Published February 23, 2013
NICOSIA, Cyprus – Battered by a debt crisis, a leadership vacuum and facing near-empty coffers, Cyprus is holding a presidential runoff Sunday, a vote that conservative Nicos Anastasiades is expected to win handily.
Anastasiades, the 66-year-old leader of the Democratic Rally party, is going to have to act fast once he does get in office, quickly securing a financial rescue package so his country can avoid a bankruptcy that would trigger more turmoil among the 17 nations that use the euro.
He won 45.5 percent of the vote in last Sunday's first round, well ahead of left-wing newcomer Stavros Malas who won 26.9 percent and independent Giorgos Lillikas with 24.9 percent.
Lillikas has not chosen to endorse either candidate in the two-man runoff but political analyst Christophoros Christophorou said Lillikas' supporters are a diverse bunch who are unlikely to tip the scales against Anastasiades. The conservatives have capitalized on widespread discontent over what many view as five years of failed rule by outgoing President Dimitris Christofias and his communist-rooted AKEL party. An Anastasiades campaign billboard reading "Could you stand another five years of the same?" plays to that discontent.
"I would be very surprised if there's no landslide in favor of Anastasiades," said University of Cyprus political science professor Antonis Ellinas.
Cyprus, a divided island of around a million people in the far eastern end of the Mediterranean, is one of the smallest members of the 27-nation European Union and faces deep political and economic problems.
In 1974, it was split into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north after a coup by supporters of union with Greece — and decades of talks on resolving that division so far have gone nowhere. Only the 545,000 eligible voters in the south will cast their ballots in the election.
On the economic side, Cyprus has only enough money to pay salaries until the end of April and European leaders are expected to decide on a Cyprus bailout in the latter half of March.
Last year the country was forced to seek financial assistance of as much as €17 billion ($22.7 billion) — roughly equivalent to its annual gross domestic product — from the other eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund after its banks lost billions on bad Greek debt. The size of the bailout has raised fears Cyprus won't be able to pay back any loan. Cyprus' economy is projected to shrink this year by 3.5 percent of gross domestic product and unemployment will reach 14 percent.
Wariness of Anastasiades still lingers for supporting a U.N.-drafted reunification plan that was rejected by three quarters of Greek Cypriots who saw it as too weighted in favor of Turkish Cypriots.
But many voters' minds are now on their wallets rather than the complex politics of reunifying the country. Anastasiades has campaigned as the safer choice with the right connections to convince Cyprus' reluctant eurozone partners — especially Germany, which sees the country as a haven for dirty Russian money — that it deserves help.
Anastasiades' spokesman, Tassos Mitsopoulos, said the conservative has already sounded out Russia — a long-time ally — for an additional loan to see the country through until all eurozone parliaments approve the bailout. Cyprus already received a €2.5 billion loan from Moscow last year.
Malas, who served as health minister in Christofias' government, says he will fight to improve bailout terms to protect the less well-off and accuses Anastasiades of kowtowing to European leaders. But his support comes from the AKEL, the leftist party many blame for the country's economic troubles, and Malas may be too new a face for some voters.
"(Many feel) it's better to choose the devil they know," said Ellinas.