Hardline Cyprus President Tassos Papadopoulos (pictured above) was ousted on Sunday in a first round of Greek Cypriot elections, a ballot seen as crucial for efforts to end the island's three-decade division.
As Greek Cypriots voted for change, former foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides and communist party chief Demetris Christofias will battle it out in a presidential runoff on February 24.
The result proved a major upset for Papadopoulos, who was a favourite for re-election in the opinion polls and who campaigned on a hardline stance on the Cyprus problem.
In the final results after a cliffhanger contest, Papadopoulos came in third behind Kasoulides and Christofias, who were separated by less than a quarter of a percentage point.
Supporters of the two winners drove through the rainy streets of Nicosia, the world's last divided capital, blowing their horns and flying their candidates' colours.
The result left Kasoulides, 59, and AKEL party chief Christofias, 61, to go head-to-head in a runoff next Sunday. Kasoulides ran as an independent with the support of the right-wing DISY party.
The prospects of Kasoulides and Christofias depend on their election alliances in the runup to the second round, in which the winner must clinch at least 50 percent plus one vote.
About half a million Greek Cypriots -- as well as, for the first time, about 400 Turkish Cypriots – were registered to vote in the election, which the local press billed as the most important in the history of Cyprus.
Chief returning officer Lazaros Savvides said turnout was about 90 percent. Voting is compulsory in Cyprus.
The outgoing president's two main rivals had pledged to get peace talks back on track after they were effectively stalled following a Greek Cypriot rejection of a UN peace plan in 2004 at the urging of Papadopoulos.
"From Christofias and Kasoulides we can expect considerable developments and a far more constructive approach from the Greek Cypriots," said Hubert Faustmann, associate professor at the University of Nicosia.
Cyprus has been split along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkey invaded the northern third in response to an Athens-engineered coup aimed at uniting the east Mediterranean island with Greece.
Warning that its patience was running thin, the United Nations – which controls a buffer zone dividing southern Cyprus and the Turkish-occupied north – has urged a resumption of peace talks.
International mediators hold Papadopoulos, 74, responsible for the failure of the UN blueprint, which led to a divided island joining the EU in 2004, although the Turkish Cypriots voted overwhelmingly in favour.
In a sign of the mistrust on the island, Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Talat's spokesman has charged the presidential candidates planned policies aimed at hampering Turkey's EU bid to try to extract concessions on Cyprus.
The International Crisis Group think-tank said last month that the rival leaders should hold talks as soon as possible after the election, warning that "if such efforts fail, the alternative is likely to be partition."
In campaigning, Papadopoulos had said his "no" vote meant he was the man to trust, suggesting his rivals would "sell out" the republic.
Christofias has billed himself as the man to "build bridges" with the Turkish Cypriots, and Kasoulides too has said Cyprus needs to change tack by renewing contacts with the rival community and winning over EU member states.
Cyprus is at odds with the EU over Kosovo's declaration of independence on Sunday, with Greek Cypriots fearing it could set a precedent for the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Ankara. (AFP)
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