Greek Cypriots in first election since UN peace plan rejection

NICOSIA – Greek Cypriots go to the polls on Sunday for their first elections since they voted down a UN reunification plan for the Mediterranean island just over two years ago. Opinion polls suggest the centrist DIKO party of President Tassos Papadopoulos, who led opposition to the UN blueprint, is set to increase its share of seats in the parliamentary polls, which are held every five years. He is likely to do so primarily at the expense of the island’s two largest parties – right-wing DISY and communist AKEL – which were deeply split over the proposals for ending more than three decades of division. Nevertheless, the parties seem set to retain their hold on the legislature. The president, a long-time Greek-Cypriot nationalist who took part in the independence struggle against Britain in the 1950s, has portrayed the elections as a new plebiscite on his outspoken opposition to the hard-fought peace plan drawn up by UN chief Kofi Annan. «These elections shall convey the message that the Greek-Cypriot people are steadfast in their opposition to the Annan plan,» Papadopoulos told supporters in a fiery campaign speech in a Nicosia stadium last week. «They (foreign powers) want to see whether the president’s policy has the backing of the majority of the people and whether the forces that supported the Annan plan are on the rise, as they hope they are,» Papadopoulos said. «With your efforts, with your hard work, we shall disappoint them.» Opinion polls suggest the president’s DIKO party could increase its number of MPs from nine to 12 in the 56-seat legislature. The Greek-Cypriot leader insists he is ready for renewed reunification talks after the elections and both the UN chief and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have expressed interest in a new peace push. But opinion polls suggest the island’s 750,000 Greek Cypriots remain strongly opposed to the UN plan and that a small majority would prefer partition. For the first time in these elections, some 270 of the island’s minority Turkish Cypriots are to have the vote alongside the 500,000-strong Greek-Cypriot electorate. To register, all have had to prove that their main residence is in the southern two-thirds of the island controlled by the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot government not in the breakaway state which Turkish-Cypriot leaders declared in 1983. A Turkish Cypriot is also standing as a candidate in the elections for the first time since 1963, when Greek-Cypriot leaders unilaterally amended the power-sharing independence constitution, prompting the majority of Turkish Cypriots to withdraw to fortified communal enclaves. Poetess Neshe Yashin is standing for the United Democrats, a small left-wing faction founded by former president George Vassiliou, which strongly supported the Annan plan but which polls suggest is set to lose its sole seat in Parliament. Cyprus has a strongly presidential political system and Papadopoulos will retain control over policy toward the Turkish Cypriots whatever happens in the elections. But he is likely to emerge strengthened from the polls, not only by the anticipated boost to his own now-ruling party but also from the expected continuation of his main backers AKEL as largest party. A poll published by the Simerini daily last weekend suggested the communists would take 30 percent of the vote, down on its 34.7 haul in 2001 but still enough to leave their leader Demetris Christofias as speaker of Parliament. Analysts say the president’s continued strong opposition to a resumption of talks on the basis of the Annan plan has also forced his government partners to temper their longstanding support for communal reconciliation. «The positions of the parties haven’t changed much since the referendum. The only difference is that AKEL was ambivalent during the referendum now it is under pressure to follow DIKO and become more rejectionist,» commentator Sofronis Sofroniou told AFP. The right-wing DISY, whose leadership controversially supported the UN blueprint, was expected to take 28 percent, down on its 34 percent tally last time. But the dissident European Party, which broke with DISY over its support for the Annan plan, looked to garner barely 5 percent of the vote in its first campaign, leaving it in fifth place behind the small pro-government Socialist party EDEK.