The presidential election in Cyprus will go into a runoff after no candidate won an outright majority.
Nicos Anastasiades, a right-winger who presented himself as the most capable to negotiate a bailout with Cyprus’ European partners, won the first round on Sunday, but with less than the 50 percent plus one vote needed for an outright victory.
With 99.5 percent of the vote counted, Anastasiades had 45.44 percent of the vote. He will face left-wing Stavros Malas in the February 24 runoff.
Malas won 26.93 percent of the vote and has advocated being more assertive in bailout negotiations so his country can win better conditions in return for rescue loans.
The election was seen as one of the most crucial since independence, with Cypriots voting for a new president to rescue the recession-hit European Union member state from bankruptcy.
Anastasiades had the backing of centre-right Diko party in the race for the presidency, which unlike in previous polls focused on the economy rather than elusive efforts at reunification.
Cyprus got into trouble after its banks, whose assets are bigger than the country’s entire economy, took huge losses when Greece restructured its debt.
After voting in the southern coastal resort of Limassol, Anastasiades said the stakes were no less than the “survival of the country and nothing else”.
After voting in the capital, Nicosia, Malas said: “This is a day for the most important chapter in the history of the Cypriot people to be written.”
Anastasiades is seen as someone the EU can do business with, while his stance on ending the division of 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 terms with a troika of lenders on a bailout deal.
The European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund are awaiting the election result before offering the terms for a $23bn bailout, which is equivalent to Cyprus’ entire economic output.
President Demetris Christofias sought a bailout in June, and talks dragged on as the outgoing leader, who is not standing for re-election, resisted measures including privatisation and reopened talks with Russia on a top-up loan.
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.
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.
A total of 11 candidates stood in the polls, including two women.