NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Former foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides was elected as the new president of Cyprus in a runoff election Sunday, pledging to revive stalemated reunification talks with the nation’s breakaway Turkish Cypriots and to form a coalition government with women filling half of the Cabinet positions.
With 100% of ballots counted, Christodoulides had 51.9% of the vote and his runoff rival, veteran diplomat Andreas Mavroyiannis, had 48.1%, according to official election results. Mavroyiannis conceded defeat before the vote tally was complete.
Christodoulides, 49, campaigned as a unifying force for ethnically divided Cyprus, eschewing ideological and party divisions. His message resonated with a wide swath of voters.
“I’m looking you all in the eye and I sincerely make you this promise: I’ll do everything I can to appear worthy of your trust,” Christodoulides told supporters at his victory rally.
He made a special reference to the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Turkish Cypriots, including members of a volleyball team, were among the more than 33,000 people declared dead in the disaster as of Sunday.
“We share in their mourning, and I want to assure them that we stand by their side,” the president-elect said.
Mavroyiannis, who previously served as Cyprus’ ambassador to the United Nations, had positioned himself as the agent of change, ushering in a new political era following a decade of rule by outgoing President Nicos Anastasiades.
He ran as an independent, but the support he received from the communist-rooted AKEL party, the country’s second-largest political party, may have pushed swing voters into backing Christodoulides.
Speaking to a somber crowd of supporters, Mavroyiannis, 66, who also was Anastasiades’ chief negotiator with the nation’s breakaway Turkish Cypriots, said he would not pursue an “active and daily role” in politics but remained willing to offer his counsel to the new government, if asked.
“I want to congratulate Nikos Christodoulides for his election victory and to wish more power to him,” Mavroyiannis said. “I’m saddened that we couldn’t fulfill the hopes and expectations for a large progressive changes that our homeland needs.”
Christodoulides appeared to have won with support from members of the Democratic Rally (DISY) party, whose leader, Averof Neophytou, failed to make it into the runoff. The DISY leadership decided not to formally back either candidate and left it to members of the country’s largest party to vote as they saw fit.
Many DISY party insiders had blamed Christodoulides, a long-time party member, for running against Neophytou and splitting the party vote.
However, many did not want the AKEL, Mavroyiannis’ main backer, to regain a foothold in government and feared the diplomat becoming the next president of Cyprus would threaten the country’s fragile economy and pro-Western trajectory.
Critics fault AKEL for bringing Cyprus to the brink of bankruptcy a decade ago and for maintaining a pro-Moscow slant.
Amid the bickering within DISY, Anastasiades, a former party leader, took the unusual step of issuing a statement suggesting that DISY members should work to thwart an AKEL-backed government.
He urged the party’s voters to safeguard the island’s Western orientation and its deepening alliance with the U.S.
Christodoulides said he has already received congratulatory messages from world leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Our country’s European, Western orientation is our steady compass for tomorrow,” Christodoulides said.
Trying to mend fences with Christodoulides and divisions within DISY, Neophytou said the president-elect could count on the party’s support “for the good of the country.”
Christoulides inherits the challenge of trying to restart moribund peace talks with the country’s Turkish Cypriots, who declared independence nearly a decade after a 1974 Turkish invasion that followed a coup aimed at union with Greece.
The island’s reunification has eluded politicians during over nearly a half-century of negotiations, despite progress on the shape of an overall peace deal.
A potential resolution became more complicated following the 2017 collapse of talks at a Swiss resort that many believed had come tantalizingly close to producing a breakthrough.
Turkey, the only country to recognize the minority Turkish Cypriots’ independence, has since turned its back on a United Nations-backed arrangement for a federated Cyprus. It advocates instead a two-state deal, which the U.N., the European Union, the U.S. and other countries have rejected.
As the government spokesman and Anastasiades’ close confidant at the time, Christodoulides was a key insider during the failed peace drive in Switzerland. He has blamed Turkey’s insistence on maintaining a permanent troop presence and military intervention rights in a reunified Cyprus as the main reason the negotiations unraveled.
Christodoulides has said he draws the line at those two Turkish demands but would utilize Cyprus’ European Union membership to engage with Ankara on ways to break the current deadlock.
“The current state of affairs cannot be considered a solution to the Cyprus issue, and I have expressed my readiness to make use of our European Union membership to break the deadlock and lead us to a settlement as quickly as possible, to reunify our homeland,” Christodoulides said from his campaign headquarters, flanked by his wife and four daughters.
On the economy, Christodoulides said a top priority would be to maintain fiscal discipline without endangering the country’s social safety net and to effectively deal with unauthorized migration.
The president-elect also aims to expedite development on newly discovered natural gas deposits off Cyprus’ south coast as Europe grapples with an energy crunch.
“Mr. Christodoulides’ candidacy is an opportunity for Cypriot people to turn the page, with a new type of governance, with a humanist purpose above all else,” voter Neophytos Makrides, 58, said as he cast his ballot in Paphos. “No to corruption and in favor of the right resolution of the Cypriot problem.”