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A tale of three candidates

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Three are three frontrunners in the upcoming elections in Cyprus next February, according to recent polls.

But only one is holding the lead with a considerable margin of safety.

Nicos Christodoulides is leading the polls with roughly 15% ahead of his main rivals, which guarantees his victory in the first and second rounds.

Ironically, all three were key supporters of the Anastasiades government for most of the last nine years and his closest aides on the Cyprus problem.

Now they all vowed to solve issues they failed to solve together in the last decade.

Christodoulides was the former foreign minister and was ousted by the president a couple of months ago because he ran an election campaign against the ruling party’s leader and official candidate, Averof Neophytou.

President Anastasiades tolerated and perhaps encouraged Christodoulides’ bid for office but was left with little choice following pressure from his own party after Democratic Rally chair Averof Neophytou announced his bid to enter the race.

However, Anastasiades praised Christodoulides for this work, and many believe that he still tacitly supports his former minister.

Christodoulides is running as an independent candidate but has little to show regarding foreign policy achievements.

His term is littered with failures, spanning from the negotiations for the settlement of the Cyprus problem in Crans Montana in 2017 to the opening of Varosha by Turkish occupation forces two years ago, a move that he initially called a bluff.

In his declaration speech, Christodoulides copied at least 47 points from the same speech his predecessor, Ioannis Kasoulides, gave more than 15 years ago.

The incident became the focus of attack from the Averof camp.

Christodoulides claimed “we share a vision of a just and efficient state” as if he was a member of another cabinet.

In 2020, Al Jazeera aired a documentary about the citizenship by investment programme, which resulted in the resignation of the Speaker of the House and an MP from the opposition party.

An independent investigation that ensued at the request of the Attorney General revealed that more than 5,000 passports were issued illegally, and Christodoulides, in his capacity as foreign affairs minister, had his share of the blame. But few seem to care.

Christodoulides already secured the support of DIKO, the centre-right party with a nationalist agenda. EDEK, a small socialist party also with a nationalist agenda, declared its support for Christodoulides.

However, his main support comes from a wide political spectrum.

Apparently, nearly half of the ruling party’s voters support him as well.

That is a big headache for Neophytou, who risks not making it to the second round.

AKEL, the main opposition party, is also facing a similar adverse scenario with its candidate, Andreas Mavroyiannis, a seasoned diplomat with no experience in election campaigns.

He is also trailing Christodoulides in the polls, and his chances of making it to the second round are at best as bad as those of Neophytou.

He was a close aid of Anastasiades, and many Akelites seemed uninspired by his agenda.

Two scenarios

If Neophytou succeeds in making it to the second round of the elections against Christodoulides, it is almost certain that most Akelites will not vote for their greatest ideological opponent.

Christodoulides will appear to be the lesser ‘evil’ in this scenario so that he will win.

Alternatively, suppose Mavroyiannis makes it with Christodoulides in the second round.

In that case, those who voted for Averof will vote en masse for Christodoulides and not for the candidate of their ideological opponent.

Although there are still seven months till the February elections, Christodoulides is poised to win even without counting the support of three smaller parties that are still undecided and roughly control 15% of the vote.

End of an era

Never in the history of Cyprus was a president elected without the support of one of the two major parties – AKEL or DISY.

Now that rule appears ready to be broken.

During his time in office as government spokesman and later as foreign minister, Christodoulides cultivated an image of a moderate politician who knew what he was talking about, even though most of his assessments and predictions were later proven far from accurate.

By avoiding confrontation with domestic rivals and blaming only Turkey for the failure to find a solution to the Cyprus problem, he gradually gained unprecedented domestic popularity.

He also managed to stay away from scandals the government was often blamed for by the media and its political opponents.

His core support will more likely remain strong through the remainder of the campaign unless political developments dramatically change the attitude of voters.

But so far, such a scenario appears unlikely.

On the other hand, Averof Neophytou, whose ruling Democratic Rally party enjoys the support of the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the European People’s Party, is running on a liberal agenda, ensuring continuity and stability.

His foreign policy agenda is the best of the three main candidates and is more in line with that of Greece and most liberal EU member states.

He even supports NATO membership after the solution of the Cyprus problem.

Although Averof is more experienced than his main rival, his career is riddled with blunders, and he was often accused of corruption by supporting policies in the past that helped construction developers and dirty bankers.

But voters’ chicken memory is helping him overcome his less than glorious past.

Last month, Neophytou visited the Turkish-occupied city of Famagusta.

He told voters, “if we lose this city, everything is lost.”

Perhaps he should have thought of that in 2017 when negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations brought the possibility of a comprehensive solution within reach for the first time since 2004.

Averof is now saying that he supported a solution at Crans Montana, but he didn’t want to antagonise President Anastasiades.

It was the greatest missed opportunity to find a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem.

Now Neophytou will antagonise the political offspring of Mr Anastasiades.

It will prove to be the greatest political battle of his career.

At stake is not just the presidency of Cyprus but his political future.

Michael S. Olympios is an economist, business advisor, and Editorial Consultant to the Financial Mirror

[email protected]