Rightwinger Anastasiades, communist Malas to contest Cyprus runoff

NICOSIA (AFP) - Rightwing leader Nicos Anastasiades and communist-backed Stavros Malas are to contest a runoff poll in economic crisis-hit Cyprus, final results of a presidential election on Sunday showed.

Disy party head Anastasiades won 45 per cent, ahead of Mr Malas, who clinched 27 per cent. Exit polls had shown the Disy leader with more than the 50 per cent needed to avoid a Feb 24 second round.

Former foreign minister George Lillikas came in third with 25 per cent, state television reported with 99 per cent of the vote counted.

Exit polls had triggered chanting, honking of car horns and flying of party flags by Disy supporters, but they grew quiet as the official final results were announced.

Polling officials put turnout at 83 per cent of a 550,000-electorate, down 6 per cent on the island's last presidential vote in 2008.

The election was seen as one of the most crucial since independence, with Greek Cypriots voting for a new president to rescue the recession-hit European Union member state from bankruptcy.

Mr Anastasiades, 66, also had the backing of centre-right Diko party in the race for the presidency, which unlike in previous polls on the normally affluent but divided island focused on the economy rather than reunification efforts.

He is seen as someone the EU can do business with, while his stance on ending the four-decade division between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is more flexible than his rivals.

The most pressing task facing the next president as he starts a five-year term will be to agree austerity terms with a troika of lenders on a bailout to save the island's Greek-exposed banks and failing economy.

Mr Malas has argued for "softer" austerity measures.

President Demetris Christofias sought a bailout in June, and talks dragged on as the outgoing leader, who did not stand for re-election, resisted measures including privatisation and reopened talks with Russia on a top-up loan.

Mr Christofias' term runs out at the end of the month.

The European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund are awaiting the election result before offering the terms for a 17 billion-euro (S$28.1 billion) lifeline.

On the political front, the international community will also expect the next Cypriot president to pick up the pieces of a deadlocked United Nations push for peace.

Mr Anastasiades supported a failed "Yes" vote for a UN reunification blueprint in 2004, even though it was overwhelmingly rejected by Greek Cypriots, resulting in a divided island joining the EU.

Cyprus, which gained independence from Britain in 1960, has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded and seized its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup aimed at uniting the island and Greece.