NICOSIA, Feb 24 (bdnews24.com/Reuters) - Greek Cypriots elect a new president on Sunday in a race between two candidates pledging to relaunch peace talks key to Turkey's hopes of joining the European Union.
Half a million Greek Cypriots on the war-divided island will choose between Communist leader Demetris Christofias, 62, and right-wing backed Ioannis Kassoulides, 59.
Christofias, who has secured more political support than his rival, would make history as the island's first communist president if elected and has sought to reassure business leaders he will not tamper with the island's free market economy.
Both candidates say they will try to break a deadlock in reunification talks with estranged Turkish Cypriots, stalled when incumbent president Tassos Papadopoulos rejected a UN peace blueprint in 2004 but they differ on the process.
Hardliner Papadopoulos suffered an unexpected rout in the first round of voting on Feb 17, raising hopes of ending a decades-old conflict frustrating Turkey's chances of joining the EU.
His party is backing Christofias, though Papadopoulos has not publicly expressed a preference.
"Today we are better placed to achieve a solution," Papadopoulos said after casting his vote. "I hope the new president of the Republic will take these opportunities to get a solution which we all deserve."
Cyprus has been split since 1974 between the Greek-Cypriot south, seat of the EU-recognised government, and the Turkish-Cypriot north, which is recognised only by Turkey.
It was divided when Turkey invaded the north after a brief coup inspired by the military then ruling Greece. Around 30,000 Turkish troops remain there.
The conflict is a festering wound in relations between NATO allies Greece and Turkey. Ankara's EU talks have been partly suspended because of the stalemate on Cyprus and there will be a new review in 2009.
Although his party had initially tilted in favour of the U.N. plan in 2004, Soviet-educated Christofias backed Papadopoulos's rejection of it. He favours a more structured approach to a solution through the United Nations.
Kassoulides and his own right-wing Democratic Rally had been in favour of the plan drafted during their term in power, as had Turkish Cypriots. He says he will reach out to Turkish Cypriots immediately if he is elected.
"I don't trust Kassoulides .. he was the one that designed that plan which gave them (Turkish Cypriots) everything. How can I be sure that plan won't come back again?" said retired policeman Nicos Georgiou, 60, who voted for Christofias.
Both candidates acknowledge the plan is history because of the intensity of the Greek Cypriot "no" vote at 76 percent.
Most of the campaign has focused on Christofias's credentials. His detractors have portrayed him as a die-hard communist who spurns his ethnic roots and has an allegedly atheist background.
"I voted for Kassoulides. The other one is a communist. Kassoulides will be a better negotiator and he carries weight in the EU," said Akis Kleanthous, 48, an insurance salesman.