Tiny Cyprus went to the polls last Sunday, with every indication showing that the leader of the conservative opposition, Nicos Anastasiades, would emerge victorious, with anywhere between 43% and 46% of the vote. This translated to a runoff election, due next Sunday, against whoever came second, in an effort to hit the magic 50% mark required to become president.
About 24 hours before polls opened, though, the vibe started to shift. Anastasiades’ inner circles have long whispered their hope that they could hit the 50% mark in the first round. At the last stretch, they and started insisting that they were “very close” making it. As pundits were waking up on Sunday, they were increasingly commenting that it was “in the pocket”, that initial pre-numbers from exit polls showed Anastasiades winning in the first round, despite the fact that every single poll conducted until then gave him about 45% of the votes.
As the day dragged on, rumors were rife, and they peaked early in the afternoon when four tv channels announced their exit poll results as polls closed. They were unanimous in giving Anastasiades about 51% of the vote in a first-round victory that would be rare in Cyprus politics.
And then, he got 45%.
Even though Anastasiades is almost sure to win next Sunday, and even though he is still some 18 p.p. ahead of second place winner, Stavros Malas, his camp was distraught. They were looking for “what went wrong” all night Sunday and, even though he has a commanding lead and needs about 25.000 votes to secure a victory, there were no celebrations outside his HQ. Instead, the distant second Malas, who ended the night at 26%, was celebrating his victory, even though the party that stood behind him, shed some 8 p. p. from its former peak, at 33%.
After a muted campaign, that shied away from bold ideas and concentrated on making clear that Anastasiades would do “whatever it takes” to bring Cyprus out of the current crisis, to secure a 16billion euro bailout from international lenders and to revamp the antiquated state mechanism, Anastasiades looked solid and confident.
And then, in the last 24 hours before polls, his campaign committed the greatest of all sins in politics: They elevated expectations beyond what was possible.
They pulled a “Yes we can”, at the end of which his opponent appears confident in a hopeless struggle to “Hail Mary” the impossible deficit, while Anastasiade’s supporters are reeling in defeat -despite their victory.
For Anastasiades, the upside is that this public relations debacle is, at the end of the day, without cost. He will probably still win next Sunday. But he is coming into the Presidency with a hard lesson learnt, and learnt the hard way.
Expectations about his presidency are already very high, as Cyprus is in dire need for a bailout and international investors are pushing hard for unpalatable choices. Anastasiade’s camp are adamant in saying that, unlike elections results, the policies they will follow once in office, depend entirely on them and that high expectations from the EU and international investors are not scaring them.
“We will do whatever it takes to get out of the crisis” has become a mantra, while their long and close relationship with other conservative EU leaders –such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel- is groomed, protected and deepened as they go. Merkel’s unequivocal endorsement for Anastasiades in the elections was a clear message about the confidence that lenders have in his presidency.
As they get closer to March 1st, however, when Anastasiades is expected to take office, his inner circles need to remember the lesson learnt. They are coming in with everyone involved looking forward to a new breath in politics and they are expecting –indeed, demanding- to see a brave reformist in government. Even the markets say so: After Anastasiade’s commanding victory last Sunday, Cyprus ten year bonds have reached their lowest yield in almost 18 months, recovering from the first time to levels unseen since a blast in a naval base ruined Cyprus’ electricity supply, killing innocent people in the process.
Anastasiades will most likely have the mandate, and he will also have the votes he needs in Parliament. The only thing missing from a recipe of reform and recovery, was a warning shot to remind him that expectations will be high.
And Anastasiades heard that shot ring across his bow last Sunday, which is a good thing.