(Updates with results of first round presidential vote)
Nicosia, Feb 5 (EFE).- Former foreign minister and independent candidate Nikos Jristodulidis – also transliterated as Christodoulides – won a plurality in the first round of presidential elections in Cyprus, according to official results, and will face off against fellow independent Andreas Mavroyiannis in a runoff on February 12.
In third place was Averof Neofitu of the conservative DISY party.
With 100 percent of the ballots counted, Jristodulidis garnered 32.0 percent to 29.6 percent for Mavroyiannis, while Neofitu obtained 26.1 percent.
More than half a million Cypriots were called to the polls on Sunday to elect a new head of state and government on the Mediterranean island that has been divided into Greek and Turkish sections ever since the 1974 Turkish invasion.
Participation in the first round of the presidential vote was 72 percent, very similar to that in the first electoral round in 2018.
The two candidates who will face off in the runoff are former collaborators of – and now vying to replace – outgoing President Nikos Anastadiadis.
Polling places in Cyprus opened early on Sunday so voters could elect the country’s eighth president for a five-year term.
Jristodulidis, 49, served as foreign minister up until last year, while the 66-year-old Mavroyiannis, up until 2022, was the Greek Cypriot community’s negotiator in the island’s peace talks.
“Today, our homeland has spoken clearly. I’m ready to take on the great responsibility,” said Jristodulidis in a speech to his supporters after learning the result of the balloting.
“Our doors are open to everyone who’s concerned about the future of our country. We’re not going to exclude anyone,” he added.
Mavroyiannis, meanwhile, said on Monday that in the coming hours he will be in contact with all parties to try and gain the maximum support for the runoff.
“We’re going to fight this battle togeher. The will of the people has been clear,” he said after it was confirmed he would move to the second and decisive electoral round.
The main challenges before the new president will be cleaning up the country’s image – after and amid multiple corruption scandals – and continuing the difficult negotiations with an eye toward the island’s reunification.
The island is divided between the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the European Union since 2004, and the de-facto Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – recognized only by Ankara – formed after the 1974 Turkish invasion and subsequent occupation of 36 percent of the island.
The 1,150 polling booths opened at 7 am in the districts of Nicosia, Famagusta, Limassol Larnaka and Pafos.
Thirty-five polling stations were set up in other countries, including Greece and the United Kingdom, which host a significant number of Cypriots with voting rights.
Pre-election surveys had tagged Jristodulidis as the favorite to win a plurality on Sunday with 26-33 percent support, followed by Neofitu, the candidate of the ruling conservative DISY party, who had been receiving about 23 percent in the voter surveys.
The third contender in the tight race had been Mavroyiannis (with 22 percent support), an independent backed by the communist party and the leader of the opposition, although he did considerably better than anticipated in the actual vote.
Cyprus is a presidential republic where the head of state also functions as the head of government.