Polls have opened in Cyprus, where more than half a million people are eligible to elect a new president. Right-wing leader Nicos Anastasiades is the front-runner, but he appears unlikely to secure an outright majority.
Opinion polls suggest that right-wing candidate Nicos Anastasiades has at least a 15-point lead over his nearest rival ahead of the first round of the Cypriot presidential election. But the predictions also suggest that the 66-year-old is likely to fall well short of the outright majority required to avoid a runoff vote next Sunday against his closest challenger.
Anastasiades has the support of his opposition Disy party and the center-right Diko bloc.
Former Health Minister Stavros Malas, a 45-year-old independent with backing from the ruling communist party, appears the most likely candidate for a second-placed finish on Sunday. George Lillikas, Cyprus' foreign minister between 2006 and 2007, is the other major contender.
The European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund are waiting on the presidential poll's outcome before negotiating terms of international loans for the struggling EU member.
Lillikas is the odd one out among the three insofar as he advocates refusing emergency loans, arguing that they could cripple the struggling Cypriot economy. Instead, he advocates selling currently untapped offshore gas reserves in advance.
Front-runner Anastasiades, meanwhile, has pledged to sort out a rescue deal as quickly as possible.
Divided, debt-laden island
Cyprus is one of the smallest EU members. The island has also been divided for nearly 40 years, since Turkey invaded the north of the island in response to an Athens-inspired coup aiming to unite Cyprus with Greece. Anastasiades in 2004 supported a UN-sponsored proposal for reunification, which was rejected at a referendum by Greek Cypriots but endorsed by Turkish Cypriots.
Cyprus first announced that it planned to seek international loans in 2012. The country is expected to require around 17.5 billion euros ($23.4 billion) to shore up its banks and stabilize its finances - a figure that would represent almost an entire year's economic output.
Cypriot unemployment hit a record 15 percent during the election campaign.
Under the Cypriot political system the president wields executive power, helping to explain international creditors' desires to wait until the vote was completed to agree on an aid package. Outgoing communist President Demetris Christofias, elected in 2008, had said he did not intend to run for another term.
msh/lw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)