Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cyprus: one more chance?

The political system of the Republic of Cyprus, even after the de facto partition of the island after the invasion of the Turkish armed forces back in the summer of 1974 is a system built on deliberation and compromise. Presidential elections are an intricate affair that can often lead to unlikely bedfellows sharing between them the key political positions of the small state and the power these entail. The likelihood of gaining positions of influence in the state apparatuses, as well as personal rivalries are usually important factors in determining the composition and shape of alliances, especially in the second round of the presidential poll. These are often shortsighted attempts to gain advantages that maintain and reproduce a clientelistic system and perpetuate the "relevance" of political parties that would have otherwise become obsolete. In such a context, the notions of Left, Centre and Right are not able to convey recognizable messages to the unsuspecting observer that has not got a grounding in the politics of the island.
It is no wonder therefore that we have rarely witnessed in Cypriot politics programmatic agreements that are inspired a vision of the future, that look forward beyond managing the present, to meeting the challenges that Cypriot society is facing in terms of building a healthy economy, deepening democracy and finding a viable and equitable solution to the Cyprus issue. With the possible exception of the 1998 presidential election, when Glafcos Clerides and George Vasiliou decided to put aside their differences and work together towards the dual goal of achieving a solution to the Cyprus issue and securing the Republic's accession to the EU, most presidential elections focused on much more short-term goals. 
The glimmer of hope for a solution of the Cyprus issue that followed the succession of nationalist TassosPapadopoulos by AKEL's Dimitris Christofias as president and interlocutor of the Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, who was elected on a pro-solution ticket, soon faded away as Christofias decided to maintain his tenuous grip to power through the support of  Marios Garoyian's Democratic Party and Yiannakis Omirou's Movement for Social Democracy that were sceptical of, or inimical to a solution along the lines of the Annan Plan. The master tactician of Cypriot politics who had publicly expressed his ambition to bring about the reunification of Cyprus was overcome by his desire to cling to power, first as Leader of the Commons under President Papadopoulos and, then as President himself, and wasted a probably unique opportunity to achieve it.
As the Republic of Cyprus has been hit by the economic crisis and is especially vulnerable due to its exposure to the frail Greek banking system and its dependence on Russian, Serbian and Arab capital of dubious provenance, the Cyprus issue has not dominated this presidential election. Interestingly, after the obstructionism of the Papadopoulos presidency, the rejection of the Annan plan despite official Greek Cypriot expressions of commitment to it at the time, there is very little international interest in reviving a process that the Greek-Cypriot leadership had stopped in its tracks.
Nevertheless, the first round of the presidential election indicates that the front runner, Nicos Anastasiadis, is almost certain to be returned as the winner. To be sure, Anastasiadis will need the support of the 45.5% of the electorate that has voted for him in the first round as he faces unique challenges. First, he will need to finalise the protracted negotiations with the EU, the ECB and the IMF over receiving bailout funds that the outgoing President Christofias, has not been able to secure - he will need to overcome the credibility deficit that his two predecessors had created when they rejected the Annan plan and opted for a populist style of leadership, based on complacency and the spread of conspiracy theories. He will also need to confront the offspring of the populism of the past decade, expressed in the nationalism of one of the contenders for the presidency, George Lilikas, whose rhetoric echoes the conspiracy theory-inspired discourse of his Greek counterpart Panos Kammenos, head of Anexartitoi Ellines. He will finally have to fight the defeated and divided AKEL, which after ten years of disastrous policies and lack of inspired leadership is trying to expunge its past and project its failures to its opponents; as a well informed Greek commentator points out, AKEL is likely to forget it presided over a government that requested EU and IMF funds for the bailout of the Cypriot economy and will almost certainly engage in uncompromising rejectionism on that front. 
Anastasiadis, following the example of his predecessor at the helm of his party, Glafkos Clerides,  has managed to unify its members behind the banner of the reunification of Cyprus, despite the fact that one of its constituent elements hails from the nationalist right. Unlike Christofias, he has unequivocally supported the Annan plan at some cost. He has been pushed into the political wilderness through the concerted effort of AKEL and its centrist/anti-unification allies but has consistently pursued a solution agenda. In the current political landscape of the Republic, he is the only political personality that has got the commitment and resolve to work towards that goal. 
But the current conditions, both nationally and internationally, are not as favourable as they were at the time the Annan plan was on the table. The Republic no longer has the ability to provide the financial incentives and the much needed transfers of funds for the development of the North that would make a reunification solution viable. The Turkish Cypriots may still be relatively isolated but have benefited from the relaxation of policies that sought to bring them to the negotiation table. Turkey has developed a more diverse foreign policy and, while still seeking EU membership, is in no hurry to join until the EU confronts its current political and financial challenges. Internally, he has to address the shift in Greek-Cypriot public opinion that the 'No' campaign against the Annan Plan and the subsequent vindictive witch-hunt of those who begged to differ have brought about. He has to articulate a new vision of a united Cyprus against all those who will resort to similar tactics to frighten the Greek Cypriots, to create and capitalise on public resentment on foreign conspiracies to undermine Cypriot sovereignty with imposed Annan plans, bailouts, or attempts to restrict Cyprus's sovereign right to determine its EEZ and exploit the natural gas deposits in it. 
Perhaps this is a tall order. An Anastasiadis presidency though may be the last hope for the reunification of the wounded island. The 25th of February will provide some clues as to the future of Cyprus.

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