By Michele Kambas
NICOSIA (Reuters) -Former foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides edged into the lead in Cyprus’s presidential election on Sunday, exit polls showed, but was unlikely to clinch an outright majority, leading to a runoff on Feb. 12.
Christodoulides, running as an independent, was seen taking between 30.5% and 33.5% of the vote, an exit poll for the state broadcaster showed, based on 76% of respondents counted. Voting ended at 1600 GMT.
Averof Neophytou, leader of the ruling conservative DISY party, and independent leftist-backed candidate Andreas Mavroyiannis were neck-and-neck, with both between 26.5% and 29.5%.
Private broadcasters showed broadly similar results, turning the vote into who will face off Christodoulides next week into a cliffhanger.
The two frontrunners from Sunday’s vote will now have a week to win over the remaining candidates and their voters excluded in Sunday’s voting.
The winner of the poll will have to wrestle with how to break a deadlock in reunification talks on ethnically split Cyprus, as well as irregular migration, labour disputes and repairing the country’s image, tarnished by corruption scandals.
All leading contenders are close associates of incumbent right-wing President Nicos Anastasiades, who is stepping down after this election.
Christodoulides broke ranks with his own party DISY and its leader Neophytou to run for the presidency, splitting the political right. He is also backed by political parties which have traditionally taken a hard line in reunification talks.
“The day after elections should find us united. The elections will end, but the challenges and problems lie ahead of us,” he told reporters earlier after he cast his vote.
Cyprus was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 after a brief Greek-inspired coup. The last round of peace talks collapsed in 2017.
(Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by David Holmes, Christopher Cushing, Raissa Kasolowsky and Jan Harvey)
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