Cyprus in cliffhanger vote

NICOSIA – Greek Cypriots vote Sunday for a president who will be charged with brokering an elusive peace deal on this ethnically divided island, amid growing fears that any new failure could bring about permanent partition. Polls suggest a close race between center-right incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos, 74, who led the 2004 rejection of a UN peace blueprint, and Dimitris Christofias, 61, head of the reformed communist AKEL party. Ioannis Kassoulides, 59, a former foreign minister and member of the right-wing DISY party, is a third strong candidate. The contest is likely to be settled in a February 24 runoff. «This is a significant election because a new president would bring fresh settlement prospects,» said Joseph Joseph, professor of political science at Cyprus University. «Such a change would lead to a settlement sooner rather than later.» Cyprus is internationally represented by the Greek-Cypriot government in the south, while the breakaway Turkish north is recognized by Ankara alone. All three of the main election candidates claim to be best qualified to head negotiations with the Turkish-Cypriot community, separated from the Greek south since 1974, when a failed bid to unite the island with Greece triggered a Turkish invasion. The issue of reunification always dominates Cypriot elections. But this time there is a renewed sense of urgency as many Greek Cypriots believe new negotiations – expected later this year – could be the Mediterranean island’s last chance to avoid partition. «Each failed initiative creates more problems in the path toward settlement,» said AKEL spokesman Andros Kyprianou. «If a new initiative fails… the margin for success will become even narrower, as will the framework for a solution.» Some 516,000 voters, including 390 Turkish Cypriots living in the south, are registered to vote. Elected for a five-year term, the president is Cyprus’s head of government. Erol Kaymak, professor of political science at Eastern Mediterranean University in the northern town of Famagusta, said Turkish Cypriots also see the election as a make-or-break proposition – and deeply distrust Papadopoulos. «If Papadopoulos is re-elected, Turkish-Cypriot public opinion would decisively shift in favor of a two-state solution. Nobody among the Turkish Cypriots has anything kind to say about Papadopoulos,» Kaymak said. «It is conventional wisdom that Papadopoulos is not interested in a settlement that Turkish Cypriots could countenance.» In twin referendums just before Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, Greek Cypriots rejected a United Nations peace deal which the Turkish Cypriots overwhelmingly backed. Papadopoulos has vowed to oppose any effort to revive the UN plan. Joseph said the president’s «confrontational» style has grated with the island’s EU partners, whose support would be crucial in any renewed reunification effort. Christofias and Kassoulides also carry potentially damaging political baggage. Papadopoulos came to power in 2003 with the support of AKEL, which renounced the alliance last year after a spat over talks with the Turkish Cypriots. And Kassoulides, a European parliamentarian who presents himself as the candidate with the most credibility abroad, has tried hard to play down his backing for the UN plan in the runup to the referendum. Papadopoulos’s slim lead in opinion polls has steadily shrunk in recent weeks, and analysts say it is anybody’s race. «The only prediction we can make with certainty is that we can’t make a certain prediction,» Joseph said.