Diplomats Battle It Out in Runoff for Cyprus' Presidency

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) -- Polls opened Sunday in a runoff to elect ethnically split Cyprus' new president, pitting a former foreign minister who campaigned as a unifier eschewing ideological and party divisions against a popular veteran diplomat.

Some 561,000 citizens are eligible to vote, and both Nikos Christoulides, the ex-foreign minister, and Andreas Mavroyiannis are hoping for a higher turnout than the 72% who cast ballots in the first round a week ago.

Turnout through the first half of voting stood at 35.4%, nearly 2 points more than last week.

Christodoulides, 49, garnered 32% of the vote in the first round, while Mavroyiannis, 66, clinched second place with a surprisingly strong 29.6.%

Key to who will emerge the ultimate winner will be which way voters of the country's largest center-right Democratic Rally (DISY) party will swing after their leader, Averof Nephytou, failed to make it into the runoff.

The DISY leadership decided not to formally back either candidate and left it to members to vote as they saw fit.

The party appeared divided over the two candidates, with some calling Christodoulides a traitor for turning his back on his DISY roots and others openly wary of Mavroyiannis' main backer, the communist-rooted AKEL party which has been faulted for having brought Cyprus to the brink of bankruptcy a decade ago.

The intense strife within the party prompted outgoing President and former DISY leader Nicos Anastasiades to call for the bickering to stop. But he also hinted to party members that they should thwart an AKEL-backed government, urging them to safeguard the island's Western orientation and its deepening alliance with the U.S and maintain fiscal discipline to effectively deal with an influx of irregular migrants that have made Cyprus as one of the leading per capita European Union member countries in terms of asylum applications.

Mavroyiannis has fended off suggestions that he would shape economic policies according to the directives of AKEL.

Casting his ballot, Christodoulides again underscored his message of unity as a prerequisite to meeting future challenges.

"The key objective is for us to successfully respond to the Cypriot people's expectations, irrespective of party allegiances, ideological beliefs, whether they are unaligned or new voters."

Mavroyiannis sounded a note of confidence after casting his ballot.

"I think we're doing very well, all the indications are that we'll be the winners and so will Cyprus," he said.

The new president will face the tough challenge of trying to revive stalemated peace talks with breakaway Turkish Cypriots, who declared independence nearly a decade after a 1974 Turkish invasion that followed a coup aiming at union with Greece.

Both Christodoulides and Mavroyiannis were key insiders during the last failed peace drive at a Swiss resort in 2017 as close confidants of Anastasiades. Both have pointed to Turkey's insistence on maintaining a permanent troop presence and military intervention rights in a reunified Cyprus as the main reason for the unravelling of negotiations.

Christodoulides has said he draws the line at those two Turkish demands, while Mavroyiannis has softened his stance to woo leftist voters who believe more could have been done to reach a deal in Switzerland.