Dimitris Christofias, ‘man of the people’

NICOSIA – Dimitris Christofias, the first leader of the powerful Cyprus communist party to run for president, is a builder’s son who is viewed by many as a «man of the people» with a common touch. The parliament speaker is now the clear front-runner in Sunday’s second round of the presidential election against former foreign minister Ioannis Kassoulides, after last weekend’s surprise defeat of incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos. During the election campaign, Christofias, 61, has presented himself as a man who can «build bridges» across the island’s divided Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities. The Russian-educated Chris-tofias is not shy of underlining his working-class roots by cultivating a reputation for plain speaking and no-nonsense politics. His down-to-earth image has won him admirers across the political spectrum. The communist party AKEL backed Christofias for the presidency in July, the first time in its 82-year history that it decided to field a candidate from within its own ranks. Christofias, whose buzzword is «unity,» says he has the credibility to put the Cyprus peace process back on track and ensure reunification of the east Mediterranean island after 34 years of division. Traditionally, AKEL has been the party to reach out to Turkish Cypriots and promote bicommunal contact, even when such moves were looked on as borderline treason. AKEL, the largest Greek-Cypriot party, has kept a channel of communication alive through the trade union movement, and Christofias himself has crossed to the Turkish-occupied north to meet Turkish-Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat. Despite AKEL’s support for Papadopoulos in the last presidential election in 2003, Christofias has openly criticized the president’s handling of the Cyprus problem. Since Greek Cypriots rejected a UN peace blueprint at a referendum in April 2004, the peace process has remained virtually frozen even though Turkish Cypriots overwhelmingly approved the plan. But some observers are unsure whether Christofias – whose party recommended a tactical «No» vote in the referendum – will keep his nerve when the going gets tough. There is also concern over how he will handle the economy and his relationship with big business. AKEL is not known for its love of the free market or as a convert to globalization, and had pushed for a one-year delay in Cyprus joining the eurozone. But the country went ahead and adopted the euro on January 1. The party has a Euroskeptic tendency and is wary of NATO. It has strong ties with Russia and many in the AKEL hierarchy were educated in the Soviet system. Christofias’s own world view seems closer to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin than US President George W. Bush or British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. If Christofias becomes president, the question will remain over how he manages relations with the US and the UK, given that he once described former colonial ruler Britain as Cyprus’s «evil demon.» Although Christofias lacks experience in government, he has been an MP since 1991, leader of AKEL since 1988 and parliament speaker since 2001. He was born on August 29, 1946 in the northern port of Kyrenia – now under Turkish control – and his refugee status gives him added stature among voters.