NICOSIA Feb 24 Cypriots vote in a runoff on
Sunday to elect a president who must clinch a bailout deal so
the island nation can avoid a financial meltdown that would
revive the euro zone crisis.
Conservative leader Nicos Anastasiades, who favours
hammering out a quick deal with foreign lenders, is favoured to
win against Communist-backed rival Stavros Malas, who is more
wary of the austerity terms accompanying any rescue.
Financial markets are hoping for an Anastasiades victory
that speeds up a joint rescue by the European Union and
International Monetary Fund before the island runs out of cash
and derails fragile confidence returning to the euro zone.
The 66-year-old lawyer took more than 45 percent of the vote
in last Sunday's first round, easily beating Malas who took 27
percent. An anti-austerity candidate who finished third refused
to back either contender, boosting Anastasiades' chances.
The winner takes the reins of a nation ravaged by its worst
economic crisis in four decades, with unemployment at a record
high of 15 percent. Pay cuts and tax hikes in preparation for a
bailout have further soured the normally sunny national mood.
"Whatever happens in this vote, the day after is going to be
very difficult for Cyprus," said Demetris Charalambous, a
56-year-old convenience store owner. "People are really
depressed. Business is bad, we are at risk of shutting down."
Prospects for a quick bailout that revives the sinking
Cypriot economy - which the EU says will shrink a worse than
expected 3.5 percent this year - have been equally grim.
Talks to rescue Nicosia have dragged on eight months since
it first sought help, after a Greek sovereign debt restructuring
saddled its banks with losses. It is expected to need up to 17
billion euros in aid - worth the size of its entire economy.
Virtually all rescue options - from a bailout loan to a debt
writedown or slapping losses on bank depositors - are proving
unfeasible because they push Cypriot debt up to unmanageable
levels or risk hurting investor sentiment elsewhere in the bloc.
German misgivings about the nation's commitment to fighting
money laundering and strong financial ties with Russia have
further complicated the negotiations.
Longstanding anger over the island's 40-year-old division
into the Greek-speaking south and Turkish north has been
relegated to a distant second as an election issue this year,
with both candidates vying to portray himself as the right man
to lead the country out of its financial quagmire.
"We must end the uncertainty and give Cyprus back its lost
international credibility and its prestige in Europe,"
Anastasiades said as he ended his campaign.
A heavy smoker known for his no-nonsense style, Anastasiades
is widely respected but suffered political humiliation nine
years ago when he supported a United Nations blueprint to
reunify the island that was later rejected by the public.
He has suggested the island may even need a bridge loan to
tide it over until a rescue is nailed down.
His younger rival Malas is handicapped by the support of the
incumbent Communists who are perceived as having mismanaged the
economic crisis and a munitions blast in 2011.
Still, he is expected to get a boost from his pledges to
drive a hard bargain with lenders and anti-austerity rhetoric
that resonates with many Cypriots struggling to make ends meet.
"I want to see someone worthy win, who will cut out cronyism
and be decisive about the problems we have," said George
Nearchou, 58, an unemployed electrician.
"I am however very worried about austerity, people are very
angry. I see a popular uprising."