Exit poll shows decisive victory for Cypriot conservative

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By Michele Kambas and Deepa Babington | February 25, 2013 3:42 AM EST

Cypriot conservative leader Nicos Anastasiades has scored a decisive victory in a presidential runoff vote, exit polls showed on Sunday, in a boost for investor hopes of a swift financial rescue for the near-bankrupt nation.

Anastasiades, who favours hammering out a quick deal with foreign lenders, took between 57.5 and 61.5 percent of the vote, according to an exit poll by state broadcaster CyBC.

Communist-backed rival Stavros Malas, who is more wary of the austerity terms accompanying any rescue, trailed with between 38.5 and 42.5 percent, according to the poll.

Other media outlets also reported exit polls showing similar readings.

Financial markets are hoping for an Anastasiades victory to speed up a joint rescue by the European Union and International Monetary Fund before the island runs out of cash and derails fragile confidence returning to the euro zone.

The 66-year-old lawyer took more than 45 percent of the vote in the first round in the Greek-speaking Cypriot south, easily beating 45-year-old geneticist Malas, who took 27 percent.

The winner will take the reins of a Mediterranean nation ravaged by its worst economic crisis in four decades, with unemployment at a record high of 15 percent. Pay cuts and tax hikes ahead of a bailout have further soured the national mood.

"We have to choose between the lesser of two evils," said Georgia Xenophondos, a 23-year-old receptionist who voted for a third contender in the first round and voted for Anastasiades this time, but is wary of backing more austerity.

"We are already damaged by it, and I don't know if we can take anymore," she said. "We've hit poverty, unemployment and lost respect from the EU - things we didn't see five years ago."

The third-placed candidate in last Sunday's first round refused to back either contender in the run-off, boosting Anastasiades's chances. About a half million Cypriots were eligible to vote, but many abstained or cast blank votes in protest.

Talks to rescue Nicosia have dragged on eight months since it first sought help, after a Greek sovereign debt restructuring saddled its banks with losses. It is expected to need up to 17 billion euros in aid - worth the size of its entire economy.

Virtually all rescue options - from a bailout loan to a debt writedown or slapping losses on bank depositors - are proving unfeasible because they push Cypriot debt up to unmanageable levels or risk hurting investor sentiment elsewhere in the bloc.

German misgivings about the nation's commitment to fighting money laundering and strong financial ties with Russia have further complicated the negotiations.

European officials want a bailout agreed by the end of March, ensuring no honeymoon period for the new president, who will be sworn in on February 28 and assume power on March 1.

Longstanding anger over the island's 40-year-old division into the Greek-speaking south and Turkish north has been relegated to a distant second behind the country's financial quagmire as an election issue this year.

(Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Will Waterman)

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