NICOSIA (Reuters) - Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos was eliminated in the first round of a presidential election on Sunday, sending two candidates who want talks on reuniting the island to a run-off.
The surprise result signaled that Greek Cypriots are ready to return to peace talks key to Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU, analysts said. The February 24 run-off will pit right-winger Ioannis Kassoulides against communist Demetris Christofias.
Both pledge a more conciliatory approach towards estranged Turkish Cypriots in the breakaway north.
Cyprus was divided in a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek inspired coup. Peace talks stalled in 2004 when Papadopoulos, elected the year before, led Greek Cypriot rejection of a United Nations blueprint for reunification.
Sunday’s vote showed a shift in opinion since then.
“If you want to extract a political message out of it, 65 percent of Greek Cypriots voted for clear pro-solution candidates,” said political analyst Hubert Faustmann. “The Greek Cypriots are back at the negotiation table.”
Kassoulides, 59, had supported the UN plan while Christofias, 62, had opposed it. Both acknowledge the blueprint cannot be revived but they also favor talks on reuniting the island.
Now, they will need to secure support from Papadopoulos ahead of the second round.
With all the vote counted, Kassoulides had 33.5 percent, Christofias 33.3 percent and Papadopoulos 31.8 percent. No opinion polls had shown Papadopoulos, 74, losing in the first round.
Celebrations at the result erupted in Nicosia. Cypriots drove around the city honking their horns, waving flags and lighting flares.
“This was the result of Papadopoulos’s arrogance, his authoritarian rule,” said Elena Neoptolemou, a 33 year old music teacher. “He was unable to fool people this time by persuading them that things were going well on the Cyprus issue.”
There was also some relief on the Turkish Cypriot side, where Papadopoulos was a popular hate figure.
“This is very good news,” said Cevdit Ozguler, a 44 year old taxi driver. “He never liked the Turks. I think a lot of Turkish Cypriots will be happy tonight.”
Turkish Cypriot spokesman Hasan Ercakika said: “The removal of an intransigent party should speed up the start of the process.”
Kassoulides and Christofias, although from different sides of the ideological divide, have both said they want to meet Mehmet Ali Talat, the Turkish Cypriot leader.
“If I win, on February 25 I will pick up the phone and invite myself to Mr. Talat’s house,” Kassoulides told Reuters recently.
Stalled efforts to reconcile the two Cypriot sides are hampering Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union. A Greek Cypriot-led Cyprus represents the island in the bloc, with veto rights over the admission of Turkey.
Additional reporting by Stelios Orphanides and Simon Bahceli; Editing by Matthew Tostevin