Economy and reunification key issues as Greek Cypriots go to polls

Nicos Anastasiades up against Akel party-backed Stavros Malas in tight run-off

Left wing-backed independent Stavros Malas shakes hands with Nicos Anastasiades of the right wing Democratic Rally party in Nicosia, Cyprus. Photograph: Yiannis Kourtoglou

Left wing-backed independent Stavros Malas shakes hands with Nicos Anastasiades of the right wing Democratic Rally party in Nicosia, Cyprus. Photograph: Yiannis Kourtoglou

 

Greek Cypriots go to the polls on Sunday in a tight run-off election between the conservative incumbent, Nicos Anastasiades, and an independent challenger supported by the communist Akel party.

Anastasiades (71) won 35.51 per cent of the vote in the first-round vote last weekend, against 30.4 per cent for his opponent, Stavros Malas (50).

The result of the second round could be close because opposition parties have refused to conclude electoral alliances with the frontrunners or express backing for either candidate. Deciding votes are likely to be cast by supporters of the centrist Democratic Party and its electoral partners.

Its leader, Nicos Papadopoulos (44), son of a former president, came in third with 25.74 per cent of the vote in the first round. Opposition stalwarts could stay away from the polls or cast blank ballots. Turnout was 71 per cent in the first round, a low figure for Cyprus where voting is meant to be obligatory.

Two issues have dominated the campaign. On the first, the economy, Anastasiades, of the centre-right Democratic Rally party, has the advantage. His administration successfully tackled the 2012-2013 banking crisis left by his Akel predecessor Demetris Christofias and has managed to rescue the banks and grow the economy. Malas has not been able to distance himself from Akel.

Turkish invasion

On the second, both Anastasiades and Malas are firm supporters of UN-brokered talks on the reunification of Cyprus, divided after Turkey invaded and occupied the northern 36 per cent of the island in 1974 following a coup in Greece.

Malas argues that his rival failed to finalise a deal with Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci while the two sides were closer than ever to achieving an agreement. Anastasiades says Malas would concede too much to the Turkish side.

Negotiations for reunification under a federal system collapsed last July when Turkey – which has 30-35,000 troops in the north – insisted on maintaining its right to intervene militarily under a security arrangement concluded between Britain, Greece and Turkey ahead of Cypriot independence in 1960. Anastasiades refused to budge from his demand for “zero” foreign troops in Cyprus and no right of intervention by any foreign power. On this make-or-break issue, Malas says he agrees.

While Turkey contended its troops are in the north to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority, Cyprus, Britain and Greece called for the abolition of the guarantees and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini insisted the EU could provide security for Turkish Cypriots.

Buffer zone

Greek and Turkish Cypriots have exerted pressure for a deal by mounting joint demonstrations in the UN-controlled buffer zone under the slogan “Unite Cyprus Now”. While Greek Cypriots fear division will harden into de jure partition or Turkey’s annexation of the north, Turkish Cypriots argue their community will emigrate if there is no settlement soon and the north will be left to mainland Turkish settlers.

On January 26th, up to 10,000 Turkish Cypriots protested over an attack by Turkish extremists on the left-wing Turkish Cypriot newspaper Afrika, which had criticised Ankara’s offensive against the Afrin Kurdish enclave in northern Syria. Turkish Cypriots chanted “end the [Turkish] occupation” and “we want our country back”.

Turkish Cypriots have become increasingly alarmed over Ankara’s crackdown on dissent on the mainland. They have long been critical of Ankara for planting conservative Anatolian settlers and building mosques and religious schools in the north.

Propelled by the protest, three leftist Turkish Cypriot parties and a centrist party have formed a narrow coalition government with 27 of the 50 seats in the Turkish Cypriot assembly, excluding right-wing Turkish nationalists and settlers. This government is expected to resume negotiations with the new Greek Cypriot president .