Cypriots began voting for a new president Sunday in an election seen as pivotal to the decades-old search for a deal to reunify the ethnically divided island.

The election is billed as either a confidence vote in or a repudiation of center-right incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos, 74, who led the 2004 rejection of a U.N. reunification plan.

With a new peace drive likely to start after the election, Papadopoulos appealed to voters to give him a fresh five-year mandate and to send a clear message that Cypriot's do not regret turning down the plan.

"It's very important to send the message both at home and abroad that the Cypriot people ... decide their own fate," Papadopoulos said in his final public message before campaigning ended Friday.

Polls suggest a close race between Papadopoulos and Demetris Christofias, 61, head of the reformed communist AKEL party.

Ioannis Kasoulides, 59, a former foreign minister and member of the right-wing DISY party, is a third strong candidate. The contest is likely to be settled in a Feb. 24 runoff.

Cyprus is internationally represented by the Greek Cypriot government in the south, while the breakaway Turkish north is recognized only by Ankara.

Despite Turkish Cypriot approval of the U.N. plan, its rejection by Greek Cypriots in separate referendums meant the island joined the European Union in 2004 still divided.

All three candidates claim to be best qualified to head negotiations with the Turkish Cypriot community, separated from the Greek south since 1974 when a failed bid to unite the island with Greece triggered a Turkish invasion.

But Christofias and Kasoulides argue the stakes are too high for a reprise of Papadopoulos' dead-end policies.

"The time for people to decide has come," Christofias said. "I'm certain that you will use your better judgment to vote against partition, to turn the situation around and to end the stalemate."

Kasoulides, a member of the European parliament, pledged to restore diminished Greek Cypriot credibility among the island's European Union partners.

"You will decide whether the island remains stuck in the past or moves forward into the future, whether we trust younger generations or whether we remain prisoners to fear and stalemate." said Kasoulides.

Some 516,000 voters, including 390 Turkish Cypriots living in the south, are registered to vote. Elected for a five-year term, the president is Cyprus' head of government.

Papadopoulos' slim lead in opinion polls has eroded in recent weeks, and analysts say it is anybody's race.

Campaigning ended midnight Friday with voters enjoying an 24-hour break before polls open at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT). Voting breaks for an hour at noon and resumes until 5 p.m. (1500 GMT).

Chief Returning Officer Lazaros Savvides said final results are expected at around 8:30 p.m. (1830 GMT).

He said "the facts indicate" a Feb. 24 runoff is likely between the two candidates garnering the most votes.