Cyprus counts down to presidential vote

Cyprus' heated presidential election campaign winds down at midnight on Friday ahead a crucial ballot to pick a leader tasked with steering the recession-weary island away from bankruptcy.

Nicos Anastasiades, 66, of the rightwing main opposition Disy party, is tipped to win Sunday's first round when just over half a million Cypriots are to cast ballots.

Analysts say he could pull off a first round win if, as expected, absenteeism is high, fringe candidates do badly, and if centre-right Diko party faithful back him.

"I urge you to give me a strong mandate," Anastasiades told his last major campaign rally. "Success in the first round is what this country needs, so that from Monday I can address the dangers of debt sustainability."

Diko has endorsed Anastasiades but some of its supporters are uneasy about his credentials on the Cyprus issue as their party has a tough stance on peace talks with the island's Turkish-occupied north.

Anastasiades' closest challenger is former health minister Stavros Malas, 45, a British-educated independent who has the support of the ruling communist AKEL party.

Anastasiades, who leads Malas by 20 percentage points in polls, is seen as someone the Europe Union can do business with, while his stance on the Cyprus issue is more flexible than his rivals.

First of all, however, Cyprus' next president will have to agree terms with a troika of lenders on a bailout to save the island's Greek-exposed banks and failing economy.

The European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund are waiting for the election result before offering the terms for a 17 billion-euro ($23 billion) lifeline.

Malas, who is is confident of seeing off the challenge of 52-year-old former foreign minister George Lillikas and reaching a second round next week, argues for "softer" austerity measures.

President Demetris Christofias sought a bailout in June, and talks dragged on as the outgoing leader, who is not standing for re-election, resisted measures including privatisation and reopened talks with Russia on topping up a 2.5 billion-euro loan.

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 rejected by Greek Cypriots, resulting in a divided island joining the EU.

As a former minister, Malas must contend with the stigma of being linked to an unpopular government.

"I pledge in all honesty that I will lead a government of national unity. We can rise to the challenge of a new era," Malas said on Friday.

Lillikas is the only one of the three main candidates who rejects a bailout, saying it would plunge the tourist destination into spiralling recession. Instead, he wants to sell untapped offshore gas reserves in advance.

The independent candidate has a tough position over Turkey's EU accession, saying it should be vetoed unless the Cyprus issue is resolved.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded and seized its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup aimed at uniting the island and Greece.

Polling stations open on Sunday at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and close at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT), and results are expected by around 8:30 pm (1830 GMT).