Battle of former diplomats in Cyprus’ presidential election

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A former foreign minister who campaigned as a unifier unconstrained by antiquated ideological and party lines will take on a veteran diplomat with broad voter appeal in Sunday’s runoff for the presidency of ethnically divided Cyprus.

As opinion polls consistently indicated in the run-up to the Feb. 5 first round, former minister Nikos Christodoulides, 49, came out on top with 32% of the vote.

Andreas Mavroyiannis, 66, clinched second place with a surprisingly strong 29.6%, some 3.5 percentage points above Averof Neophytou, leader of the country’s largest party, Democratic Rally (DISY).

The failure of Neophytou, 66, to reach the runoff shocked supporters, cast his future as DISY head into doubt and threatened a deep rift within the center-right party.

A long-time DISY member, Christodoulides has been labelled an “apostate” over his decision run against Neophytou for the presidency, with many party cadres pledging never to vote for him.

Conversely, Mavroyiannis’ backing by DISY’s rival, the communist-rooted AKEL party, has turned off many party faithful who fear he’ll give AKEL a foothold in government.

Both Christodoulides and Mavroyiannis met with Neophytou to seek DISY’s formal support in the runoff, hoping to tap a huge pool of votes. But after a tumultuous executive committee meeting Tuesday, DISY decided not to formally back either candidate, telling members to vote as they saw fit.

The outcome of the first round was a stinging blow to DISY, which effectively formed the government through the decade-long tenure of outgoing president and former DISY leader Nicos Anastasiades.

The new president will face the tough challenge of trying to revive stalemated peace talks with breakaway Turkish Cypriots, who declared independence nearly a decade after the 1974 Turkish invasion that followed a coup aiming at union with Greece. Reunification has confounded politicians for over nearly half a century of negotiations, despite progress on the shape of an overall deal.

The situation has become much more complicated following the 2017 collapse of talks at a Swiss resort that many believed had come tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. Turkey — the only country to recognize the minority Turkish Cypriots’ independence — has since turned its back on a United Nations-backed arrangement for a federated Cyprus. It advocates instead a two-state deal, which the U.N., the European Union, the U.S. and other countries have rejected.

Both Christodoulides and Mavroyiannis were key insiders during the failed 2017 talks, as government spokesman and chief negotiator, respectively. Both have faulted Turkey’s insistence on maintaining a permanent troop presence and military intervention rights in a reunified Cyprus as the main reason for the unravelling of negotiations.

Christodoulides has said he draws the line at those two Turkish demands, while Mavroyiannis has softened his stance to woo leftist voters who believe more could have been done to reach a deal in Switzerland.

Both candidates have also advocated tight fiscal discipline without endangering the country’s social safety net, amid intense public concern over soaring inflation.

Mavroyiannis has fended off suggestions that he would shape economic policies according to the directives of his main backer, communist-rooted AKEL, which is blamed for the profligate spending that brought Cyprus to the brink of bankruptcy a decade ago during the presidency of its former, late leader Dimitris Christofias.

Refocused attention on newly discovered natural gas deposits off Cyprus’ south coast as Europe grapples with an energy crunch has figured prominently in the campaigning. Leveraging that energy potential to nudge the peace process forward has been in play for years. Mavroyiannis has floated the possibility of supplying some of that gas to Turkish Cypriots and Turkey to reignite peace talks.

Concern over migration prompted pledges from both candidates to expedite asylum applications and curb the flow of migrants who arrive in the north, cross a U.N.-controlled buffer zone and seek asylum in the richer EU-member south. Tiny Cyprus is among the top EU countries per capita in asylum applications.

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