Cyprus gears up for a presidential election next week with incumbent Nicos Anastasiades favourite to win as he pledges a fresh push to reunify the divided island after talks collapsed last year.
After a low-key campaign, opinion polls put the conservative in the lead as he claims credit for the island’s economic recovery since its debilitating financial crisis of 2013.
Anastasiades, 71, however, looks unlikely to win the January 28 first round outright, and is expected to face a run-off on February 4 against either communist-backed Stavros Malas or Nikolas Papadopoulos, a former president’s son who takes a tougher line on peace efforts.
Apathy appears high and opponents have failed to land a major blow on the former lawyer as he has pitched his bid for a second five-year term.
Barring a backroom deal between his opponents — which analysts say is a possibility — he looks set to win, according to opinion polls.
“I think Anastasiades will win,” bank worker Costas Kakoullis, 54, told AFP at a campaign rally for the president at a sports club in Nicosia.
“Firstly because he has come so close to reunification and secondly because of the economy.”
– Reunification prospects –
As always, the nearly 44-year division of the island between the internationally recognised Greek-majority Republic of Cyprus and a Turkish Cypriot statelet in the north looms large over politics in the EU’s most-easterly member.
In July, two years of UN-backed talks between Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci came closer than ever to reunifying the island but collapsed in acrimony before the finishing line.
Despite that failure to bridge key issues, including the future of tens of thousands of Turkish troops stationed in the north, Anastasiades insists he remains committed and wants talks with Akinci to restart.
“We hope for a new effort immediately after the election — within weeks,” Michalis Sophocleous, the director of the president’s office, told AFP.
While the international community still sees Anastasiades and Akinci as the best bet to solve the festering dispute, scepticism runs deep over whether the rival sides are ready to make the sacrifices needed for a final breakthrough.
Sophocleous insisted Turkey needed to be clearer about how much it will offer.
For those pushing for a long-elusive reunification, the upcoming poll is a litmus test.
“This election will indeed prove whether we will move to a government prepared to engage in a process that will take it till the end,” said Andromachi Sophocleous, an activist with grassroots civil society group Unite Cyprus Now.
But there is widespread fatigue over an issue that has dragged on for decades and signs have emerged that the road to reunification could become even tougher.
For the first time, far-right party ELAM — which rejects the proposed reunification — is fielding a presidential candidate after winning two seats in parliament in 2016.
In the north, parliamentary elections earlier in January saw parties opposed to reunification plans perform strongly as settlers from mainland Turkey play a bigger role on the political scene.
– Economic recovery –
While the “national issue” is ever present, the economy has since 2013 been uppermost for many of the roughly 550,000 registered Greek Cypriot voters.
When Anastasiades took over, the banking sector was in meltdown and he was forced to take a 10-billion-euro (more than $12-billion) bailout that entailed biting austerity measures.
That included a drastic haircut on accounts of over 100,000 euros held in the country’s biggest lender, Bank of Cyprus.
Since then the island has bounced back faster than many expected and the economy has grown steadily since 2015.
“The economy has featured more than the Cyprus problem in this campaign,” economist Fiona Mullen told AFP.
Tourism numbers reached a record high last year and the government has attracted some 4.5 billion euros into the economy with a controversial citizenship-for-investment scheme.
Anastasiades wants to set up a fund to help reimburse at least some of the money lost by the 2013 bank levies.
And the authorities are also pushing ahead with offshore oil and gas exploration that they hope can swell coffers.
But Mullen cautioned that the “recovery is relative”, the economy remains smaller than in 2012 before the crisis and that Cyprus still has a large stock of bad loans.
“The discussion has not had much substance and this has allowed President Anastasiades to promote the fact that he inherited an economy in a mess and delivered a recovery,” Mullen said.