CLEMENT MELKI –
As Cyprus gears up for a presidential election run-off, apathy appears on the rise among young people more concerned by economic problems than the decades-long quest to reunify the island.
Conservative incumbent Nicos Anastasiades faces off against dovish left-winger Stavros Malas on Sunday in a second round of voting that looks set to be tight.
But 19-year-old Eleni Tovletian insists she is so turned off by the country’s insular political class that she’ll be staying away.
“I think politicians are lying to us. I’m tired of hearing them arguing on TV,” the business student said.
The first round in the race for the presidency on January 28 already saw turnout hit a record low in the European Union’s most easterly member as some 28 per cent of voters failed to show up.
There was no breakdown by age group but a study published in December showed some 62 per cent of those between 18 and 35 were set to abstain.
Pushing disinterest among the youth — who make up some 30 per cent of the 800,000 population in the Greek-majority Republic of Cyprus — is an apparent shift in priorities from older generations.
Since the 1974 division of Cyprus following an invasion and occupation by Turkish troops, the “national issue” of whether to reunify the island has dominated politics.
Last year Anastasiades and the leader of the Turkish-backed statelet in the north, Mustafa Akinci, came close to sealing a deal, but two years of painstaking negotiations collapsed in acrimony.
Now members of the younger generation, who have only ever lived in a divided homeland where the communities are split, say the question of reunification is not their driving concern.
“I think the young people are more interested in the economy, and the old ones in the Cyprus problem because they lived through it,” said 21-year-old journalism student Androniki Ellina.
While many young voters say they are keen to see the island’s division resolved, it is basic issues like finding a job or paying for their studies that dominate.
That is particularly the case in a country that is still coming to terms with a 2013 financial crisis that battered the economy and led to biting austerity measures.
Despite an impressive recovery that has seen steady growth over the past few years the economy is still smaller than it used to be and youth unemployment hovers around 25 per cent.
“For the last five years the amount of government allowances for students has been reduced by 20 million euros ($25 million),” said Michalis Kanelli, a member of the pro-Malas Proodeftiki student party.
“The youth feels like the government doesn’t want them.”
According to the Cyprus Institute of Statisticians, more than a quarter of those aged 18-28 are trying their luck abroad looking for better prospects.
Overall the campaign for the elections has been largely lacklustre — but conscious of growing concerns the candidates did look to focus on the economy.
Leftist Malas is committed to putting an end to low wages in a job market where average starting salaries are around 800 to 1,000 euros a month.
Meanwhile, Anastasiades played up the economic recovery of the past few years that has helped stabilise the country.
“Anastasiades’ government created new occupations and prospects,” insisted Yiannis Constantinou, 26, president of the Young Business Network.
“The younger generation is in an advantageous position today as they can get funding for their start-ups and innovative ideas.” But despite the pledges it seems that none of the candidates has really convinced young voters. In a head-to-head TV debate on Wednesday before the second round of voting, arguments over reunification eclipsed the economy.
On the University of Cyprus campus in Nicosia, activist Andreas Tziamalis is all too aware of the apathy among his peers.
“Lots of young people are disappointed,” said the economics student as he tried to drum up interest at a stand for the youth wing of Anastasiades’ party.
“We try to convince them just to vote, it doesn’t matter who for. Whatever happens we are the future of this country.” — AFP