Cyprus chooses president in poll as bailout deal looms

AP, NICOSIA

Mon, Feb 18, 2013 - Page 1

Cypriots were voting yesterday for a new president who must tackle a financial crisis that has forced the country to seek international rescue money to stay solvent.

The change in leadership comes at a crucial juncture for Cyprus, as the other 16 countries that use the euro are expected to decide next month on a financial lifeline for the tiny country of less than a million people. Cyprus is fast running out of cash to pay its bills and the new president faces the difficult task of overcoming skepticism from some bailout-weary eurozone countries to secure help.

Right-wing Cypriot opposition leader Nicos Anastasiades has led opinion polls over his two main rivals, left-wing Stavros Malas and independent Giorgos Lillikas going into yesterday’s vote.

The winner will succeed deeply unpopular communist-rooted Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias, who is honoring a pledge not to seek a second five-year term if his negotiations with breakaway Turkish Cypriots to reunify the country failed.

Polls indicated that no candidate would get more than half of the votes cast, which would force the top two candidates into a runoff a week later.

Anastasiades, who leads the Democratic Rally party, urged voters to look beyond partisan lines when casting their ballot.

“Above all else, we must all unite forces, to counter this economic crisis, which unfortunately our homeland has never experienced before,” he said after voting.

Malas, who is backed by the communist-rooted AKEL party, urged voters not to turn their backs to what he called the most crucial election in the country’s history.

Lillikas said the election is a choice between the old and the new.

“Citizens will decide whether we’ll return to practices of the past which led us to this economic crisis, have disappointed them and discredited politics, or they’ll chose something new to move the country forward,” Lillikas told reporters.

Cyprus got into trouble after its banks, whose assets are bigger than the country’s entire economy, took huge losses when Greece restructured its debt. The country, with a shrinking economy and jobless rate at almost 15 percent, has already reached a preliminary bailout agreement with its eurozone partners and the IMF and has enacted a raft of spending cuts and tax increases.

However, Cyprus’ help request is meeting resistance from some quarters, especially Germany, that says the country’s banks serve as a money laundering hub for Russian oligarchs. The country contributes about 0.15 percent to the eurozone economy.

The size of the bailout, estimated to be up to 17 billion euros (US$22.65 billion), which is equivalent to Cyprus’ entire economic output, has put into question whether the country would ever be able to pay it back.

The crisis has overtaken the country’s ethnic division as the primary campaign issue.

Cyprus was split into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north in 1974, when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece.

The latest round of reunification talks under Christofias and Turkish Republic of North Cyprus President Dervis Eroglu resulted in deadlock.