NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cyprus' election for a new president who will lead the country through its severe financial crisis appeared headed into a runoff Sunday, with the right-wing front-runner ahead but without an outright majority.
With 65.3 percent of the vote counted, right-wing candidate Nicos Anastasiades was well ahead with 45.45 percent of the vote. Rivals Stavros Malas and Giorgos Lillikas were in a close race for second place, with Malas at 26.92 percent and Lillikas with 24.93. For an outright victory, the winner would need 50 percent plus one vote, and Malas appeared the most likely to head into a runoff with Anastasiades on Feb. 24.
The change in leadership, after outgoing communist-rooted President Dimitris Christofias said he would not seek re-election, comes at a crucial juncture for Cyprus as the other 16 countries that use the euro are expected to decide next month on a financial lifeline for the tiny country of less than a million people.
Cyprus is fast running out of cash to pay its bills, and the new president faces the difficult task of overcoming skepticism from some bailout-weary euro area countries to secure help.
As he cast his ballot, Anastasiades, who leads the Democratic Rally party, urged voters to look beyond partisan lines when casting their ballot.
"Above all else, we must all unite forces, to counter this economic crisis which unfortunately our homeland has never experienced before," he said after voting.
Malas, who is backed by the communist-rooted AKEL party, urged voters not to turn their backs to what he called the most crucial election in the country's history.
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. The country, with a shrinking economy and jobless rate at almost 15 percent, has already reached a preliminary bailout agreement with its eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund and has enacted a raft of spending cuts and tax increases.
But Cyprus' help request is meeting resistance from some quarters, especially Germany, that says the country's banks serves as money laundering hubs for Russian oligarchs, or that is too small to matter since it contributes about 0.15 percent to the euro area economy.
The size of the bailout, estimated to be up to €17 billion ($22.65 billion) which is equivalent to Cyprus' entire economic output, has put into question whether the country would ever be able to pay it back.
The crisis has overtaken the country's ethnic division as the primary campaign issue in some 40 years. Cyprus was split into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north in 1974, when Turkish invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. The latest round of reunification talks between Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu resulted in deadlock.