The election of the eighth president of the republic commences today, although it is highly unlikely a new head of state will be in place when the counting of the votes is completed tonight. None of the opinion polls conducted in the run-up to the election suggested any of the three front-runners would be able to secure the 50 per cent plus one of the vote that would make next Sunday’s run-off unnecessary.
If anything, the latest polls indicated it will be a very close contest for the three main candidates as the gap between Nikos Christodoulides, who had enjoyed a lead of more than 10 percentage points two months ago, and his two rivals has drastically narrowed. Any two of the three could make it through to next Sunday’s run-off, as the last three weeks of the election campaign appears to have shaken things up.
This has been the longest election campaign we have ever witnessed, having started a year ago, when the Disy congress gave its backing to its leader Averof Neophytou, who was forced to enter the fray so early by Christodoulides’ covert campaigning that started at the foreign ministry, more than a year before he announced his decision to stand. As the foreign minister he was using his position to lobby for support, targeting Disy voters, Neophytou could not allow him a free rein.
This may partly explain the big lead Christodoulides enjoyed in the opinion polls last year, when for most people the presidential election was the last thing on their mind. They may have tuned into the odd TV debate and read something in the papers or news websites, but they were not fully engaged, having more pressing issues to worry about than who would make a good president. As the election date approached, and the parties stepped up their campaigning, people would have become more engaged and started thinking more seriously about who they would vote for.
In a democracy, every voter has his/her own criteria for choosing a candidate. It could be who they would most trust to run the economy, who would tackle corruption, who would sincerely try to find a solution of the Cyprus problem (or who would not), who would support union demands, who would help low-income families, who would tax the rich or who has the best looks. A large percentage will vote for the candidate of their party, regardless. It is no coincidence that the three front-runners have the backing of parties – even if two of them misleadingly claim they are independents -and because of this have enjoyed such great exposure in the media.
This is a pity, because three of the genuinely independent candidates – Achilleas Demetriades, Constantinos Christofides, Giorgos Colocassides – offered new ideas, showed real commitment to issues and made innovative proposals that did not receive the exposure they merited. They were given very few opportunities to engage in public debate with the front-runners, the party stranglehold on political life ensuring they were sidelined and prevented from really challenging the party candidates and having a real impact.
Although there are a record 14 candidates to choose from, people are aware that in the end they will have to vote for one of the two party candidates who will top the poll today. All three worked closely with the outgoing president Nicos Anastasiades, and only the Akel candidate, Andreas Mavroyiannis has tried to distance himself during the campaign, making an issue of the government’s corruption. Christodoulides, in contrast, has avoided any criticism, as he was a member of the government for nine years and is also banking on winning votes from Disy supporters; he plays down the fact that if elected he would be heading a Diko-Edek-Dipa government. Neophytou cannot distance himself from the Disy government and has focused on its main achievement – the sound management of the economy the result of which is evident to everyone.
The economy and the Cyprus problem were listed as two of the three main issues at stake in the presidential elections by all seven of the candidates interviewed by the Cyprus Mail. The Cyprus problem was the biggest failure of Anastasiades, who paved the way for a two-state solution, but it has not featured in the campaign as much, despite all candidates agreeing that it was one of the key issues. Of the three front-runners, Mavroyiannis and Neophytou believe the situation can be salvaged and have put forward ideas for doing this. The candidate of the anti-settlement parties, Edek and Diko, understandably has no such commitment, not wanting to alienate his voting base. Perhaps the Cyprus problem is considered closed and has ceased to matter to the majority of the voters.
Things will become much clearer after today’s vote, when the candidates are reduced to two and the debate becomes more focused on the main issues.