Cyprus votes for new president in tight runoff

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Cyprus went to the polls Sunday for a tightly fought presidential runoff between two career diplomats seeking the top post in the south of the divided Mediterranean island.

Polling stations close at 6:00 pm in the race to succeed two-term conservative President Nicos Anastasiades as head of state and government of the small EU member country.

Former foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides, 49, faces 66-year-old fellow diplomat Andreas Mavroyiannis after last Sunday’s inconclusive first round.

Christodoulides, who defected from the conservative ruling DISY party to run as an independent, scored 32.04 percent a week ago, against 29.59 percent for Mavroyiannis, who is backed by the communist AKEL party.

Top concerns for many voters are the cost-of-living crisis, irregular immigration and the island’s almost half-century of division between the Greek-speaking south and a Turkish-occupied statelet in the north recognized only by Ankara.

But many disaffected voters will simply opt for “the least worse candidate — a characteristic in most elections, but more so in this one,” said Andreas Theophanous of think tank the Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs.

The winner needs 50% plus one vote to succeed Anastasiades as the republic’s eighth president.

The outgoing president urged Cypriots to come out “en masse to participate in this electoral process”, adding that “this is our duty. The people decide, the majority decides and the minority respects.”

Turnout at noon had reached 35.4% of registered voters, slightly up on the participation rate at that time in the first round, election officials said.

‘Close race’

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish forces occupied its northern third in response to a Greek-sponsored coup, but voters appeared split over whether the division was a priority in the election.

Retiree Dora Petsa, 75, said she expects the new president “to settle the Cypriot question.”

But Louis Loizides, 51, said the country has “too many internal problems”, ranging from the economy to immigration, having taken in large numbers of asylum seekers, including many who cross the UN-patrolled Green Line.

The ruling DISY has been knocked out of the presidential race for the first time in its history, and the conservative party’s decision to back neither candidate has thrown the run-off wide open.

Pre-poll favorite Christodoulides last week unexpectedly squeezed out DISY leader Averof Neofytou, 61, who came third with 26.11%, despite the incumbent’s endorsement.

Communist-backed Mavroyiannis surprised observers by beating Neofytou and closing the gap with the centrist-backed Christodoulides.

Nonetheless, Christodoulides has a slight edge as he will get the bulk of disaffected DISY votes, said Theophanous.

Analyst Fiona Mullen of Nicosia consultancy Sapienta Economics said she believes the race could be “quite close.”

“The DISY leadership is officially not backing anyone but is unofficially backing Mavroyiannis,” she said. “So it will boil down to how much they can shift a party base whose instincts will be more Christodoulides than Mavroyiannis.”

The bad feeling within DISY towards him is seen as the biggest threat to a Christodoulides victory.

Rising prices

Mullen argued that Mavroyiannis must convince voters that his backer AKEL will not drive economic policy if he wins.

The communists have been widely criticized for their handling of the 2012-2013 financial crisis, which almost bankrupted the eurozone country before a bailout from international lenders.

But AKEL’s secretary-general, Stefanos Stefanou, struck a hopeful note after voting, telling journalists that to “the new generation, we owe a better Cyprus.”

Mavroyiannis has already taken the unusual step of naming his future finance minister, respected lawyer Charalambos Prountzos, an expert in corporate and energy law, if he is elected.

“Prountzos is closer to a DISY profile than an AKEL one,” said Mullen.

Theophanous said the electorate would nevertheless decide on how convincing Mavroyiannis is on the economy “despite his minister of finance.”

The new government will be under pressure to root out corruption, address higher energy bills, labour disputes and the struggling economy.

U.N.-backed talks on the future of the divided island, frozen for nearly six years, will also be on the new leader’s agenda.

If elected, Mavroyiannis has promised to reopen negotiations from day one. Christodoulides has demanded changes before talks are revived.