NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Conservative candidate Nicos Anastasiades was set to defeat his left-wing rival Stavros Malas by a wide margin in Cyprus' runoff presidential election Sunday, early official results showed, as Cypriots cast ballots for who will lead them through the country's financial crisis.
With more than 52 percent of the vote counted, Anastasiades had 57.73 percent of the vote, compared to Malas' 42.27 percent. A simple majority is needed for a win.
If confirmed, the margin of victory will be one of the largest for any candidate in 30 years. With the release earlier of exit polls that showed similar results, dozens of Anastasiades' supporters celebrated outside his campaign headquarters in the capital Nicosia, honking horns and waving flags.
The election comes at a crucial time. Cyprus faces the specter of financial meltdown, and 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.
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.
Anastasiades has capitalized on what many feel were five years of failed left-wing rule under outgoing President Dimitris Christofias and his communist-rooted AKEL party — which backs Malas — that caused Cyprus' sorry economic state. The 66-year-old leader of the main opposition Democratic Rally party has boasted of his connections with Europe's center-right leaders and seeks to spend political capital he's built up over the years to convince Europe that Cyprus deserves help.
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. The country has a presidential system of government, and the office carries a lot of power.
Cyprus has already enacted deep public sector wage cuts and tax hikes under a preliminary bailout agreement.