NICOSIA - Disy opposition leader Nicos Anastasiades and communist-backed Stavros Malas will contest a runoff poll next Sunday with voters called on again to decide which candidate can deliver Cyprus from financial ruin.
Disy party head Anastasiades won 45.46%, ahead of Stavros Malas, backed by the AKEL communist party, who clinched 26.91%.
This came as a surprise as exit polls had shown the Disy leader with more than the 50% needed to avoid a February 24 second round.
Those polls gave Lillikas no chance but his vote built up throughout the night pushing Malas to the wire.
At the finishing line, the former foreign minister came in third with a credible 24.93%, of the vote. The eight fringe candidates garnered a total of 2.7%.
His supporter will now play an influential role in the second round with Akel trying to woo Lillikas after conducting a no-holds barred campaign against his candidature.
Lillikas was non-committal about who he would support when asked soon after he admitted defeat yesterday.
However, Malas said that his campaign had “much in common” with that of Lillikas.
Exit polls had triggered chanting, honking of car horns and the waving of party flags by Disy supporters, but they grew quiet as the official final results were announced.
By the end of the night the chanting and celebrations came from outside the Akel party office as supporters considered Malas’ performance a victory that gives him hope of securing an unlikely triumph in the run-off.
Akel MP Nicos Katsourides said: “There will be a fight in the second round which we can win.”
Anastasiades still remains the favourite but he will be looking nervously over his shoulder to see if Malas can attract more supporters to his cause.
One thing is for certain - the political horse trading will begin in earnest in the coming days with Lillikas surely seeking a place in the next government.
And Anastasiades said yesterday that Lillikas is someone he would talk to, “why would I exclude him?”
Polling officials put turnout at 83.14% of an electorate of 550,000, down six percent on the island's last presidential vote in 2008.
The election was seen as one of the most crucial since independence, with Cypriots voting for a new president to rescue the recession-hit EU member state from bankruptcy.
Anastasiades, 66, also had the backing of centre-right Diko party in the race for the presidency, which unlike in previous polls on the normally affluent but divided island focused on the economy rather than reunification efforts.
"Above all else, we must all unite forces, to counter this economic crisis which unfortunately our homeland has never experienced before," he said after voting.
"It is the survival of our country which is at stake," Anastasiades added after voting in Limassol, accompanied by his three grandchildren.
He is seen as someone the Europe Union can do business with, while his stance on ending the four-decade is more flexible than his rivals.
The most pressing task facing the next president as he starts a five-year term will be to agree austerity terms with a troika of lenders on a bailout to save the island's Greek-exposed banks and failing economy.
"Cyprus needs an adjustment programme, a comprehensive one," Joerg Asmussen, a member of the European Central Bank's executive board, told Germany's ARD television.
It will have to focus on shrinking the banking sector in an orderly way and "financial help will be needed for that, but in order that there can be such a program Cyprus must make efforts in advance - this is not a one-way street," Asmussen said.
Malas has argued for "softer" austerity measures and a strategy based on growth not harsh austerity.
President Christofias sought a bailout in June, and talks dragged on as the outgoing leader, who did not stand for re-election, resisted measures including privatisation and reopened talks with Russia on a top-up loan.
Christofias's term expires at the end of February
The European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund are awaiting the election result before offering the terms for a 17-billion-euro lifeline.
On the political front, the international community will also expect the next Cypriot president to pick up the pieces of a deadlocked UN push for peace.
Anastasiades supported a failed "Yes" vote for a UN reunification blueprint in 2004, even though it was overwhelmingly rejected by Greek Cypriots, resulting in a divided island joining the EU.
He secured a commanding lead in the election but failed to secure the “strong mandate” to ensure he won on the first Sunday allowing him to get to work on the economy.
Cyprus must go to the polls once again as the economic landscape worsens and the need for a bailout is critical before the country slides into bankruptcy.