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Ex-foreign minister will face diplomat for Cyprus presidency

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A center-right former foreign minister and a career diplomat backed by a communist-rooted party appeared poised to battle it out for the presidency of ethnically divided Cyprus in a Feb. 12 runoff, according to official voting results announced Sunday.

With more than 90% of votes counted in the first round of the presidential race, Nikos Christodoulides, 49, the country's former top diplomat, had garnered 31.69% of the vote to head into a runoff against Andreas Mavroyiannis, 66, who had 29.76%.

Averof Neophytou, 61, the leader of Democratic Rally, the country's largest political party, trailed Mavroyiannis by more than 3 percentage points, despite earlier opinion polls putting him in the second spot.

Chief Returning Officer Costas Constantinou said 72% of some 561,000 citizens cast ballots Sunday, marginally higher than the previous presidential election in 2018. The winner next week's runoff will be Cyprus' eighth new president in its 63-year history as an independent republic.

Neophytou has banked on his message as a veteran insider and the steadiest hand to ensure stability in times fraught with economic uncertainty.

Mavroyiannis who served under outgoing President Nicos 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.

Christodoulides has consistently led all opinion polls throughout the monthslong campaign, positioning himself as the candidate who can bridge party affiliations and ideological fault lines to unite a fractured electorate.

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.