- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

NICOSIA, Cyprus — A Soviet-educated communist leader confronts a conservative former Cabinet member Sunday in a bid to win the Greek Cypriot presidency and “overturn four years of bad publicity abroad.”

The outcome of the runoff elections is expected to set the stage for talks on how to unite the feuding Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities after years of failure and increased separation.

The divided island”s influential Greek Orthodox Church threw its support behind Ioannis Kasoulides, 59, candidate of the conservative Democratic Rally party, a former foreign minister who helped negotiate the entry of Cyprus into the European Union. In last Sunday”s first round of voting, he garnered the highest number of votes — 33.51 percent — among three candidates.

After studying in France, Mr. Kasoulides qualified as a physician but has not practiced for a number of years.

Opposing him is Demetris Christofias, 62, head of the communist Progressive Party of the Working People, or AKEL, with 33.29 percent.

Since last Sunday three major political parties — communists, socialists and right-wingers of the ousted President Tassos Papadopoulos — announced their backing for Mr. Christofias.

However, a split has developed in the center right and it is not clear whether the rank-and-file of the Democratic Party of Mr. Papadopoulos will support Mr. Christofias in a disciplined manner.

After Archbishop Chrysostomos blessed Mr. Kasoulides” candidacy, Mr. Christofias denied he intended, if elected, to abolish religious education in schools.

Both candidates campaigned with a number of promises for large families, single-parent families, low-income groups and even army recruits, but without any innovative ideas of how to break the 44-year deadlock between the island”s ethnic groups.

Their main theme, however, was criticism of the uncompromising policies of Mr. Papadopoulos and what they described as the erosion of Greek Cypriots’ international standing.

Mr. Papadopoulos opposed almost any form of compromise with the Turkish side and influenced the rejection of the United Nations unification plan in 2004, but the two candidates in the Sunday vote propose to resume the blocked intercommunal negotiations.

Mr. Christofias” victory would make Cyprus the first country in the European Union whose president calls himself a communist.

One of the three largest parties in Cyprus, AKEL does not preach against the established economic and political order. Its membership includes a number of prosperous bankers, industrialists and businessmen who only accept the communist label as part of AKEL tradition.

Mr. Christofias has the reputation of having better contacts with Turkish Cypriots than most Greek Cypriot politicians, who tend to refuse any form of legitimacy to the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus formed under the protection of Turkey.

Commentators warn, however, that the next president cannot easily ignore the fact that 76 percent of Greek Cypriots voted in 2004 for the rejection of a U.N. plan calling for a federal union in Cyprus.

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