NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The president of Cyprus finished first in his race for a second five-year term in office Sunday, but still faces a runoff with a communist-backed candidate he defeated in the last election.
The final ballot tally showed President Nicos Anastasiades garnering 35.5 percent of the vote. Stavros Malas, who ran as an independent with the support of the communist-rooted AKEL party, finished second with 30.25 percent.
Nicholas Papadopoulos, leader of the center-right DIKO party and the son of late Cyprus President Tassos Papadopoulos, trailed in third place with nearly 25.74 percent.
The result means that Anastasiades and Malas will go head-to-head on Feb. 4. The two men also faced each other in the second round of the 2013 presidential election, which Anastasiades went on to win by one of the widest margins in Cypriot election history.
Speaking after the polls closed, Anastasiades expressed his readiness to invite other parties to form a coalition government and repeated a pledge not to seek a third term if he won a second one. The nation's presidency does not carry terms limits.
"What takes precedence is the good of our homeland, to deal with problems with realism and a comprehensive program" Anastasiades said.
Malas told jubilant supporters that his campaign was based on straight talk. He pleaded with voters who don't share his ideological roots to rally behind his candidacy.
"A large social majority has expressed its desire for real, creative and hopeful change for our country," he said.
About 28 percent of eligible voters didn't casts ballots Sunday, a significant percentage given Cyprus' traditionally high voter turnout rates that confirmed pre-election concerns about voter apathy.
As in previous years, the Mediterranean island nation's decades-old ethnic division and numerous failed efforts to heal it dominated the concerns of voters. Many Cypriots also want more benefits from a rebounding economy to flow to a middle class struggling with the consequences of a 2013 financial crisis.
Cyprus was split into a Greek-speaking south and a Turkish-speaking north in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and it maintains more than 35,000 Turkish troops in the north.
Anastasiades, 71, had appealed to voters to put their trust in his experience rather than the untried and risky policies of his rivals.
He said it was this experience that brought reunification talks with breakaway Turkish Cypriots farther than at any time in more than four decades.
But both Malas, 50, and Papadopoulos, 44, had attacked Anastasiades for the failure of the recent peace talks that ended in July. Malas said the president was not bold enough to push talks toward a deal.
Papadopoulos took a tougher line, accusing Anastasiades of making too many concessions that would cast the efficacy of any peace deal in serious doubt.
Anastasiades repeated that he's proven his readiness to negotiate, but won't overstep boundaries on issues that would make a peace deal unpalatable to Greek Cypriots, including what he said where Turkey's demands to keep troops on the island and the right to militarily intervene.
Anastasiades and Malas have said they would reach out to Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci to scope out the possibility of getting negotiations restarted.
Malas and Papadopoulos also accused the incumbent of not doing enough to support the shrinking middle class that suffered after Cyprus needed a multibillion-euro rescue package from its Eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund in 2013.
Anastasiades said it was his steady, disciplined stewardship of public finances that enabled the country to bounce back from near bankruptcy to post last year one of Europe's highest growth rates.
Papadopoulos congratulated Anastasiades and Malas on Sunday night.
"I know that many friends feel bitterness and disappointment. I feel the same," he said. "But despite the attacks and mudslinging that we've sustained in this election, we can be proud because we put forward proposals and conducted an honorable campaign."