NICOSIA, Cyprus -- A center-right former foreign minister and a career diplomat backed by a communist-rooted party will battle it out for the presidency of ethnically divided Cyprus in a Feb. 12 runoff, according to official voting results announced Sunday.
With all votes counted in the first round of the presidential race, Nikos Christodoulides, 49, the country's former top diplomat, had garnered 32% to head into a runoff against Andreas Mavroyiannis, 66, who had a surprisingly strong showing with 29.6%.
Averof Neophytou, 61, the leader of Democratic Rally (DISY), the country's largest political party, trailed Mavroyiannis by some 3.5 percentage points, despite earlier opinion polls putting him in the second spot.
Chief Returning Officer Costas Constantinou said 72% of some 561,000 citizens cast ballots Sunday, marginally higher than the previous presidential election in 2018. The winner next week's runoff will be Cyprus' eighth new president in its 63-year history as an independent republic.
Christodoulides, a long-standing DISY member, has consistently led all opinion polls throughout the monthslong campaign, positioning himself as the candidate who can bridge party affiliations and ideological fault lines to unite a fractured electorate.
Speaking to chanting supporters, Christodoulides underscored the “unifier" message by taking care not to push away any voters who cast ballots for any other candidate. He said he would reach out to Neophytou for a meeting on Monday to secure his party's support.
“As of tomorrow, our door is open for all those who share our concern for tomorrow, for our children," Christodoulides said, flanked by his wife and daughters.
But he took a dig at the communist-rooted AKEL party that is supporting Mavroyiannis' candidacy. He said there will be no going back to that party's policies, which drove the island to near-bankruptcy during the 2008-2013 presidential tenure of former AKEL leader, the late Dimitris Christofias.
Mavroyiannis, who served under outgoing President Nicos Anastasiades as his chief negotiator in peace talks with Turkish Cypriots, pulled off an upset by defying earlier opinion polls that showed him trailing Neophytou. His message as an agent of change resonated with voters disgruntled with a decade of Anastasiades’ rule, especially AKEL members.
Mavroyiannis told a throng of Cyprus flag-waving supporters that he'll be reaching out to other candidates in the coming days to secure their support.
“Our love for our country strikes down any lines of division and unites us," he said. “Our focus on the goal for a healthy, robust economy and our concern for our citizens supersedes our differences."
Neophytou had banked on his message as a veteran insider and the steadiest hand to ensure stability in times fraught with economic uncertainty, building on the solid work of the government of which many DISY cadres were members. But it appeared that the perception of Neophytou among a swath of voters as a string-pulling insider tainted by the outgoing administration's mistakes hurt him at the ballot box.
Neophytou told supporters at his campaign headquarters that he congratulated both Christodoulides and Mavroyiannis on their success. But he deflected questions about which of his rivals he would throw his party's support behind, saying that such a decision would be reached collectively in line with party protocols while hinting that he wouldn't step down as DISY leader.
“We waged a tough battle under most adverse political conditions," said Neophytou. “It wasn't enough."
Voter Andreas Mashas said his vote went to the candidate who he saw as the “least worst” of the bunch.
“No candidate fully satisfies us, they're all politicians, so you vote for the least worst one, that's the way elections usually go, I consider my choice to be sufficiently good," Mashas told The Associated Press after casting his ballot, without revealing what his choice was.
Cypriots will expect the new president to quickly move to buttress an economy buffeted by Russia’s war in Ukraine and its knock-on effect on the cost of living.
Migration has also been a hot-button issue amid a continued massive influx of migrants that has made Cyprus one of the top EU countries in terms of asylum applications per capita.
Capitalizing on Cyprus’ offshore natural gas deposits amid an energy crunch and getting back to the negotiating table with breakaway Turkish Cypriots to resolve the island’s ethnic cleave are also priority issues.