Early results signal decisive victory for Cypriot conservative

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By Michele Kambas and Deepa Babington | February 25, 2013 3:49 AM EST

Cypriot conservative leader Nicos Anastasiades has sealed a convincing victory in Sunday's presidential run-off vote, according to early results, 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 58 percent of the vote after 30 percent of the vote was counted, well ahead of Communist-backed rival Stavros Malas, who has attacked the austerity terms accompanying a rescue.

Exit polls had also showed the 66-year-old lawyer scoring a decisive win. He consistently held an at least 15-point lead as results trickled in, making it highly unlikely the 45-year-old geneticist Malas would be able to catch up.

Jubilant supporters waved Greek and Cypriot flags and honked car horns outside Anastasiades's campaign headquarters in Nicosia as the results poured in.

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.

Anastasiades 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."

About half a 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 - about 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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