Cyprus could become E.U. rarity by electing communist-rooted leader today

Sunday, February 24, 2008

NICOSIA, Cyprus -- The warnings have been dire: be careful how you vote Sunday, Cypriot mobile phone users are told by text message, or you could end up with a Stalinist leader and the hammer and sickle as a national emblem.

The texting campaign has stirred up a political storm and many have condemned it as scaremongering. But the truth is that today, Cyprus could become a rarity among its European Union partners by electing a communist-rooted president.

Dimitris Christofias heads AKEL, a party with Leninist roots and a hammer -- albeit without the sickle -- as its symbol. He is in a neck-and-neck race with conservative former Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides for the presidency of this ethnically divided island.

The two were within fractions of a percentage point in the Feb. 17 first round, and few pollsters would risk predicting which way Cypriots will vote today.

With the race so close, Christofias' communist background is being dragged to the fore, but any assumptions about Christofias advocating purely communist policies would be far from the truth, analysts say.

"Christofias is a pragmatic social democrat ... he's not even anti-capitalist," said Hubert Faustmann, associate professor of international relations at Nicosia University. "He might raise more than one eyebrow at the EU in the beginning, but he's not what they will have in mind when they hear communist."

Theodore Couloumbis, University of Athens international relations professor and vice president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, agreed.

"It's important for the people to realize that the communist party of Cyprus is a very urbanized quasi-capitalist party, and has been over the years," he said.

But the reaction on the international scene to a potential Christofias win could be a concern, particularly with the presidential election renewing hopes of solving the island's three-decade long partition into a Turkish Cypriot breakaway north and a Greek Cypriot south.

"The election of a Soviet-trained communist president of Cyprus would likely require a high-level diplomatic campaign of reassurances in Washington and many European capitals that the country is not being pulled towards outmoded and failed socialist and anti-Western policies," said John Sitilides, chairman of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center's Southeast Europe Project.

Despite some clear breaks with communist ideology, the roots of AKEL, the Progressive Party of the Working People, are firmly left-wing. It grew out of the Communist Party that had been outlawed in the 1930s by the island's British colonial rulers. AKEL itself was declared illegal during the uprising against British colonial rule in 1955-59.

"It's not a rumor; they were communist," said Costas Apostolides, an economist and three times presidential adviser. "To what extent they have been moving away from that, I'm not sure they are moving fast enough."

Christofias would also be unlikely to turn his back completely on his roots, and is expected to advocate a strong welfare state.

For some Cypriots, the far-left links are too much.

"Today, he waves Cypriot flags, but tomorrow, it's red flags he'll be waving," said Giorgos Sofroniou, who runs a small bus and taxi business in Larnaca. "I haven't fought all these years to end up with a communist president."

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