After an overlong election campaign, even by Cyprus standards, tonight we will have one of two former civil servants of the ministry of foreign affairs as the new president of Republic. It will be the first time a former, career civil servant will occupy the highest office in the land, and if the two candidates are judged as such Andreas Mavroyiannis would have the edge, having had top posts at the UN and the EU as well as being in charge of Cyprus’ EU presidency.
Nikos Christodoulides never had the opportunity to prove himself and rise up the ranks of the ministry as he left 10 years ago to work for President Anastasiades first as government spokesman and later as foreign minister, posts he used primarily to raise his political profile and prepare his quest for the presidency. He did this exceptionally well, rising from relative obscurity and becoming a household name in the space of a few years by skillfully using the media to build his image.
Mavroyiannis had a much lower profile when he decided to stand, known in political and media circles but not among the general public. He started his campaign with this disadvantage and a certain awkwardness when appearing in public, quite clearly not accustomed to the glare of publicity. He was a fast learner, gradually growing into the role and becoming much more confident in public as the result of last Sunday’s election showed, when against all odds he finished just two-and-a-half percentage points behind Christodoulides.
The run-up to today’s showdown has been overshadowed by the in-fighting in Disy in which President Anastasiades has also become involved, having attempted to persuade the party leadership to back Christodoulides, before the counting of the votes had been completed last Sunday. Disy’s political bureau on Tuesday night voted overwhelmingly for a conscience vote, in what was seen as a snub of Anastasiades. But this turned out to be the start of the public squabbling, with several leading members ignoring the decision and announcing support for one or the other candidate. The subtext of this bickering was the battle for the leadership of Disy for which there will be elections next month, but this is not for the moment.
The main argument used against Mavroyiannis by the Christodoulides camp and its Disy supporters is that an Akel president would put at risk fiscal discipline and economic stability. Playing on the public’s fear by citing the disastrous Demetris Christofias presidency is understandable, even though it ignores the fact that Mavroyiannis is his own man and has never been a member of Akel. One of the most successful and forward-looking presidents Cyprus has had was George Vassiliou, who was also elected as the Akel candidate. Not only did he lay the foundations for many years of economic growth by opening up the market, but he also built good relations with the West, at the height of the Cold War, despite being backed by the Soviet-controlled party.
In an attempt to neutralise the scaremongering about the economy, Mavroyiannis announced the name of the man he would appoint finance minister if he were elected, which did not seem the smartest move. His choice is a man of the Right, who was publicly given full backing by the current finance minister, who said he had no worries about possible changes to the country’s economic model by the election of Mavroyiannis. The election of Christodoulides is unlikely to put at risk economic stability either, both candidates being intent on following the current government’s successful policies on the economy.
Possibly the biggest difference between the two candidates is their approach to the Cyprus issue. If there is still a five to 10 per cent chance of reactivating the peace process with a view to reaching a settlement, this will not happen under a Christodoulides presidency. While paying lip service to the resumption of the talks, and to bizonal, bicommunal federation, Christodoulides has also said he would seek to renegotiate the Guterres framework, to make it more acceptable (presumably to his backers Edek and Diko which view it as anathema), and did not see the Crans-Montana collapse as a missed opportunity but as a show of patriotic resistance.
Mavroyiannis, at least, recognises that time has all but run out and that it would be a matter of the utmost urgency for the new president to take the initiative and try to make things happen, first by convincing the international community that he is sincere about his commitment and then coming up with innovative ideas for breaking the deadlock. Whether Turkey would agree to another shot at reaching a settlement is far from certain, but we will not know unless the new president tries.
It is doubtful we will get to know this if Christodoulides is elected, because, like Anastasiades, he is perfectly happy with the partition status quo. The support of all the hard-liners and rejectionists is testament to this.