Greek Cypriots will vote in presidential elections Sunday, 12 days before a United Nations-imposed deadline for Greek and Turkish Cypriots to reach a deal on reunifying the island so that both sides can join the European Union next year.
They are probably the most crucial elections in the history of the Republic of Cyprus. The eventual victor will have the task of concluding negotiations with the Turkish Cypriots later this month. If no deal is reached, only the Greek Cypriot southern part of the island will be able to sign an EU accession treaty in April and join the wealthy bloc a year later.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops occupied the northern third of the island in response to a coup sponsored by the military junta that ruled Greece at the time. The junta wanted to unite Cyprus with Greece. There are still 30 to 40-thousand Turkish troops in the north, and Turkish Cypriots have set up a mini-state there that is recognized only by Turkey. The two sides have been cut off from each other for nearly a generation.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has invested time and energy in drawing up a plan he thinks can lead to a settlement of the Cyprus problem once and for all. Negotiations between the two sides have been stepped up, but, so far, the talks have made little progress.
Mr. Annan's representative on Cyprus, Alvaro de Soto, says he hopes the elections will not disrupt the negotiations. "Some of my predecessors have told me that elections on Cyprus can be the cemeteries of good ideas and good opportunities. My hope, my trust, is that the Greek Cypriots, both the people and the leaders contesting the election, will show sufficient political maturity so that the electoral fray doesn't end up dragging into it what should be the overriding goal, which is the reunification of the country," he said.
Mr. Annan's plan calls for Cyprus to be reunited as a confederation of two component states that would largely run their own affairs but be linked through a weak central government. The plan also calls for a reduction in the size of the Turkish Cypriot entity and a limited return of refugees to the north, provisions to which Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash has strongly objected.
Ten candidates are running for the presidency of the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south, but only three are considered to have any chance of winning.
The incumbent, Glafcos Clerides, 83, says he is running for re-election because it is not wise to change negotiators midway through the talks. He says he will only serve for 16 months, until Cyprus formally joins the European Union. He has not campaigned actively, preferring to concentrate on his talks with Mr. Denktash.
Leading the polls is his main challenger, Tassos Papadopoulos, a wealthy right-of-center lawyer and former member of the nationalist Greek Cypriot guerrillas who fought the British in the 1950s. He has the support of the Communists, the biggest party on the island, and, in some quarters, is considered unwilling to negotiate with the Turkish Cypriots, an impression he has sought to dispel.
Running third in the polls is Alecos Marchides, the attorney general and a former close aide to Mr. Clerides.
Neither of the front-runners is expected to get a majority in Sunday's election, which means Mr. Clerides and Mr. Papadopoulos are likely to go into a run-off a week later.
Costas Yennaris, the political editor at the Cyprus Broadcasting Company, says a poll commissioned by his organization shows that 84 percent of the Greek Cypriot population is in favor of the Annan plan as a basis for negotiations.
"No matter what the position of each of the candidates is on specific parts of the plan, the fact remains that they accept it as a basis for negotiations leading to a solution. In my assessment, there is no way that whoever wins will be able to walk away from the Annan Plan. It's there. It's going to be there after the elections," he said.
Many Turkish Cypriots are putting pressure on Mr. Denktash to sign on to the Annan plan, despite his reservations. If he agrees to reunification under the U.N. plan, the EU would offer more than $200-million in aid to the north, open up European markets, and encourage the development of tourism in the isolated mini-state.
But Mr. Denktash is resisting the pressure and now says the election of Mr. Papadopoulos, the man who is leading in the polls, would close the door to any solution. That suspicion of Mr. Clerides' challenger runs deep among Turkish Cypriots, even among those who favor the Annan plan, like Suleyman Erguclu, the editor of the newspaper Kibris.
"Mr. Papadopoulos is a hard-liner. I'm sure he will try to do everything to prevent such a solution...If there's a change in the south, it may affect the flow of events," he said.
Western diplomats in Nicosia say they fear Mr. Denktash might use a Papadopoulos victory as an excuse not to continue negotiations. They say the veteran Turkish Cypriot leader still insists on international sovereignty for his mini-state, a non-starter as far as the U-N, the E-U, and the Greek Cypriots are concerned.
As time runs out for a deal, Secretary-General Annan is making a last-ditch effort to reach an agreement. He is scheduled to arrive in Cyprus at the end of the month with revisions to his plan aimed at accommodating requests from both sides. The diplomats say the message from Mr. Annan will be take it or leave it.