* Pro-bailout Anastasiades tipped to win
* Runoff to be held Feb. 24 if no outright winner
* New president must negotiate deal with EU, IMF
By Michele Kambas
NICOSIA, Feb 17 Cypriots vote on Sunday to elect
a president tasked with negotiating a financial rescue to save
the small island nation from a bankruptcy that would reignite
the euro zone debt crisis.
Cyprus's worst economic crisis in four decades has blown
away the island's divided status as the main issue in this
year's elections, which conservative leader Nicos Anastasiades
is tipped to win.
Polls show Anastasiades, the most pro-bailout figure among
the main presidential contenders, has a 15-point lead over his
closest leftist rival, Stavros Malas, but may not secure the
outright majority needed to avoid a run-off a week later.
He has promised a quick agreement with the European Union
and International Monetary Fund on a bailout, a deal investors
want thrashed out before the island's troubles derail progress
made in shoring up the rest of the euro zone's periphery.
Nailing down a deal has proved tricky because almost any way
of solving the crisis - from restructuring debt to slapping
losses on banks - could set a precedent for other troubled
states and hurt fragile confidence in financial markets.
Fears that the island will never be able to pay back its
debt, German misgivings about its commitment to fighting money
laundering and strong links to Russia have further complicated
talks on a rescue, which have dragged on for eight months.
"Everything is at stake, like it has never been before,"
said Kyriakos Iacovides, publisher of the Cyprus Mail newspaper.
"The country must be rebuilt, Cyprus must be rehabilitated
in the EU. We need a strong leadership to rebuild the country."
Cyprus sought financial help last year after its banks
suffered huge losses from Greece's sovereign debt restructuring.
The island, which has been shut out of international financial
markets since May 2011, needs about 17 billion euros in aid - a
sum worth as much as its entire economy.
Cyprus has a presidential system of government where the
head of state wields executive power. Incumbent Demetris
Christofias, the EU's only Communist leader, has bowed out amid
accusations of the EU "persecuting" Cypriots during bailout
Just over half a million Greek Cypriots are expected to cast
their vote for the man to lead the nation for the next five
years when polls open at 0500 GMT. A runoff will on Feb. 24 if
no candidate receives more than 50 percent of votes cast.
The last polls showed Anastasiades with just over 40 percent
share of the vote, comfortably ahead of the Communist-backed
Malas and the other main challenger, independent George
"What we have are two weak candidates against a potentially
unpopular figure. Anastasiades is a polarising figure in Cypriot
politics, respected but not necessarily liked," said Hubert
Faustmann, an associate professor at the University of Nicosia.
"The economy has dominated, and this must be one of the
dullest election campaigns I have ever seen. Somehow it hasn't
electrified people, they could be jaded."
Anger at unemployment hitting a record high of 15 percent
has cast a pall over campaigning, where rival candidates have
jockeyed to cast themselves as the best man to steer Cyprus
through its troubles.
Anastasiades has run on a slogan declaring "The crisis needs
a leader," while Malas has retorted with a campaign proclaiming
"The crisis needs a credible leader".
Reuniting the island after its division nearly 40 years ago
into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north and the
internationally recognized southern state run by Greek Cypriots
has lagged far behind as an election issue.
Cypriots, still coming to grips with a cocktail of pay cuts,
tax hikes and benefit cuts imposed last year in preparation for
a bailout, have been little impressed with any of the rhetoric.
"Things will get better for Cyprus with a stronger
leadership," said Marios Ioannou, 28, private sector employee.
"But people are angry with politicians and bankers for
getting us in this mess. A lot of my friends have lost their
jobs. This isn't the Cyprus we knew."