Voting Starts For Cyprus' Presidency, With 3 Front-runners

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) -- Cypriots on Sunday began voting for their eighth new president in the ethnically divided island's 63-year history as an independent republic, with three front-runners each portraying themselves as the safest bet to guide the country through turbulent economic times and to seek peace with breakaway Turkish Cypriots.

Opinion polls indicate that none of the three -- all of whom have been close associates of outgoing President Nicos Anastasiades -- will muster more than half of the votes, which is the bar for an outright win in the first round. Instead, the top two will likely move forward to a runoff in a week's time. Some 561,000 citizens are eligible to vote.

Official figures show about a third of voters cast their ballots roughly halfway through the election, 3.5% more than the 30.2% who voted through the same time period in the 2018 presidential poll, so far defying concerns of a low turnout.

Averof Neophytou, 61, who took over the leadership of the country's largest Democratic Rally party from Anastasiades has banked on his message as a veteran insider and the steadiest hand to ensure stability in times fraught with economic uncertainty.

"Today, the people will decide the future course of their country through their vote," Neophytou said outside the polling station where he voted.

Career diplomat Andreas Mavroyiannis, 66, who served under Anastasiades as his chief negotiator in peace talks with Turkish Cypriots, has appealed to voters disgruntled with a decade of Anastasiades' rule, especially members of the communist-rooted AKEL party that's supporting his candidacy.

"I have trust in our people's judgment, I trust that with their vote and participation, we'll lead our homeland to better days," Mavroyiannis said after voting.

Nikos Christodoulides, 49, a former government spokesman and foreign minister who has consistently led all opinion polls throughout the monthslong campaign, is running as the candidate who can bridge party affiliations and ideological fault lines to unite a fractured electorate.

"Only through unity, through our collective efforts can we truly live up to the expectations of the Cypriot people," Christodoulides said after casting his ballot.

Opinion polls have consistently shown Christodoulides will head into the runoff against either Mavroyiannis or Neophytou.

Voter Andreas Mashas said peace efforts with Turkish Cypriots and allegations of corruption hounding the outgoing government were among the factors that made up his mind on who he'd vote for.

"No candidate fully satisfies us, they're all politicians, so you vote for the least worst one, that's the way elections usually go, I consider my choice to be sufficiently good," Mashas told the Associated Press, without revealing what his choice was.

Cypriots will expect the new president to quickly move to buttress an economy buffeted by Russia's war in Ukraine and its knock-on effect on the cost of living.

Migration has also been a hot-button issue amid a continued massive influx of migrants that has made Cyprus one of the top EU countries in terms of asylum applications per capita.

Capitalizing on Cyprus' offshore natural gas deposits amid an energy crunch and getting back to the negotiating table with breakaway Turkish Cypriots to resolve the island's ethnic cleave are also priority issues.