Reunification talks high on agenda for Greek Cypriot voters

  26 January 2018    Read: 1375
Reunification talks high on agenda for Greek Cypriot voters
Greek Cypriots are going to polls Sunday to decide whether to go with "the old guard" or a new blood as their president who will lead the critical negotiations to reunify the divided island.

The incumbent President Nicos Anastasiades, 71, will face off against two main challengers: Nicholas Papadopoulos, the wealthy scion of Cyprus' late former President Tassos Papadopoulos and leader of the center-right DIKO party, and independent Stavros Malas, who is backed by the communist-rooted party AKEL.

Polls show Anastasiades comfortably leading both challengers with a 34.2 percent lead, though he doesn't appear likely to pick up more than half of the votes cast in order to win outright and avoid a Feb. 4 runoff as the surveys showed Malas is at 23.1 percent and Papadopulos at 22.6 percent. There are some 551,000 elible voters, 657 of whom are Turkish Cypriots.

The latest polls show a toss-up on which challenger Anastasiades will face in the runoff. Malas, a 50-year-old geneticist who ran against Anastasiades in 2013, has rallied to close up an early lead by Papadopoulos, 44.

Two other challengers — Yiorgos Lillikas, a former foreign minister, and Christos Christou, who leads the far-right ELAM party — trail far behind in the polls.

Anastasiades, who is running for his second and, he says, last presidential term, represents the island nation's political old guard. He says it's his experience, political savvy, and steady hand that have brought the latest round of talks with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to reunify the island as a two-zone federation the closest they've ever been to a mutually acceptable deal in more than four decades of trying.

Those negotiations collapsed in July as Turkey blamed Greek Cypriot intransigence for the talks' failure, also faulting the European Union for admitting Cyprus as a divided island into the union in 2004 after the Greek Cypriot administration rejected a peace deal.

The Eastern Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974 when a Greek Cypriot coup was followed by violence against the island's Turks, and Ankara's intervention as a guarantor power.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is currently recognized only by Turkey as an independent state.

Turkish troop presence and military intervention rights.

Anastasiades says peace talks remain his paramount concern and has pledged to get them restarted from where they left off if he's re-elected. He said his first act in office will be to reach out to Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı to scope out prospects for the talks' resumption. Malas said he would first speak to Akıncı too; Papadopoulos said he would sound out U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

With peace talks on the backburner, the economy has been put front and center as the key issue that will determine the winner.

Both Papadopoulos and Malas have attacked Anastasiades for crushing the middle class with a tough, three-year, multimillion-euro rescue program that Cyprus sought from its Eurozone partners in 2013 to avoid bankruptcy amid a banking crisis exacerbated by government overspending.

They accuse Anastasiades of showing up unprepared to a European leaders' meeting and accepting a deal he had earlier rejected that burned many depositors in the country's two largest banks by seizing savings over 100,000 euros. That money was used to prop up Cyprus' wobbly banking sector.

Arguing that he had no other choice, Anastasiades has taken credit for slashing wasteful spending and enacting business-friendly reforms that turned the economy around. Cyprus now has one of the highest growth rates among EU member states of around 4 percent of GDP.

His opponents argue that any new wealth has yet to trickle down to the working classes, which have seen benefits and wages slashed but are still weighed down by a mountain of debt that many aren't paying off.

The new president will also oversee an offshore oil and gas search seen to boost economic and political alliances with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, but risks ratcheting up Turkey's anger, which says the drilling is illegal and disrespectful to the Turkish side's rights on the islands natural resources.

A strong undercurrent of disillusionment among young people over what they see as a corrupt, favors-for-votes system has translated into one of the lowest numbers of new voters who registered to cast their ballot. Only a quarter of some 40,000 new eligible voters signed up to vote.

Analyst Christoforos Christoforou said the abstention rate in the elections could reach 28 percent, significant for Cypriot polls that have traditionally seen very high voter turnouts.

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