NICOSIA (AFP) - Rightwing leader Nicos Anastasiades won Sunday's presidential election in Cyprus with 51pc of the vote, eliminating the need for a second round, exit polls on state television said. The polls gave Disy party leader Anastasiades 51.1pc, well ahead of main challenger Stavros Malas, 45, a British-educated independent backed by the AKEL communist party, who won 27.3pc. Setting off chanting and honking of car horns by Disy supporters, the exit polls, with a margin of error of 1.5pc, showed former foreign minister George Lillikas coming in with 18pc. The election was seen as one of the most crucial since independence, with Cypriots voting for a new president to rescue the recession-hit EU member state from bankruptcy.

Anastasiades had the backing of centre-right Diko party in the race for the presidency, which unlike in previous polls on the normally affluent but divided island focused on the economy rather than elusive efforts at reunification.

Polling for the 550,000 electorate started at 7 am (0500 GMT) and closed at 6 pm. Final results are expected by 9 pm (1900 GMT).

Anastasiades is seen as someone the Europe Union can do business with, while his stance on ending the division of Cyprus is more flexible than his rivals.

The most pressing task facing the next president as he starts a five-year term will be to agree terms with a troika of lenders on a bailout to save the island's Greek-exposed banks and failing economy.

President Demetris Christofias sought a bailout in June, and talks dragged on as the outgoing leader, who did not stand for re-election, resisted measures including privatisation and reopened talks with Russia on a top-up loan.

Asked after voting in the southern town of Limassol what the stakes were in the election, Anastasiades said it was about “survival of the country and nothing else.”

His closest challenger for the Greek Cypriot leadership is former health minister Stavros Malas, 45, a British-educated independent backed by the currently ruling communist AKEL party.

“This is a day for the most important chapter in the history of the Cypriot people to be written,” Malas said after voting in the capital.

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

The most pressing task facing the next president as he starts a five-year term will be 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 International Monetary Fund are awaiting the election result before offering the terms for a 17-billion-euro ($23-billion) lifeline.

Malas, who is confident of seeing off the challenge of 52-year-old former foreign minister George Lillikas and reaching a second round vote next Sunday, 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.

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.

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.

“Together we can restore hope to our country and bring economic development, together we can build a new path for a Cyprus solution with dignity,” he said on Sunday.

The independent has a tough stance on Turkey’s EU accession, saying it should be vetoed unless the Cyprus issue is resolved.

There are 11 candidates standing altogether, including two women.