NICOSIA (Reuters) - Conservative chief Nicos Anastasiades’s victory in Cyprus’s presidential elections on Sunday marks a stunning comeback for a politician whose career was almost destroyed by a political gamble in 2004.
A sharp and rousing public speaker who pulls no punches, Anastasiades, 66, comfortably beat his leftist rival Stavros Malas by taking 57.5 percent in the run-off vote.
The victory comes after he clawed his way back into public acceptance following a debilitating defeat nine years ago, when he supported an unpopular United Nations blueprint to reunify the ethnically split island.
One of his monikers back then was “Nasty Nick”, coined by a popular newspaper columnist for what is still sometimes perceived to be an autocratic, no-nonsense streak.
A decade on, the same columnist now calls him “Nice Nick”, reflecting his growing popularity despite his reputation as a hot-tempered lawyer with a supposed penchant for throwing ashtrays. Today, he is openly emotional when talking about Cyprus’s slide to a near-bankrupt state that needs bailing out.
“That is a painful question,” he said when asked about Cyprus’s fall from grace in an interview days before the run-off.
“It’s a Cyprus of misery and soup kitchens and a state which cannot meet basic obligations. It can only cause me grief.”
Along the way, Anastasiades has cultivated impressive access to top policymakers including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose support will be crucial as he tries to piece together a financial rescue for the cash-strapped island.
He found himself on the wrong side of public opinion during one of the most divisive periods of Cypriot politics, when Greek and Turkish Cypriots were called to vote on a United Nations blueprint to reunite Cyprus as a loose federation.
Anastasiades and his Democratic Rally Party said “yes” to the plan, only to find that 76 percent of Greek Cypriots said “no”.
“Its not an issue of regrets,” Anastasiades told Reuters when asked about his decision to back the blueprint. “It is an issue of accepting and respecting the will of the people.”
A lot can happen in a decade. His bid for the presidency was supported by the Democratic Party, which nine years ago campaigned strongly against that same plan, branding its proponents little short of traitors.
A few days after the referendum, unknown assailants threw a hand grenade at his home.
Four years later in 2008, Anastasiades chose not to stand as a candidate for the presidency. Another party official ran instead, ultimately losing against incumbent President Demetris Christofias, the man Anastasiades now charges with running the economy to the ground.
Meanwhile, his party cultivated close relations with affiliated centre-right parties in Europe, arguably giving him better access to policymakers than incumbent Christofias, the EU’s only Communist head of state.
One of the catchphrases of Anastasiades’s campaign has been “Cyprus is Not Alone”, a pointed barb at the outgoing communist government, blamed for the worst economic recession in four decades, record high unemployment and empty coffers.
While official Cyprus appeared to have trouble convincing its EU partners to swiftly conclude a bailout deal last month, Anastasiades was holding court with Angela Merkel and several other centre-right European leaders at a hotel resort on the sun-drenched island.
Anastasiades, who has headed the Democratic Rally party since 1997, gained the image of the bruiser of Cypriot politics.
A member of parliament since 1981, he once led a parliamentary inquiry on why the Greek identity of Cyprus was overlooked in an opening ceremony for the University of Cyprus, giving the organizer of the ceremony a public dressing-down.
A heavy smoker who likes alcohol in moderate doses, loves an afternoon siesta and does not bat an eyelid when interviewers ask if he dyes his rich brown hair (he does not, he says), some of the reported antics in his party headquarters - where smoking is freely permitted despite a government ban - have become urban legend.
One is that some of the many ashtrays in his book-paneled office would fly when he lost his temper. That, he says with a chuckle, is not true.
Editing by Deepa Babington and Will Waterman