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NICOSIA, Cyprus – Cypriots are voting Sunday to choose a president who could break a cycle of failure in talks to reunify the ethnically split island-nation — and deliver the benefits of a rebounding economy to citizens still recovering from a severe economic crisis.
The incumbent President Nicos Anastasiades, 71, will face off against two main challengers: Nicholas Papadopoulos, the wealthy scion of Cyprus' late former President Tassos Papadopoulos and leader of the center-right DIKO party, and independent Stavros Malas, who is backed by the communist-rooted party AKEL.
Polls show Anastasiades comfortably leading both challengers, though he doesn't appear likely to pick up more than half of the votes cast in order to win outright and avoid a Feb. 4 runoff. There are some 551,000 elible voters.
The latest polls show a toss-up on which challenger Anastasiades will face in the runoff. Malas, a 50-year-old geneticist who ran against Anastasiades in 2013, has rallied to close up an early lead by Papadopoulos, 44.
Two other challengers — Yiorgos Lillikas, a former foreign minister, and Christos Christou, who leads the far-right ELAM party — trail far behind in the polls.
Anastasiades, who is running for his second and, he says, last presidential term, represents the island nation's political old guard. He says it's his experience, political savvy, and steady hand that have brought the latest round of talks with breakaway Turkish Cypriots to reunify the island as a two-zone federation the closest they've ever been to a mutually acceptable deal in more than four decades of trying.
Those negotiations collapsed in July over what Anastasiades called Turkey's "irrational obsession" to put Cyprus under its thumb and convert the island into its "protectorate" by keeping troops on the island and military intervention rights as part of a deal. He said other provisions sought by Turkey would've made the island subservient to Ankara's diktats.
Cyprus was split following a 1974 Turkish invasion triggered by a coup aimed at union with Greece. Turkey maintains more than 35,000 troops in the north, where Turkish Cypriots have declared independence that's recognized only by Turkey.
Polls have shown most Greek Cypriots would vote down a deal that includes a Turkish troop presence and military intervention rights.
Anastasiades says peace talks remain his paramount concern and has pledged to get them restarted from where they left off if he's re-elected. He said his first act in office will be to reach out to Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci to scope out prospects for the talks' resumption. Malas said he would first speak to Akinci too; Papadopoulos said he would sound out U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Papadopoulos and a coalition of smaller, center-right political parties that back his candidacy have attacked Anastasiades for what they call a credibility deficit. They accuse Anastasiades of talking tough but making too many "dangerous" concessions to the minority Turkish Cypriots when pressured on such issues as rights to property lost during the war.
With peace talks on the backburner, the economy has been put front and center as the key issue that will determine the winner.
Both Papadopoulos and Malas have attacked Anastasiades for crushing the middle class with a tough, three-year, multimillion-euro rescue program that Cyprus sought from its Eurozone partners in 2013 to avoid bankruptcy amid a banking crisis exacerbated by government overspending.
They accuse Anastasiades of showing up unprepared to a European leaders' meeting and accepting a deal he had earlier rejected that burned many depositors in the country's two largest banks by seizing savings over 100,000 euros. That money was used to prop up Cyprus' wobbly banking sector.
Arguing that he had no other choice, Anastasiades has taken credit for slashing wasteful spending and enacting business-friendly reforms that turned the economy around. Cyprus now has one of the highest growth rates among EU member states of around 4 percent of GDP.
His opponents argue that any new wealth has yet to trickle down to the working classes, which have seen benefits and wages slashed but are still weighed down by a mountain of debt that many aren't paying off.
The new president will also oversee an offshore oil and gas search seen to boost economic and political alliances with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, but risks ratcheting up Turkey's anger, which disputes the drilling.
A strong undercurrent of disillusionment among young people over what they see as a corrupt, favors-for-votes system has translated into one of the lowest numbers of new voters who registered to cast their ballot. Only a quarter of some 40,000 new eligible voters signed up to vote.
Analyst Christoforos Christoforou said the abstention rate in the elections could reach 28 percent, significant for Cypriot polls that have traditionally seen very high voter turnouts.