Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades faces a tense run-off against Communist AKEL-backed Stavros Malas after he failed to win a majority at a vote Sunday (28 January) despite finishing first.
Final official results put the conservative incumbent on 35.5% ahead Malas on 30.25% as the divided Mediterranean island eyes a fresh push to reunite.
The two candidates will go head-to-head in a second round of voting next Sunday which looks set to be tight.
Anastasiades — who is seeking a second and final five-year term in the European Union’s most easterly member — has pledged to restart talks promptly with the Turkish-backed north after they collapsed last year in acrimony.
Malas, a former health minister who lost out to Anastasiades in 2013, is firmly in favour of a deal to reunite the country and has criticised the president for not going far enough.
“The trend is for a solution,” said political analyst Christophoros Christophorou after the strong results for the candidates keenest on reunification.
“But we cannot forecast that this will mean a final deal will be reached.”
There now looks set to be intense jockeying behind the scenes to secure the support of the losing candidates, above all third place finisher Nikolas Papadopoulos, a former president’s son who takes a tougher line on talks.
“With the margin between Anastasiades and Malas not too large every vote counts,” analyst Christophorou told AFP.
Turnout was well down on five years ago at 71.4% as apathy among young voters fed up with an insular system appears on the rise.
Anastasiades said Sunday he was ready to work for a government of wider appeal but warned against voting in an AKEL-backed candidate, since the country nearly went bankrupt under AKEL’s watch.
“I am ready for a government of broad acceptance and cooperation with others,” he said.
“The results of today’s ballot are a strong mandate to continue the course we have been on the last five years.”
“The election showdown next Sunday is critical because the course and the future of our country depends on you,” said Anastasiades.
“And whether we will continue with confidence and stability, or return to dogmatic policies and dead ends, and the uncertainty and insecurity that characterised the previous (AKEL) government.”
Former lawyer Anastasiades — under the slogan “Steady Steps Forward” — has taken credit for an impressive recovery by the European Union’s most easterly member since a debilitating financial crisis in 2013.
AKEL leader Andros Kyprianou insisted Malas’ stronger than expected showing proved “we can rid ourselves of the Anastasiades administration.”
“The Cypriot people have voted for change,” he said.
As always, the nearly 44-year division of the island between the internationally recognised Greek-majority Republic of Cyprus and a Turkish Cypriot statelet in the north looms large.
In July, two years of UN-backed talks between Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci came closer than ever to reunifying the island but then collapsed in acrimony.
Despite the failure to bridge key issues, including the future of tens of thousands of Turkish troops in the north, Anastasiades insists he wants talks with Akinci to restart soon.
But there is deep scepticism internationally over whether the political will for a breakthrough exists.
In a bid to shore up his vote for the second round Anastasiades may have to look to appeal to those who voted for more hardline candidates.
The first ever presidential candidate fielded by ultra-nationalist party ELAM Christos Christou — who fiercely opposed to the proposed reunification — scored 5.65% of the vote.
While the “national problem” is ever present, this time around the economy has been a dominant issue.
When Anastasiades became president, the banking sector was in meltdown and he took a 10 billion euro bailout that entailed biting austerity measures.
That included a drastic “haircut” on accounts of more than 100,000 euros held in the country’s largest lender, Bank of Cyprus.
Since then, the economy has rebounded faster than many people expected, and growth has been steady since 2015.
Tourism reached a record high last year and explorations are going on for oil and gas deposits offshore.
Analysts warn there are still major challenges, however.
The economy is still smaller than it was before the crisis, unemployment is around 11% and banks are awash with bad loans.