Rightwinger Anastasiades wins Cyprus presidency

NICOSIA (AFP) - Rightwing leader Nicos Anastasiades won Sunday's presidential election with 51 per cent of the vote, taking the helm in efforts to secure a bailout for recession-hit EU member Cyprus, exit polls said.

Eliminating the need for a second round, according to the polls on state television, 66-year-old Disy party head Anastasiades won 51.1 per cent, fending off Mr Stavros Malas, 45, backed by the AKEL communist party, who won 27.3 per cent.

Setting off chanting and honking of car horns by Disy supporters, the exit polls, with a margin of error of 1.5 per cent, showed former foreign minister George Lillikas coming in third with 18 per cent.

"The Cypriot people have decided to turn the page - that message is clear. We will wait for the results," the Disy leader's spokesman Tassos Mitsopoulos told reporters following the exit polls.

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 EU member state from bankruptcy.

Mr Anastasiades 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.

Mr Anastasiades is seen as someone the Europe Union can do business with, while his stance on ending the four-decade division between Greek and Turkish Cypriots Cyprus 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 to terms with a troika of lenders on a bailout to save the island's Greek-exposed banks and failing economy.

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 that included privatisation and reopened talks with Russia on a top-up loan.

After voting in the southern coastal resort of Limassol, Mr Anastasiades said the stakes were no less than the "survival of the country and nothing else".

"I am trying to choose the best out of the worst," accountant Christodoulos Kyriakides said as he voted in the capital on a crisp and sunny spring day in the eastern Mediterranean. "I want someone who will do the best for the economy without being a sellout" to foreign powers.

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 UN 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.

Mr Lillikas was the only one of the three main candidates who rejects a bailout, saying it would plunge the holiday island into spiralling recession. Instead, he wants to sell untapped offshore gas reserves in advance.

A total of 11 candidates stood in the polls, including two women.