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Cyprus holds presidential poll in economic crisis

A poster of Cyprus candidate for presidential elections, George Lillikas, seen in Nicosia, on February 16, 2013
A poster of Cyprus candidate for presidential elections, George Lillikas, decorates a building in Nicosia's central business district, on February 16, 2013, on the eve of the presidential vote. Cypriot voters go to the polls to choose a new president afte

Cypriot voters were going to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president after a heated election campaign focused on rescuing the recession-hit EU member state from bankruptcy.

Nicos Anastasiades, 66, of the rightwing main opposition Disy party, is tipped to win the first round in which 550,000 Cypriots are eligible to cast their ballots, perhaps managing to secure the 50-percent threshold that would avoid a run-off vote a week later.

He has the support of the centre-right Diko party in the race for the presidency, which unlike in previous polls on the normally affluent but divided island has focused on the economy rather than elusive efforts at reunification.

Polling stations opened at 07:00 (0500 GMT) and will close at 18:00, with a result expected less than three hours later.

"I urge you to give me a strong mandate," Anastasiades told his last major campaign rally. "Success in the first round is what this country needs, so that from Monday I can address the dangers of debt sustainability."

A man walks past a giant poster of Cypriot presidential candidate Nicos Anastasiades on February 11, 2013 in Limassol
A man walks past a giant poster of Cypriot presidential candidate Nicos Anastasiades on February 11, 2013 in Limassol.

His closest challenger for the Greek Cypriot leadership is former health minister Stavros Malas, 45, a British-educated independent backed by the currently ruling communist AKEL party.

Anastasiades, who led Malas by 20 percentage points in polls, is seen as someone the Europe Union can do business with, while his stance on ending the division of Cyprus is more flexible than his rivals.

The most pressing task facing the next president as he starts a five-year term will be to agree terms with a troika of lenders on a bailout to save the island's Greek-exposed banks and failing economy.

The European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund are awaiting the election result before offering the terms for a 17-billion-euro ($23-billion) lifeline.

A man holds a ballot paper in Nicosia, January 30, 2013
A man holds a ballot paper in Nicosia, January 30, 2013. Cyprus presidential election ballots have been reprinted due to a copyright infringement after Guinness World Records complained about a candidate's use of its logo, state radio said.

Malas, who is is confident of seeing off the challenge of 52-year-old former foreign minister George Lillikas and reaching a second round vote next Sunday, argues for "softer" austerity measures.

President Demetris Christofias sought a bailout in June, and talks dragged on as the outgoing leader, who is not standing for re-election, resisted measures including privatisation and reopened talks with Russia on topping up a 2.5-billion-euro loan.

On the political front, the international community will also expect the next Cypriot president to pick up the pieces of a deadlocked UN push for peace.

Anastasiades supported a failed "Yes" vote for a UN reunification blueprint in 2004, even though it was rejected by Greek Cypriots, resulting in a divided island joining the EU.

The major candidates taking part in the Cypriot election, February 11, 2013 in Nicosia
From left to right: Nikos Anastasiadis, Stavros Malas and George Lillikas the three major candidates in the Cypriot election, attend the last political debate in Nicosia, on February 11, 2013.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded and seized its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup aimed at uniting the island and Greece.

As a former minister, Malas must contend with the stigma of being linked to an unpopular government. "I pledge in all honesty that I will lead a government of national unity. We can rise to the challenge of a new era," he said on Friday.

Lillikas is the only one of the three main candidates who rejects a bailout, saying it would plunge the tourist destination into spiralling recession. Instead, he wants to sell untapped offshore gas reserves in advance.

The independent also has a tough stance on Turkey's EU accession, saying it should be vetoed unless the Cyprus issue is resolved.

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