruption in the election campaign: Political marketing or a real push for reforms?
All candidates, including the one from the ruling party, have acknowledged and addressed rule of law challenges, most importantly corruption, in their programs. Programs show some awareness of the relevant recommendations from the EU and Council of Europe. However, they vary in terms of how specific and actionable the proposed measures are. A separate question is whether these undertakings will be acted upon and what bureaucratic and political hurdles a successful candidate will face when reinforcing the rule of law. Despite consensus on the need for reforms, in the past there have been major delays in changing laws as well as making new institutional arrangements fully functional and effective. At the same time, a major reversal of the measures in place (related to judiciary and anti-corruption), seems unlikely, irrespective of who gets elected. This is because these measures resulted from long discussions and genuine compromises. However, the temptation to keep the executive omnipotent and oversight institutions weak can be hard to overcome.
Our prior work on Cyprus:
- Cyprus: Elections and the rule of law
- Explainer: The European Commission takes action against golden passports
Democracy Reporting International (DRI) works to improve public understanding of the rule of law in the EU as part of the re:constitution programme funded by Stiftung Mercator. Sign up for DRI’s newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to find out more about the rule of law in Europe.