Rival candidates too close to call before Sunday’s election on the divided Mediterranean island
Helena Smith in NicosiaSat 11 Feb 2023 04.00 GMT
Amood of hushed optimism pervades the campaign headquarters of Andreas Mavroyiannis. A week ago, success might have looked inconceivable for the leftist-backed career diplomat once seen as the outsider in the race to become the eighth leader of Cyprus.
But in a presidential race that has turned into an unexpected thriller, Mavroyiannis’s campaign has gained surprising momentum. In the building’s sparsely furnished meeting room it is not defeat but victory that suddenly seems possible for a man who has made reunification of the ethnically split island and cleaning up its corruption-addled image key themes of his candidacy.
“We’re confident,” says Leontios Philotheou, the young business consultant managing the 66-year-old art lover’s campaign. “Andreas is an independent who has the support of [communist-aligned] AKEL and an agenda of progressive change. From the start we have kept it simple. Our logo, this building, even the colours we have chosen reflect who he is: modest and low key.”
Until last Sunday’s first-round vote, polls had consistently shown Nikos Christodoulides, the country’s former foreign minister, and, at 49, the youngest candidate, easily winning an election seen as decisive for the future of the only EU member state to remain war-torn and divided.
Although Christodoulides – a senior figure in the governing centre-right DISY party before he broke away to run as an independent – was not predicted to gain the 51% needed to win outright, it was thought he would sail through the runoff.
But on the eve of the ballot, pollsters say the race is too close to call.
While Christodoulides won 32.04% of the vote in the first round, his lead over Mavroyiannis, who picked up 29.59%, was slimmer than forecast. What has since followed is a fierce battle to win over voters in DISY, for the first time out of the running after its leader, Averof Neofytou, failed to make it to the second round. “It’s going to be very close. Either candidate can win,” said Hubert Faustmann, a professor of history and politics at the University of Nicosia. “Yes, the dynamics currently favour Mavroyiannis, but for centre-right voters AKEL is a political enemy.”
No election in the internationally recognised Greek south has been as critical since Turkey, responding to a coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece, invaded in 1974 and seized its northern third.
Whoever wins will be called to re-energise the elusive quest to reunify the Mediterranean island, and how that is done “could change the course of the country”, said Eleni Mavrou, who sits on AKEL’s politburo.
The suspense deepened this week when, after a rancorous meeting of its political committee, DISY said it would remain in opposition and asked members to vote at will. Leading figures, enraged by what is perceived as a humiliating defeat, reacted furiously to the prospect of aligning with Christodoulides, whose decision to announce his own candidacy was blamed for splitting DISY’s base.
Neofytou highlighted the outrage, telling followers: “History might forget heroes, but it never forgets traitors.”
“In the absence of polls nobody knows what DISY’s traditional base now thinks,” Faustmann said. “The result on Sunday will ultimately depend on whether anger over Christodoulides outweighs their dislike of AKEL.”
Other cabinet figures have also come out in support of Mavroyiannis, for years the lead negotiator under outgoing president Nicos Anastasiades in peace talks aimed at creating a bizonal, bicommunal federation to bridge the island’s divide.skip past newsletter promotion
In an atmosphere of bitter acrimony, breakaway Turkish Cypriots who proclaimed independence in 1983 have toughened their stance, with their hardline leadership endorsing a two-state solution as the only viable answer to a dispute that has defied mediators for decades.
The latest round of negotiations have been deadlocked since 2017 – the longest since peace talks began.
Unlike Christodoulides, who has also dug in demanding that changes are made before the process is revived, Mavroyiannis has vowed to immediately resume talks if elected.
Greek Cypriot heavyweights – including Ioannis Kasoulidis, the veteran politician who succeeded Christodoulides as foreign minister – announced this week that they believed Mavroyiannis will regain the confidence of the wider international community at a delicate time.
“A lot of people are for him … even if for many AKEL is anathema, the party that has always been against us,” said Katie Clerides, whose late father and former president, Glafkos, founded DISY. “It’s like we are between the devil and the deep blue sea, but between the two my vote certainly goes to Andreas Mavroyiannis than to someone who is hardline on the Cyprus problem and says the negotiations should start from scratch.”
Like so many societies in Europe, the fault lines between left and right have become deeper in Cyprus. “This would have been a good opportunity for a coalition government to solve the Cyprus problem,” said Clerides, a peace activist and former DISY MP. “It would have set a precedent given the huge polarisation between left and right.”
As the race has tightened, both candidates have sought to emphasise their standing as independents. With memories of AKEL’s disastrous economic policies under the late leftist president Demetris Christofias in 2013 – policies that led to a banking crisis, account holders losing vast deposits and the island’s near-economic collapse – Mavroyiannis has taken the unprecedented step of already announcing he will appoint Charalambos Prountzos, a prominent lawyer and free marketer, as his finance minister.
Christodoulides has similarly sought to burnish his credentials as a unifier, although he stopped short this week of announcing a pact with the ultranationalist ELAM party. The far-right extremists, who won 6.1% and could be crucial to a Christodoulides victory – instead advised supporters to vote according to conscience.
In an electorate of about 561,000 registered voters, every ballot is expected to count.
On both sides phones are being worked furiously. “We’ve been reaching out to supporters in AKEL and other parties who didn’t vote in the first round,” said Mavrou, a former Nicosia mayor and interior minister who now heads the party’s media group.
“This election is crucial. It can renew hope in a solution to the Cyprus problem and change the way the international community, and people more generally, view Cyprus as a corrupt state and haven for oligarch criminals,” she said, referring to the notorious cash-for-passports scheme championed by the outgoing government. “It can change the course of our country.”
Categories: Cyprus, Europe, Europe and Australia, European Union
seen that. been there. … I spent 6 months in Cyprus in 2003… oho, already 20 years ago.