Cyprus votes in tight presidential race

Cypriots were voting on Sunday in a cliffhanger presidential election that could hold the key to the future of efforts to reunite the island after more than three decades of divison.

Cyprus votes in tight presidential race
The race between the three main candidates is expected to be one of the tightest in Cyprus's history and observers say the vote is almost certain to go into a second-round runoff.

Incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos has the narrowest of leads in most opinion polls, closely followed by AKEL communist party leader and parliament speaker Demetris Christofias with former foreign minister and MEP Ioannis Kasoulides, backed by the right-wing DISY party, in third place.

The contest is being billed as a choice between Papadopoulos's uncompromising stance on efforts to resolve the Mediterranean island's division and pledges by his main rivals to get peace talks back on track.

More than half a million Cypriots, including 390 Turkish Cypriots voting for the first time in a presidential ballot, are registered for the ballot.

Each of the three candidates -- among a total of nine -- enjoys roughly a third of the vote, opinion polls show.

Chief returning officer Lazaros Savvides said an hour after polling stations opened that the flow of voters was low but was expected to pick up later in the day.

"It is very close, we are looking at a pollsters' nightmare," European University of Cyprus research executive Pambos Papageorgiou said. "In the end it will come down to party alliances and horse trading."

If no outright winner emerges, a second round with the top two candidiates will be held next Sunday. The candidate gaining 50 percent plus one vote will be declared the winner.

Cyprus has been split along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkey entered the northern third in response to an Athens-engineered coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece.

Warning that its patience was running thin, the United Nations has urged both sides to resume peace talks that have been effectively stalled since Greek Cypriots rejected a UN peace plan in 2004.

International mediators hold Papadopoulos, 74, responsible for the Greek Cypriot rejection of the UN blueprint, which led to a divided island joining the EU in 2004, although the Turkish Cypriots voted overwhelmingly in favour.

Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Talat's spokesman charged last week that the Greek Cypriot candidates were planning to pursue policies to hamper Turkey's EU bid to try to extract concessions on the Cyprus conflict.

Last month the International Crisis Group think tank said the rival leaders should hold talks as soon as possible after the election, warning that "if such efforts fail, the alternative is likely to be partition."

On the campaign trail, Papadopoulos said his "no" vote meant he was the man to trust, suggesting his rivals would "sell out" the republic.

"We can expect more of the same from Papadopoulos. There will be no substantial progress on the Cyprus problem," said Hubert Faustmann, associate professor at the University of Nicosia.

"But from Christofias and Kasoulides we can expect considerable developments and a far more constructive approach from the Greek Cypriots."

Christofias has billed himself as the man who can "build bridges" with the Turkish Cypriots and Kasoulides too has said Cyprus needs to change tack by renewing contacts with the rival community and winning over EU member states.

The 1,159 polling stations will remain open until 1500 GMT, with a one-hour break, and final results could be out by around 1830 GMT.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 17 Şubat 2008, 14:52