Conservative candidate Nicos Anastasiades won Cyprus' presidency Sunday by one of the widest margins in 30 years, promising to do what it takes to quickly secure a financial rescue package from international creditors and prevent the country from sliding into economic oblivion.
Anastasiades, 66, won the runoff election with 57.48 percent of the vote, well ahead of left-wing rival Stavros Malas, who nabbed 42.51 percent, final results showed.
The election comes as Cyprus is negotiating a much-needed bailout with the eurozone's other 16 countries and the International Monetary Fund. The wide margin of victory in favor of Anastasiades indicates Cypriots are prepared, to a degree, to stomach what could be painful austerity measures attached to a bailout, as well as a snub to left-wing rule that many feel is responsible for the country's sorry economic state.
Anastasiades, who takes office March 1 for a five-year-term, promised to create a government of "national unity" though it was unclear what its composition would be.
"My first priority is to reinstate Cyprus' credibility," Anastasiades said in a speech after his victory. "I'm determined to work together with our EU partners, and at the same time, fulfill our responsibilities to the utmost. I am committed to making all the necessary measures to steer our country out of the economic crisis."
He added that he would move quickly to tap the country's newfound offshore natural gas deposits and apply to NATO's Partnership for Peace program, which allows for cooperation between the military alliance and non-member countries.
Most Cypriots are aware that there's little option but to secure outside financial help — which will undoubtedly come with demands for public sector spending cuts and other austerity measures — to end the uncertainty dragging down the economy. Cyprus has already enacted deep public sector wage cuts and tax hikes under a preliminary bailout agreement.
As election results trickled in, hundreds of Anastasiades' supporters poured into the streets of the capital, Nicosia, in celebration, honking horns and waving flags.
The new president will face a tough battle convincing reluctant countries, especially Europe's economic powerhouse Germany, that tiny Cyprus deserves help after its banks lost billions of euros on bad Greek debt.
"My government of national unity will make all the necessary structural reforms and, through dialogue with our European and international partners, will safeguard the longstanding strengths of our economy and serve the desired goal of growth and jobs," Anastasiades said.
His defeated rival said the new president could count on his support if his actions were deemed to be beneficial for Cyprus.
"We will stand by the new president if we assess his actions and policies to be for the good of the country because the unity of our people is what's most important right now," Malas said as he conceded the election. "At the same time, we will be strong critics of whichever actions and decisions that we deem not to serve the country's best interests."
Anastasiades has capitalized on what many feel were five years of failed left-wing rule under outgoing President Dimitris Christofias and his communist-rooted AKEL party that caused Cyprus' economic troubles.
Christofias was widely believed to have waited too long to respond to the crisis and to curb spending. He was also seen as dragging out negotiations with international creditors and missing the opportunity to secure a bailout earlier.
Anastasiades, who leads the main opposition Democratic Rally party, has boasted of his connections with Europe's center-right leaders and seeks to spend political capital he's built up over the years to convince Europe that Cyprus deserves help.
"When facing great challenges, we want Europe by our side," Anastasiades said.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso congratulated Anastasiades, saying Cypriots had given him "a strong mandate to implement his program of reform and to do what it takes to ensure fiscal and financial sustainability."
Barroso said he spoke to Anastasiades "and I have assured him that he can count on the continued commitment of the European Commission to assist Cyprus to overcome the challenges it faces."
Last year, Cyprus sought financial assistance of up to €17 billion ($22.7 billion), a sum roughly equivalent to its annual gross domestic product, which has raised concerns about whether the country would be able to pay back any loan. The country has been unable to borrow from international markets since mid-2011, and turned to long-time ally Russia for a €2.5 billion ($3.3 billion) loan to keep it afloat in 2012.
But Anastasiades' won't have an easy time negotiating a bailout without possibly more austerity pain for Cypriots, analysts said.
"It will be difficult to resist ... calls for privatizations and he will probably have to agree to sell a stake — ideally for him, not a controlling stake — in profitable government enterprises," Cyprus University political science professor Antonis Ellinas said. "The question is whether lenders think that this would be enough to make the debt sustainable.
"The risk Anastasiades — and foreign creditors — face, is that the new president will quickly lose political capital and become a lame duck long before recovery is in sight."
Cyprus, a divided island of around 1 million people in the far eastern end of the Mediterranean, is one of the smallest members of the 27-nation European Union. Cyprus was divided into a breakaway Turkish-Cypriot north and an internationally-recognized Greek-Cypriot south after a 1974 Turkish invasion triggered by a coup whose leaders wanted to unite the island with Greece. Nicosia is the world's last divided capital.
Anastasiades sent "a message of peace" to Turkish Cypriots, expressing a "sincere intention" to achieve a reunification deal with the support of the EU and "other friendly countries."
Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.