NICOSIA (Reuters) - Conservative chief Nicos Anastasiades’s first round victory in Cyprus’s presidential elections on Sunday marks a stunning comeback for a veteran politician whose career was almost destroyed by a political gamble in 2004.
A sharp and rousing public speaker who pulls no punches, Anastasiades, 66, faces a runoff vote next week against leftist rival Stavros Malas.
But he is almost 20 points ahead, having clawed his way back into public acceptance after a debilitating defeat nine years ago, when he supported a 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 penchant for throwing ashtrays.
Along the way, Anastasiades has also 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.
“What is of importance when forming political alliances is that we build on what unites us, and not on what has divided us in the past,” Anastasiades told Reuters last month.
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, while 76 percent of Greek Cypriots said “no”.
“It’s 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 of Cypriot politics. 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.
With the trauma of 2004 still fresh in 2008, Anastasiades purposely did not 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 to Cyprus’s outgoing communist government, blamed for the worst economic recession in four decades, record high unemployment and empty coffers.
“It failed to react timely and effectively to the economic crisis...its policies were too much dictated by outdated left-wing dogmas instead of economic needs and realities,” Anastasiades said in the interview.
While official Cyprus appeared to have trouble convincing its EU partners to swiftly conclude on a bailout deal, Anastasiades was holding court with Angela Merkel and several other centre-right European leaders last month 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 says he likes alcohol in moderate doses, loves an afternoon siesta and does not bat an eyelid when interviewers ask if he dyes his poker-straight 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.
“It never happened, but it doesn’t bother me (that they say this),” Anastasiades chuckled during an interview to the Politis daily last month.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher