By George Georgakopoulos
With freshly reprinted ballot papers, upon the insistence of Guinness World Records Ltd, Cyprus is bracing for a presidential election on Sunday that will be more closely watched than any other on the Eastern Mediterranean island ever before, given the Pan-European interest in the course of its economy, the recent discovery of natural gas reserves and the seemingly never-ending problem of the islandís partition.
Never before has the international community been so interested in the now-troubled Cypriot economy, fearing it might trigger a eurozone domino effect. The man to take the country's helm for the next five years is certain to attract significant attention and exposure.
The cash-strapped island state, which is desperate to remain in the eurozone for political, financial and defense reasons, will soon have a new president as incumbent Dimitris Christofias has become the first president of the Republic of Cyprus not to seek re-election.
Regarding his decision to step aside, Christofias Ė the Kyrenia-born politician who was the first leader of former communist party AKEL to become president Ė has cited the fact that prior to his election in 2008 he had pledged he would not stand for the post again if there was no progress in the Cyprus reunification process during his term in office, and there wasn't. His critics say that had he decided to stand this time, he would get a record low share of the vote after failing to prevent the economy from careering towards bankruptcy, and to avoid the tragedy at the Mari naval base near Larnaca in the summer of 2011, when 13 people were killed as stored explosives detonated.
The first round on Sunday will involve 11 candidates, with one clear front-runner, Nicos Anastasiades, and two others aspiring to make the runoff a week later, Stavros Malas and Giorgos Lillikas. All opinion polls indicate that conservative DISY party leader Anastasiades will be the winner on Sunday, though not with the outright majority that would see him elected from the first round. In the runoff, polls say he will face former AKEL minister Malas, unless Lillikas, a foreign and trade minister under the late previous president, Tassos Papadopoulos, upsets the odds.
Either way, Anastasiades is not only the pollsí favorite, but will also be the preferred choice for Cyprusís eurozone peers, as he is the most eager among the main candidates to agree to the much-needed bailout under the terms that the European Commission and the European Central Bank will set for Nicosia.
An experienced politician who is backed in this election by conservative DISY as well as centrist DIKO, 66-year-old Anastasiades is an advocate of neoliberal policies in the economy, reducing the power of the unions, and is keen on following the policies prescribed by Brussels. He is in favor of restarting negotiations with the Turkish Cypriots from where Christofias left off, but toward a rather loose bizonal, bicommunal federation and with the involvement of Ankara in the talks. He is not opposed to a private company probing the Cypriot credit sector for money laundering, as the Eurogroup recently decided, but said he would not sign a bailout agreement that would involve a haircut on bank deposits.
Of all the candidates, he appears to be best prepared to take over from Christofias. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras rushed to his support in Cyprus a few weeks ago; understandable, given that they all are members of the European Peopleís Party.
Malas, a former health minister under Christofias, was picked by AKEL as the face-saving solution to represent an increasingly unpopular party after five years in government. The 45-year-old favors the continuation of Christofiasís policy in the peace talks, with a bizonal federation with the Turkish Cypriots that would have a strong central government with a rotating presidency shared between ethnic Greeks and Turks.
He says the decision for a private firm to check the credit sector for money laundering can and should be reversed, and he pledges to reluctantly sign the bailout agreement in the hope that terms can be amended in the future for the sake of workers. He is counting on the support of AKEL, but polls show that many of its voters may well choose to stay at home on Sunday.
If a significant number of them do stay at home, Malas may miss out on the runoff as support for independent candidate Lillikas has been increasing in recent weeks. Originally seen as the man who could gather support from all parties other than the main ones (DISY and AKEL), the 52-year-old has only secured the official backing of EDEK, the socialist party that usually comes fourth in Cypriot parliamentary elections. However, he commands support from virtually all parties, including more than half of DIKO voters. A Lillikas success may well bring about a split or a leadership change in DIKO.
Generally, Lillikas is a hardliner who favors restarting talks with Turkey from scratch, having been one of the strongest critics of the UN-backed plan for reunification that the Greek Cypriots rejected in 2004. He told Kathimerini last month that he would opt for a federal state along the lines of the US or Germany, instead of a bizonal federation, and calls for the securitization of natural gas reserves to repay the bailout loan within 2013 and minimize its impact on citizens.
He also says he is strongly against a private firm probing Cypriot lenders for money laundering and promises to set up a cabinet with representatives from across the political spectrum. Cyprusís European peers would probably be wary if he were to be elected, but Samarasís presence late last year at the annual memorial of Lillikasís political mentor, Papadopoulos, means the Greek prime minister would likely not be as displeased.
Voting for the Cypriot election will also take place in 10 Greek cities for expatriate voters. The election commission in Nicosia expects to announce the result around 7 p.m. on Sunday.
In a bizarre twist, the 575,000 ballot papers, carrying the names of all 11 presidential candidates, had to be reprinted as one of the independent candidates, Andreas Efstratiou, had used the logo of the Guinness Book of Records above his name because he had once held the record for the wedding dress with the longest train, produced at his bridalwear store. He had been allowed to use the logo in the previous election, in 2008, but since he lost the record in 2011, Guinness forced the election authorities to take it off the ballot papers, thereby leading to the reprinting of all of them.
Authorities said Efstratiou will be asked to foot this unprecedented bill, estimated at some 15,000 euros. He could therefore claim to have registered yet another record.