The first televised live presidential debate for next month’s elections took place yesterday with the three main contenders focusing on the economy and the responsibilities that a future administration will have to shoulder in the wake of the long-awaited bailout agreement and a forthcoming time of austerity.
Inevitably much of the debate dealt with the banks, the troika and the financial crisis in general, but each candidate was quizzed on topics specific to their candidacies.
AKEL-backed Stavros Malas, who also served as health minister for the current administration, was repeatedly asked to justify the government’s handling of the economy.
EDEK-backed Giorgos Lillikas focused on his proposal for pre-selling part of Cyprus’ hydrocarbons as a way out of a harsh bailout agreement while DISY leader Nicos Anastasiades tried to allay suggestions that his connections with Europe and Germany were not serving Cyprus’ interests.
Four journalists, one each from TV channels Sigma, Mega, CyBC and Ant1 posed questions to the three main contenders.
Journalists were allocated 30 seconds to place a question to a specific candidate who then had two minutes to respond. The journalist who had posed the question was then given 15 seconds to follow up and the candidate had exactly 75 seconds to respond.
For Anastasiades, it was his friendship with the island’s European partners, in the light of last week’s high-profile European People’s Party (EEP) summit in Limassol that he kept returning to, sometimes of his own accord and sometimes in response to criticism by his opponents.
Finally frustrated at suggestions that he failed to stand up to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and money-laundering accusations emanating from Germany against Cyprus, Anastasiades almost lost his cool.
“Anastasiades is no one’s slave,” he said, finger pointed to accentuate his point.
“And let’s not ascribe to Angela Merkel what the opposition attributes to her,” he added pointing out that Germany is also having elections later this year.
At some point, Anastasiades was asked whether he would be forced to follow a series of unpalatable austerity measures set by his European partners.
“Let’s not demonise friends who may be able to help,” he said.
Calling the Germans “the people’s robbers” is not very useful, he said.
But it was clear that he considered a point in his favour that he amassed support from the island’s European partners.
Malas was asked at different points to explain what positions he shared and where he differed with ruling party AKEL.
Asked if shared the position of ruling party AKEL that the banks were mostly to blame for the state of the economy, Malas said that “yes, our biggest problem now is because of the banks”.
“For every €10, €1.5 is for the economy and €8.5 is for the banks,” Malas said.
Malas became more animated when he said that there was “a crisis without precedent,” getting inpatient when the journalist cut in - despite protocol - to say she had asked about the current administration. “I look at tomorrow not the past,” he said, and continued to talk about the necessity for growth.
“But did the government not make any mistakes?” the journalist insisted.
Malas conceded that they may have miscalculated things but went ahead to talk about growth versus “Anastasiades’ principles of harsh austerity”.
Malas focused on the prospect of privatising semi-state organisations as part of a memorandum agreement, a red line for AKEL.
Malas said that the country stood to earn less money from privatising companies rather then keeping them intact.
But Malas found it difficult to challenge the view that he was a proponent of the current government though he asked journalists to stop asking him whether or not he would carry on from the current administration.
“Judge me on my own proposals,” he said.
Lillikas focused on his proposal to pre-sell part of natural gas found at Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone as a way to fund Cyprus’ debt.
“If we didn’t have elections, I’m sure our proposal would be implemented,” he said.
Looking down at his notes, Anastasiades trashed Lillikas’ idea pointing out that no one knew for sure exactly how much gas Cyprus had in the first place. Quoting from Lillikas’ previous statements, Anastasiades read out a statement Lillikas made against “mortgaging” Cyprus to foreign interests. “I don’t think it’s a serious proposal,” he said.
Lillikas accused Anastasiades of misunderstanding his positions and returning to the issue of natural gas to say that it was a viable proposal “but unfortunately it’s elections” and threw back an accusation at Anastasiades’ “friendship” with German chancellor Angela Merkel.
But journalists grew impatient with Lillikas with one asking him to offer at least an alternative.
“What’s your plan B [on a bailout agreement]? And don’t mention natural gas again.”
Lillikas did not oblige and talked again of pre-selling hydrocarbons, though he also mentioned a number of measures to get the market moving.
The journalist followed up by pointing out that experts have advised against his idea of pre-selling natural gas because that would entail giving out the finds at a much discounted price.
Lillikas said a bailout was more hurtful and the country needed a quick way out of from the recession.
But the journalist insisted: will you sign a bailout agreement?
Lillikas avoided answering. “We must gain as much time as possible and move on with natural gas exploitation,” he said.
Two more debates have been scheduled, one on the Cyprus problem due on January 28 and a final debate due on February 11 – in the final week before the elections – on domestic policy and the economy.