Cypriots voted in a runoff presidential election Sunday, choosing between a communist leader and a conservative former foreign minister who promise to restart stalled talks to reunify Europe’s last divided capital.
Communist-rooted Dimitris Christofias, 61, and conservative Ioannis Kasoulides, 59, have both staked their campaigns on pledges to stave off permanent partition by offering an olive branch to breakaway Turkish Cypriots. If Christofias wins, Cyprus would become the EU’s only country with a communist-inspired president.
Reunification of the Greek Cypriot south and the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north would remove one of the obstacles to Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. It would also ease strong objections to Kosovo’s new independence among Greek Cypriots who fear it would act as a precedent for north Cyprus.
“This is not just about Cyprus. This is about broader security and stability and political consolidation in the critical part of the Eurasian theater,” said John Sitilides, chairman of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Southeast Europe Project in Washington.
It was the promise of an end to the stalemate over the country’s division that produced the shock exit of hardline incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos in a first-round vote last week.
Christofias and Kasoulides are running neck-and-neck, although Christofias is considered the favorite as he gained the backing of Papadopoulos’ party.
“We will roll up our sleeves and work hard so that our island is reunified. Enough is enough, entrenching division is disastrous for our people and our island,” Christofias told reporters after voting. “I also extend a message friendship to ordinary Turkish Cypriots.”
Both Kasoulides and Christofias accused Papadopoulos of regressive tactics edging Cyprus toward a permanent split with Turkish Cypriots, whose breakaway state is recognized only by Turkey.
Papadopoulos was instrumental in urging Greek Cypriots to reject a 2004 UN reunification plan that Turkish Cypriots approved. A week later, the island joined the EU as a divided country.
Lazaros Savvides, chief elections officer, said turnout was at 74.5 per cent at 3 pm (1300GMT).
Both candidates want to quickly restart the long-stalled peace talks. Kasoulides has vowed to meet Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat in the northern part of the island the day after the election if he wins. Talat has said he is ready to resume talks with the winner.
Kasoulides said Cyprus was “deciding whether we move forward to the heart of Europe ... and whether to bring an end to the division and occupation of our island.”
Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a failed coup to unite the island with Greece. The island has one of the world’s longest-serving UN peacekeeping missions, after UN soldiers arrived in 1964.
Kasoulides is from the right-wing DISY party, the long-standing rival of Christofias’ communist-rooted AKEL party.
“I believe in a better welfare state and a settlement to the Cyprus issue. Christofias is the person to do that,” said Michalakis Michaelides, 50, outside a Nicosia polling station.
But some voters are wary of Christofias’ communist roots.
“I voted for Kasoulides because I do not want to see the hammer and sickle on the Cyprus flag,” said Costas Christodoulides, 74.
Kasoulides’ appeal includes his experience as a foreign minister, and with his seat in the European Parliament, he is seen as more able to approach Cyprus’ EU partners.
While Papadopoulos may be out, he will not be entirely without power. A win in Sunday’s runoff depends on attracting many of the nearly 32 per cent of voters who cast their ballots for the president in the first round.
But this would not mean he could shackle the winner and prevent him from carrying out his policies. Power in Cyprus rests with the president, who is the head of the government and the state.
Nearly 516,000 voters – including 390 Turkish Cypriots living in the south – are eligible to vote. Turkish Cypriot voters in the northern breakaway state are not. (AP)
Cyprus votes for new president