Favorite left behind in Cyprus polls

The first round of presidential elections on Cyprus yesterday confounded forecasts as incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos was nudged out of the running by his two challengers who will face each other in a February 24 runoff. Ioannis Kassoulides, a right-wing moderate, garnered 33.5 percent of votes, emerging just ahead of Communist party leader Dimitris Christofias who amasssed 33.3 percent – a difference of some 980 votes. Papadopoulos, whose slim lead in opinion polls was eroded over the past weeks, got 31.8 percent of votes. The elections had been presented as a choice between Papadopoulos’s hardline stance on efforts to reunite the island’s Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities and the pledges of his two rivals to revive peace talks. Papadopoulos, 74, led the Greek Cypriots in a 2004 rejection of a United Nations reunification plan. His challengers Kassoulides, 59, and Christofias, 61, have criticized him as a poor negotiator and diplomat. All three candidates had presented themselves as the best qualified to head a fresh peace drive as international experts have warned of partition. All three have also refused to recognize an autonomous Kosovo – the province declared its independence yesterday – fearing that this could set a precedent for the Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus. Christofias is known to have the closest ties with the Turkish Cypriots while Papadopoulos is regarded with most suspicion by residents in the north, chiefly due to his rejection of the UN blueprint for reunifying Cyprus. Earlier yesterday each candidate made their final appeals to voters. «With the help of the people, we can achieve the solution that we desire and deserve,» Papadopoulos said. Kassoulides asked voters to embrace a «true struggle» for reunification that would transform the island into «a credible European state.» Christofias said he hoped to create a situation where «Greek and Turkish Cypriots can build a happy and successful Cyprus within the context of a bizonal, bicommunal federation.»