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The last presidential election in Cyprus, on 17 February 2008, produced a surprise: the incumbent, the right-wing nationalist Tassos Papadopoulos from the Democratic Party (DIKO) failed to win enough votes to proceed to the second round, held one week later. He was beaten by Ioannis Kasoulides from the centre-right Democratic Rally (DISY), with 33.5% of the vote against Papadopoulos's 31.8%.
Kasoulides had campaigned in favour of a United Nations settlement plan in 2004, Papadopoulos had been against it. The plan, named after the UN secretary-general of the time, Kofi Annan, was rejected by the Greek Cypriots in a referendum just days before Cyprus joined the EU. But Kasoulides was fewer than 1,000 votes ahead of Demetris Christofias, the candidate of the Communist AKEL, who came second. In the week that separated the two rounds, DIKO swung its support behind Christofias, who won the presidency with 53.4% to Kasoulides's 46.6%.
The episode illustrates a point made by James Ker-Lindsay, a research fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science. “Even though Cyprus has a presidential system, politics is all about coalitions,” he says. “The Cypriot president has more power than any other European leader, but in order to get elected he needs to strike deals with other parties.”
Christofias's alliance with DIKO – which opposes accommodation with the Turkish Cypriot community – ended up impeding the new president's ability to strike a deal in the reunification talks, which he launched within a month of his victory.
Following DIKO's departure from the ruling coalition last year, after a blast at a navy base knocked out more than half of the republic's power-generation capacity, Christofias now heads a minority government that includes several technocrats. But until his term in office ends in February, Christofias and his government are secure.
EU officials will be relieved that the Czech scenario, of a government collapsing halfway through its turn at the helm of the EU's Council of Ministers, is unlikely to be repeated. In any case, it is less of a problem for a Cypriot government to lack a parliamentary majority than it would be in other member states. “Patronage and leverage is far more important than legislative work,” says Ker-Lindsay. The ability to hand out jobs depends on being in power, not on being effective in power.
What might emerge from February's presidential election is unclear. “The race is wide open,” says Hugh Pope, a researcher on Cyprus and Turkey in Istanbul with the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. AKEL has not yet chosen a candidate and is non-committal about a possible alliance with DIKO.
DISY, the moderate, centre-right opposition party, will send Nicos Anastassiades, its leader, into the race. Pope describes Anastassiades as “a little untested”, but says that he has “one of the most positive approaches to the Cyprus problem”. “He was brave enough to say ‘Yes' and campaign for the Annan plan in 2004,” Pope says.
But the shift in voters' attention from the island's division to the parlous state of its economy has created a new dynamic in domestic politics in Cyprus. How this might play out next February will become clearer during the next six months.
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