As presidential elections get underway in the Greek part of Cyprus on Sunday, the three main candidates are expected to make the island’s unsolved 28-year division and approaching EU membership the main issues.
Hardliner Papadopoulos poses the toughest challenge to incumbent Greek Cypriot President Clerides
Some 480,000 Greek Cypriots will head to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president for their part of the divided island of Cyprus. They will have to choose from one of three candidates.
The most high-profile of the three is undoubtedly the incumbent Greek Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides. In a surprise announcement early January, the veteran 83-year-old "dinosaur" of Cypriot politics announced his intention to run for a third consecutive term.
Clerides, who has steered the Republic of Cyprus towards entry into the European Union during his years as president, is largely seen as the only politician capable of solving the tricky issue of the island’s 28-year division. He has vowed to stick to the deadline of Feb. 28 set by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for Greek and Turkish Cypriots to agree to his proposal for the island’s reunification.
More time to carry out "historic responsibility"
"Developments are rapid and historic. They will determine the future of Cyprus and in the next few months we will be called upon to reach major decisions," Clerides told a news conference in Nicosia in January, shortly after his announcement. "We must seek a viable settlement of the Cyprus problem with determination and good sense."
Cyprus President Glafcos Clerides
Saying his term’s end on Feb. 28 left too little time to solve the Cyprus problem, Clerides said: "In order to negotiate a just and viable settlement, I need sufficient time and a clear mandate from the people... This is why I feel that my historic responsibility imposes on me the duty to contest the next presidential elections for a limited time."
Clerides has announced that he plans to stay in office for a limited term of 16 months if re-elected. Cyprus is scheduled to join the EU on May 1, 2004, and Clerides wants to see his work as president fulfilled as well as to achieve a breakthrough in negotiations with Turkey over the island’s divided status. To this effect, Clerides has urged all political parties on the island to join in a government of national unity.
President's aide to run against him
Clerides’ announcement to run for a third term has come as a surprise because one of his closest aides, Attorney General Alecos Markides, was considered a sure successor to the veteran leader. Markides, who has for years stood by Clerides as an advisor in peace talks with Turk Cypriots, has now announced that he will run against Clerides in elections.
Markides’ unexpected candidacy is being supported by several parliamentarians in the governing conservative DISY party, which was founded by Clerides in the 1970s. There are now fears that Markides’ candidacy could cause rifts in the party.
Experts also fear that Markides’ candidacy could endanger the solution to Cyprus’ long division, which is considered within reach. But Markides is adamant that it won’t. "No, to the contrary! I’m going to play my political role, just as I have been doing so far, express my opinion and support our party – at the negotiating table as well as in the committees that are involved with technical problems of the Cyprus conflict," he told DW-RADIO.
Hardliner could endanger reunification process
Clerides faces the stiffest competition from the third candidate, 69-year-old hardliner Tassos Papadopoulos, leader of the center-right Democratic Party (DIKO). Papadopoulos enjoys the support of the entire communist and Social Democratic opposition.
He has promised that he will negotiate harder than Clerides and make sure that the Greeks of the island get a better deal in the peace plan. The international community is worried that Papadopoulos’ tough stance could worsen peace negotiations with the northern Turkish part of the island.
Political experts fear that he could damage the national topic of reunification with his tactics. Papadopoulos is also internationally unpopular not least because his name is associated with financial investments of the former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in Cyprus according to the respected paper Fileleftheros.
Clerides vs. Papadopoulos
But despite his unsavory reputation, latest opinion polls show that Papadopoulos tops popularity ratings. But it still remains unclear whether he will manage to pass the 50 percent hurdle on Sunday because many voters are still undecided.
Surveys show that voters’ trust in Clerides and Papadopoulos is split on two issues -- they would much prefer to leave the solution of the Cyprus conflict to Clerides, but trust opposition politician Papadopoulos more when it comes to domestic issues.
Analysts conclude that Clerides only has a chance of holding on to power if there is last-minute progress in the Cyprus peace negotiations.
The island of Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey took control of one third of the country in the north, prompted by an Athens-supported coup in Nicosia aimed at uniting the island with Greece.
Settlement within reach?
U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, center, smiles while Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, right, shakes hands with Greek Cypriot leader Glafcos Clerides
Annan’s comprehensive peace plan hammered out last November has raised hopes that the Greeks and Turks will reach broad agreement on reunification by Feb. 28. Both sides have raised objections to certain aspects of the plan and Turk Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash in particular has caused concern with his strong resistance to bits of the plan.
However, in a sign that Denktash might be more amenable to the plan, Turkish leader Erdogan has stepped up pressure on Denktash to work toward a solution.
"There is a problem to be solved in Cyprus," Erdogan said last month. "We should sit at the table, put our position forward and solve it."
Erdogan, who is keen to resolve the conflict in order to promote Turkey's bid to join the EU, added "this issue has remained a problem over the last 40 years... and it will grow to become a bigger problem with each coming generation. We want the negotiations to continue and we want this issue to be concluded."