Nicosia, Republic of Cyprus – Voters in Cyprus are going to the polls in a runoff ballot to decide who will be the country’s next president.
The race on Sunday pits incumbent Nicos Anastasiades, a conservative who won 35.5 percent in the first round, against Stavros Malas, a leftist-backed independent who came in second with 30.2 percent.
The winner will be expected to pick up the pieces of a suspended peace process on the ethnically split island, as well as oversee the economic recovery of a country still bouncing back from a crippling financial crisis.
A hardened politician, 71-year-old Anastasiades is a prominent figure of the Greek Cypriot political old guard with decades of experience. In contrast, Malas, a 50-year-old a geneticist, has been relatively absent from Cyprus’s central political arena, even though he faced off Anastasiades – and lost – in the last presidential elections five years ago.
Both finalists are in favour of resuming UN-mediated peace talks with Turkish Cypriots in a bid to reunify Cyprus as a two-zone federation. However, their economic visions differ.
Past opinion polls suggested Anastasiades was most likely to win, but Malas’s strong performance in the first round means the result is far from a foregone conclusion.
“My estimate is that there has been a complete shift in mood compared to the predictions prior to the first round,” said political analyst Charalambos Chrisostomou, pointing out, among others, to the smaller-than-expected margin between the top two rivals in the January 28 vote.
“I expect the runoff to be an extremely tight race,” he added.
The election uncertainty is being reinforced by the unprecedented fact that both Anastasiades and Malas proceed to the second round without the endorsement of smaller parties whose candidates were knocked out a week ago.
Those contenders – including Nicolas Papadopoulos, who came third with 25.7 percent – had supported a different, more inflexible, approach to the negotiations to resolve the long-running Cyprus conflict compared to the finalists.
Now out of the presidential race, the trailing candidates have recommended to their supporters to vote at will, or cast a blank ballot.
“For the first time, Cypriot parties that failed to make it to the second round did not publicly back a specific candidate,” said Chrisostomou, citing the different positions on the Cyprus issue and growing frustration among voters over a favours-for-votes system as the main reasons that prevented the official formation of alliances.
“This means that their [smaller parties’] voters have been ‘freed’ to move either towards the least harmful option, or not vote at all.”
Meanwhile, looming over it all is uncertainty about who will turn out to vote. In the first round, abstention reached a record 28.1 percent.
Cyprus, a small Mediterranean island, has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkish troops seized its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired Greek Cypriot coup seeking union with Greece.
Diplomatic efforts to unify the island have failed repeatedly, the latest being in July 2017 in the Swiss resort of Crans Montana when negotiations between Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, the Turkish Cypriot leader, broke down in acrimony.
Competing economic narratives
The runoff comes as Cyprus seeks to close one of the most traumatising chapters in its recent history after failed banks, government overspending and market financing exclusion pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy in 2013.
At the time, the newly-elected government of Anastasiades was forced to seek a 10 billion euro ($12.4bn) bailout from international creditors to stave off the financial meltdown. In exchange, it agreed to a series of harsh economic measures, including salary and benefit cuts, as well as inflicting heavy losses on some bondholders and depositors to shore up the country’s ailing banking sector.
Three years later, the European Union member state successfully exited the programme, with creditors hailing the recovery as a “success story”. In the first half of 2017, its economy grew by 3.6 percent, accelerating from 2.8 percent the year before.
In the lead-up to the elections, Anastasiades campaigned mostly on a platform of stability while emphasising his government’s economic record after taking over from the communist party AKEL.
For his part, Malas, who is backed by AKEL, focused on the need for a new economic policy that would guarantee labour and social rights.
“Today, the economic stability that we have achieved together allowed us, within five years, to tackle all the consequences of the crisis we were called upon to manage,” Anastasiades said in his final address to voters on Friday.
“Your decision [on Sunday] will determine whether we will return to the dogmatic policies that led us to the brink of bankruptcy or whether we will continue to steadily pursue the development of the country,” he added in the televised speech, using a familiar line to refer to the 2008-2013 AKEL government.
Anastasiades might be keen to point out to the turnaround of the economy, but critics insist that Cyprus’s economy – burdened by nonperforming loans and structural problems – is still not out of the woods. Opponents also say that the improvement of financial indicators has come at the expense of the working and middle classes whose members are still dealing with persistent financial insecurity.
In his final address also on Friday, Malas praised voters in the first round for saying “no to the constantly rising social inequalities”.
Appealing, among others, to “the middle class that is being crushed” and to “the workers who are struggling” to make ends meet, as well as to “the young people who are unable to find work”, Malas asked the electorate to turn the page and trust him with their vote for “a new start”.
Chrisostomou said two competing narratives were at play in Sunday’s poll: one focusing on the pain caused by past negative experiences and one offering the promise of hope for a better future.
“It remains to be seen which one will have a bigger effect on people’s psyche,” he said.
Polling stations opened at 7am local time (05:00GMT) and will close at 6pm (16:00 GMT). A final result is expected about 90 minutes later.
In the 2013 runoff, Anastasiades defeated Malas by securing 57.48 percent of the vote. The two finalists had respectfully won 45.46 percent and 26.91 percent in the first round a week earlier.