NICOSIA Communist party leader Demetris Christofias won presidential elections in Cyprus on Sunday and agreed immediately to meet the head of the island's breakaway Turkish-Cypriot community to revive reunification efforts.
The Mediterranean island's partition along ethnic lines is an obstacle to Turkey's bid to join the European Union, and a source of contention between NATO allies Turkey and Greece.
Turkish-Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat called Christofias to congratulate him on his win and they agreed to meet "at the earliest possible date", Talat's spokesman said. A spokesman for Christofias confirmed the call but said no date had been set.
"I extend a hand of friendship to my compatriots the Turkish Cypriots and their political leadership, I call on them to work together for our common cause, a country of peace," Christofias, 62, told a stadium full of jubilant supporters.
The island has been split along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkey invaded after a brief Greek-inspired coup. Reunification efforts broke down in 2004 when Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. plan and a divided Cyprus joined the EU soon after.
Ankara's EU entry negotiations have been partly suspended because of the deadlock over Cyprus. The EU recognises the Greek-Cypriot government in the south, where voting took place on Sunday.
After the vote, thousands poured into the streets waving red party banners and Cypriot flags and drove around honking horns. Christofias won 53.36 of the vote and right-wing rival Ioannis Kassoulides garnered 46.64 percent and conceded defeat.
Analysts said the election would improve the climate between the two sides of the decades-old dispute, which has brought NATO members Greece and Turkey close to war a number of times.
"A moderate pro-solution candidate has won, he stands for a different approach for the negotiation, a direct contact approach with the Turkish Cypriots...and he will deliver on this," said political analyst Hubert Faustmann.
Christofias will be Cyprus's first communist president and the only one in the 27-member EU. Although proud to be a communist, he says he will leave the free market economy alone.
His AKEL party boasts busts of Lenin and red flags at its headquarters but it also owns a number of large businesses on the island. It has been instrumental in electing presidents but had never fielded its own candidate.
The surprise elimination of incumbent President Tassos Papadopoulos in the first round on February 17 raised hopes the Greek Cypriots might be ready for a deal. Papadopoulos had led the opposition to the U.N. plan in 2004.
Christofias, who won the vote after securing support from Papadopoulos's party, favours a structured approach to fresh talks through the United Nations.
Turkish Cypriots, who have watched wealthier Greek Cypriots enjoy the benefits of EU membership alone, welcomed the result, saying they were keen for negotiations to re-start.
Initial reaction from Turkey was lukewarm.
"We are a little cautious at the moment," a Foreign Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We have to see whether Christofias gave promises to Papadopoulos or not. (Christofias) will face a sincerity test."
(Additional reporting by Simon Bahceli and Stelios Orphanides, and Zerin Elci in Ankara; writing by Dina Kyriakidou; editing by Stephen Weeks)
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