NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — With Cypriots facing the specter of financial meltdown, the conservative candidate in a presidential election runoff was favored to beat his left-wing rival Sunday.
Opposition leader Nicos Anastasiades garnered 45.46 percent of the vote in the first round of voting, about 18 points more than Stavros Malas, who is backed by outgoing President Dimitris Christofias' communist-rooted AKEL party. The candidate who gets the simple majority in the second round will win the race.
The new president will be under pressure to quickly finalize a financial rescue package with the eurozone's other 16 countries, and the International Monetary Fund to keep the country solvent as the economy shrinks and state coffers run dry. He will face a tough battle convincing reluctant countries, especially Germany, that tiny Cyprus deserves help after its banks lost billions of euros on bad Greek debt.
Last year, Cyprus sought financial assistance of up to €17 billion ($22.7 billion), a sum roughly equivalent to its annual gross domestic product, which has raised concerns whether the country would be able to pay back any loan. The country has been unable to borrow from international markets since mid-2011, and turned to long-time ally Russia last year for a €2.5 billion ($3.3 billion) loan to keep it afloat.
Cyprus, a divided island of around 1 million people in the far eastern end of the Mediterranean, is one of the smallest members of the 27-nation European Union and faces deep political and economic problems.
In 1974, it was split into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Decades of talks on resolving that division so far have gone nowhere, and dealing with the financial crisis now takes priority. Only the 545,000 eligible voters in the south can cast their ballots in the election.
The conservatives have capitalized on widespread discontent over what many view as five years of failed rule by Christofias. An Anastasiades campaign billboard reading "Could you stand another five years of the same?" plays to that discontent.
"Today's choice is twofold: one is to carry on with today's government and the dead ends that we face. The other is a choice for a new era," Anastasiades, 66, said after voting. "(Voters) will conscientiously choose the future of our county, either to go forward or stay in the past."
Malas, a political newcomer, urged voters to select "policies that will help our country to resist and to safeguard social cohesion."
"We are determining the future of our country in a Europe that is contemplating which course it will follow given this great economic crisis," he said.
Voters understand that financial recovery will be a long, tough struggle, regardless of who wins.
"Whoever wins today will have a difficult time to overcome all these problems, because of the mistakes of the past," said Maria Constantinou, 31. "But with the right policies now, things might get better for us with the president after this new one."
Economist Evangelos Loizides, 60, said: "Things are very, very difficult for us now. A solution won't come from the politicians. It'll come from the Cypriots themselves through their hard work."
Another voter expressed doubt whether either candidate can really deliver.
"Let me put it to you this way. I prefer a Ferrari, but I can only choose between a Mitsubishi and a Toyota," said 36-year-old Panayiotis, who didn't give his last name. "We could've had better choices, more options, but this is what we're presented with."
Eurozone leaders are expected to discuss a Cyprus bailout in the latter half of March. Some have voiced doubt whether Cyprus — which contributes only 0.2 percent to the eurozone's economy — is really worth saving, even though Cypriot and European Union officials have warned that allowing the country to fall would jeopardize the eurozone's fragile recovery.
Cyprus has already enacted deep public sector wage cuts and tax hikes under a preliminary bailout agreement.