Can a politician still be successful if he’s dry and understated? Can this low-key, affable geneticist and father of four really make an effective president THEO PANAYIDES asks Stavros Malas
Why Stavros Malas? Why not Nicos Anastasiades or Nicolas Papadopoulos, to name the other two candidates with a realistic chance of becoming President of the Republic next January (or actually February, since it’s almost certain to go to a run-off)? The reason for this profile isn’t because we support Malas’ candidacy; this is not an endorsement, more a fact-finding mission. Simply put, here’s a man who’s now run twice for the highest office in the land, won 43 per cent of the vote in 2013, and has more than an outside chance of becoming our president for the next five years – yet we know very little about him.
“I wouldn’t agree that people don’t know much about me,” says the man himself, speaking in a nondescript office at his campaign headquarters. He leans back in his chair almost throughout our interview. He speaks softly, but his voice is deep and carries easily. The halo of hair is grey, the eyes green, the chin pointed, the forehead high. His English is excellent, a product of having lived in the UK for 15 years. He turned 50 in June.
Most important is perhaps the casual, unpretentious air he exudes, a style that extends to the operation around him. The campaign HQ isn’t in the centre of town (as Papadopoulos’ is) but out in the suburbs, towards Lakatamia. I knock on the glass door, and wait to be noticed by an assistant; the lift is broken, and we climb the stairs to the first floor. “The gentleman’s from the Cyprus Mail,” says the assistant. “He has an appointment with Stavros.” There’s an easy collegial air, everyone on a first-name basis. Stavros (we might as well call him that too) is backed by Akel – even though he’s ostensibly an independent – so I’d half-expected to be joined by some grim-faced handler looking out for the party’s interests, but in fact there are no handlers. We sit alone, talking freely; only once – when he gets a phone call from his wife Zacharoula – does he ask me to pause the tape recorder.
Stavros Malas is indeed quite easy-going, for a presidential hopeful; the only worry is perhaps that he may be too easy-going. As it stands, if the election were held tomorrow instead of on January 28, he almost certainly wouldn’t be president: the latest polls show him on 16 per cent of the vote, with Papadopoulos on 22 per cent and Anastasiades on 32 per cent, meaning he wouldn’t even make the run-off (though of course, if he does overtake Papadopoulos and get to the second round, all bets are off). Much of the resistance to his candidacy is obviously down to the Akel connection – though in fact that’s less toxic now than it was in 2013, when he’d been part of the much-despised Christofias government (he was Minister of Health in 2011-12). Then again, some of the resistance is surely due to his own personality, or at least his public image: can this low-key, affable geneticist and father of four really make an effective president?
You always come across as very calm, unruffled, placid, I point out. Would you say that’s accurate?
He gives a dry chuckle, which seems to be his way of absorbing tricky questions. “I think that’s one way of describing me,” he replies. “Having said that, I think I can be quite – um, tough, very tough in fact, if I see things going in the wrong direction.”
“I think some people have experienced my – I wouldn’t say my wrong side,” he chuckles again, “but my very, very determined side. I usually follow what they teach civil servants in the British foreign office,” he adds unexpectedly: “Be cool and calculated, and show no display of emotions.”
It’s a rare local politician who can claim to model himself on British civil servants. Then again, Stavros’ connection to Britain is unusually strong – he did his degree and PhD at University College London, taking out a loan to support himself, then worked for seven years as a researcher at Imperial College – and there’s something else as well, the fact that he’s not exactly a career politician but a working scientist who’s been “back in research” in the four years since his last presidential run. This, too, is rare in Cyprus; most of our top politicians – including his two main rivals for the presidency – tend to be lawyers, which of course brings its own way of doing things. The practice of law is adversarial and confrontational, by definition; the practice of science is detached and empirical. Indeed, points out Stavros, genetics in particular (his own field of study is brain development, specifically how the genetic code affects the development of the brain in an embryo) has a lot in common with government, at least in the abstract. “Running a country, and running an economy, you have to have a good concept of what I call structural economic engineering” – which is also what genetics studies in the body, i.e. how the ‘bricks’ are put together.
So a country is like an organism?
“That’s right! You said it exactly. A country is like a human body, or an organism.” One could ask, for instance, why the human heart has to be a particular size – just as there’s an optimum size in society for a banking sector (or a civil servants’ union, I add; but he doesn’t take the bait). Both depend on many different sub-systems running in equilibrium, “and in Cyprus we’ve run our economy for many years at a disequilibrium – and a geneticist, or an engineer, can understand that. A lawyer, not so much.”
This is all good stuff – but it’s also a bit academic, which would be fine if Stavros Malas were standing for a position as an academic. Don’t you need something more to entice the voters? What about personal charisma, I ask: that magic touch, the larger-than-life quality of a Winston Churchill?
He nods thoughtfully. “Sometimes I criticise myself that maybe in some TV appearances I’m not – I don’t show what I’m usually like in daily life,” he replies. “Quite often people say to me, when they meet me, ‘My God, you come across very differently [than on TV]’.”
In what way?
“How I interact with people, and particularly the engagement with people. I’m not a person who looks at things – or people – from a distance. I’m a very approachable person.”
Is that true? Well, yes and no. I can see that Stavros is ‘approachable’, in the sense of being candid and seemingly ego-less – but can he really claim that he doesn’t look at things from a distance? Wry detachment is practically his stock-in-trade. Even when we talk about his children (Dionysis and Giorgos, 21 and 20 respectively, plus 17-year-old twins Phoebe and Haris) his natural impulse is to take a step back, albeit with a touch of tongue-in-cheek. “I’m very close to my kids,” he says, “and very patient with them, because” – that chuckle again – “being a geneticist studying brain development, kids are like patients”. Every kid is like a different project, he explains with scientific pride: “Every kid is an experiment – and you’ll see the result of that experiment after many years, so you have to understand that you cannot force the result to come prematurely… The biggest challenge is to wait for the kids to grow, and see the results”. He smiles, thinking of his own adolescent brood: “I think we’re mostly happy with what we’ve achieved”.
Can a politician still be successful if he’s dry and understated? Does he have to slap backs, shake hands, kiss babies, gush about his children? I’m a bit surprised by how likeable I find Stavros Malas, and even his ideological bent seems quite reasonable: the one book he cites with approval is The Entrepreneurial State by Mariana Mazzucato – a book about state intervention, admittedly, but only in the service of supporting innovation and high-risk investments. Socially, he’s somewhere in the middle. He supports legalising marijuana for medical use, but not recreational. He’s pro-abortion and claims he always has been, blaming the perception that he wasn’t in 2013 on an aide having accidentally ticked the wrong box on a questionnaire.
Yet there’s also a distance there. Asked for hobbies, he mentions fishing, that most quiet and solitary of pastimes (he also likes hunting, but “it’s a sport that’s gone pretty wrong in Cyprus, I think”). He’s spent countless hours in labs doing research – mostly at the Institute of Neurology, when in Cyprus – even at the expense of friends and family. He’s very disciplined, with no obvious vices. He drinks very seldom, and not at all in recent months; he’s never smoked – mostly because, being a scientist, he knows what it does to the body. “I tend to rationalise,” he explains. “Sometimes people say ‘You’re just far too rational. You rationalise everything, and then you make a decision’. That’s me.”
None of this is wrong, to be sure. It might even be a breath of fresh air, after years of populists and blowhards, to have someone at the helm who’s calm, scientifically minded, and prides himself on listening to all sides before taking a decision. The only real question – which is obviously unanswerable – is whether a President Malas would be able to impose himself, both on the party that backs him (which he’s never actually belonged to, he notes) and more broadly in the world of politics. Would his leadership have made a difference at the bail-out talks or at Crans-Montana, for instance, to name the two big developments that have taken place since 2013? He insists it would’ve made all the difference – but his account of how he’d have averted the haircut, viz. by refusing to sell off the branches of Cypriot banks in Greece (so the bail-out would’ve hurt the Greek economy, and they wouldn’t have dared to impose it), seems a bit speculative. Could we really have resisted such so-called ‘ring-fencing’? Did we even have a choice? “Of course we did!”
Maybe so. To be honest, it makes little sense looking back, let alone trying to guess how Stavros Malas might fare if he came to office next year – but there is one more thing we should say in trying to describe him, or more accurately two things.
The first is this: he may not be a ‘career politician’ – yet in fact he’s been running for office for most of his adult life, and even earlier. That was how he met Zacharoula, while still in high school in Paphos (where his family had moved after the invasion): “She was campaigning against me for president of the school. And she lost. But then she won in life!”. That was Stavros’ first electoral victory – and the first of many election campaigns, running twice for Parliament and now twice for the presidency, in addition to his short stint in government. Make no mistake: he’s ambitious.
The second thing is even more important, and quite surprising. Every politician has an ‘origin story’, an account of a moment in their life that spurred them to become who they are. Most are uplifting – helping some needy person, meeting some inspirational mentor – but his turns out to be dark and traumatic. Stavros’ family were very close to Makarios (his dad had also been involved in the events of 1963, helping to protect several high-profile Turkish Cypriots), all of which made them targets for Eoka B in the early 70s. “They were trying to murder my father, even before the coup,” he tells me – and recalls a particular day when Eoka B came to the house, trying to find out where his father was hiding, “pulled me out of the house, stuck me against the wall, and stuck a gun in my mouth”. He was seven years old, and credits that incident with having turned his attention to politics – “to help the country,” he explains, but also obviously as a kind of exorcism, and a kind of subconscious revenge. Make no mistake: he’s competitive.
It’s not all Mr Nice Guy with Stavros Malas. He unleashes a few choice barbs against Anastasiades and other rivals – and there’s also the moment, right at the end, when I ask if he really thinks he can win the election and he suddenly leans forward, after having sat back for most of the previous hour. Is it just because we’re near the end – or because this, ultimately, is the subject that truly energises him, the intoxicating scent of possible victory?
“In 2013, against all odds, 180,000 people voted for me, 211,000 for Mr Anastasiades,” he says with feeling. “That’s all [the gap] was. It’s a small country, remember… I had a 60 per cent increase from the first to the second round, Mr Anastasiades had only 12 per cent.” Stavros looks at me, the green eyes shining. “There is a perception – I should say this – about my candidacy, that it’s an insurmountable obstacle to win the election. But people just don’t analyse the figures! And the figures say what they say”. Can he win? I don’t know. But at least I know more about him now.