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Cyprus picks new president amid economic doubt, ethnic split


NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cypriots are voting Sunday for a new president who they’ll expect to decisively steer the small island nation through shifting geopolitical sands and uncertain economic times that have become people’s overriding concern, eclipsing stalemated efforts to remedy the country’s ethnic division.

The monthslong campaign has been a lackluster affair, primarily because the three leading candidates are all close associates of outgoing President Nicos Anastasiades and so their battles have centered on trying to persuade voters that they’re not all cut from the same cloth.

At the same time, they’ve been angling for votes from across ideological lines by trying to evade the long shadow cast by the right-wing Anastasiades, whose detractors have accused him of enabling corruption to fester through his two-term, 10-year tenure. Anastasiades has vehemently denied the allegations.

From a record field of 14 candidates, the frontrunners include Averof Neophytou, the leader the center-right, pro-business Democratic Rally (DISY) Party, which Anastasiades previously led; and Nikos Christodoulides, a former foreign minister and government spokesman in Anastasiades’ administration. The third main candidate is Andreas Mavroyiannis, a former diplomat and Anastasiades’ lead negotiator with breakaway Turkish Cypriots in peace negotiations.

Opinion polls indicate that none of the three will muster more than half of the votes — the bar for an outright win in the first round. Instead, the top two will likely move forward to a runoff a week later. Some 561,000 citizens are eligible to vote.

Opinion polls have consistently given Christodoulides a lead of as much as 10 points over Neophytou and Mavroyiannis, meaning he likely take one spot in the runoff, while the others are battling neck-and-neck for the other one.

The ‘Anastasiades connection’ has been a central theme for voters, but also for the president himself, who boasted in a recent interview with leading daily Phileleftheros that he feels “to a measure vindicated” in his leadership by the fact that three of his associates are vying to succeed him.

Neophytou, 61, took DISY’s reins from Anastasiades a decade ago and has campaigned on his reputation as a skilled political operator who can get the job done and shepherd the economy through tough times. His campaign slogan, “Averof Can,” evoking former U.S. President Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” mantra, is built around that message.

But it’s that reputation that appears to have hurt him at the polls, with many voters perceiving him as too much of a string-pulling insider tinged by the “sins” of Anastasiades’ decade in office, such as the now defunct investment-for-citizenship program that gave rise to allegations of corruption. Neophytou has desperately been trying to consolidate the DISY vote behind his bid since polls indicated that as many as a third of party members back Christodoulides, who got his political start through the party.

A career diplomat with a successful track record, Mavroyiannis, 66, is running as an independent but has the backing of the communist-rooted AKEL party. Although AKEL is the island’s second-largest party, the ill-fated presidential tenure of its late leader Dimitris Christofias 15 years ago that critics said brought the island to near-bankruptcy continues to burden the party and, to a degree, Mavroyiannis himself.

Mavroyiannis is campaigning as the agent of change who unlike his competitors didn’t have a hand in the “10 years that have truly wounded” the country.

Christodoulides is also a career diplomat. At 49 he has managed to carefully groom his image as an effective and modern leader who can confidently rub shoulders with other European Union leaders thanks to his foreign ministry experience. His youth and soft-spoken approach have endeared him to voters who don’t associate him with the ineffectual bombast of the previous political generation. Some DISY faithful, however, view him as a “traitor” for running against the party boss and splitting its votes.

Who wins will have to contend — like many other EU leaders — with an economy buffeted by Russia’s war in Ukraine and its knock-on effect on the cost of living. Cyprus has posted economic growth, but opinion polls show a widespread public unease over high inflation.

The new president will also need to address a continued massive influx of migrants that has made Cyprus one of the top EU countries in terms of asylum applications per capita.

He is also likely to want to expedite development of significant undersea natural gas deposits inside Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone amid a renewed search for alternative energy sources triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

A swift political settlement resolving the island’s nearly half-century long ethnic division would facilitate that, but prospects look bleak as the sides appear to be farther apart now than at any time since the split occurred in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup aimed at union with Greece.

A demand by both Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots to recognize a breakaway state before peace talks can begin is perceived as a non-starter and is condemned by the EU, the U.S. and others.