Leftist, hard-liner in Turkish Cypriot leadership runoff

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Turkish Cypriot leader and candidate Mustafa Akinci talks after casting his ballot at a polling station during the Turkish Cypriots election for a new leader in the Turkish occupied area in the north part of the divided capital Nicosia, Cyprus, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. Turkish Cypriots are voting for a leader tasked with overcoming deep political chasms with rival Greek Cypriots in order to pave the way for a deal to end 46 years of ethnic division in Cyprus and quell tensions over offshore energy reserves. (AP Photo/Nedim Enginsoy)

NICOSIA – A leftist incumbent will take on a hard-line challenger in a runoff to decide who will lead Turkish Cypriots in overcoming deep political chasms with rival Greek Cypriots to end a nearly half-century of ethnic division in Cyprus and quell tensions over offshore energy reserves.

With all votes tallied, right-wing candidate Ersin Tatar came out on top with 32.35% of ballots cast, edging out incumbent Mustafa Akinci with 29.84%. Neither garnered the required majority to win outright. Center-left candidate Tufan Erhurman trailed in third place with 21.68%.

The election took place amid allegations that Turkey was openly trying to steer the 200,000-strong electorate toward Tatar. Tatar advocates fully aligning Turkish Cypriot polices with those of Ankara, such as pursuing a possible two-state deal as an alternative to the long-held federal model for the divided Mediterranean island.

He also says that a deal with Greek Cypriots to divide up rights to potential offshore gas and oil deposits should precede any peace negotiations.

Akinci, a strong supporter of a federal accord with Greek Cypriots and a champion of Turkish Cypriots who oppose Turkey’s complete dominion over their affairs, had accused Ankara of meddling in the election more overtly than at any other time previously.

Turnout was a record low in a leadership election, with just under 55% of voters casting their ballots, around 7% lower than the last poll five years ago. Both candidates urged for a bigger turnout next Sunday.

“On Oct. 18, victory will finally be ours,” Tatar told supporters at his campaign headquarters. “I will be in the presidential palace as your representative and this will be our answer to those who can’t stomach it.”

Addressing his supporters, Akinci spoke of “unheard of" interference in the election.

“Despite this, the Turkish Cypriot people managed to show their will at the ballot box," Akinci said. “Let the people decide who to elect. You don't have the right to say ‘this will be your president’ anyway."

The first major test for the winner will likely be a meeting hosted by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres that will bring together the two sides with Cyprus’ three ‘guarantors’ — Greece, Turkey and Britain — to scope out the chances of resuming frozen peace talks.

The Mediterranean island has been divided between a Greek Cypriot south — seat of the internationally recognized government — and the breakaway north since 1974, when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Decades of talks have failed to deliver a peace deal.

Turkish Cypriots now face the choice of whether to stay on the path of a federal arrangement with Greek Cypriots or pursue alternatives like a two-state deal, while deciding whether to completely fall in line with Turkey's directives or opt for a more independent course, said political analyst Tumay Tugyan.

Regardless of who wins, the next leader will inevitably have to coordinate with Ankara on which the breakaway north is dependent both economically and militarily.

Allegations that Turkey tried to influence the election’s outcome this time more than ever while starkly demonstrating who pulls the strings in the north came to a head in recent days when Turkey opened to the public a beach in uninhabited Varosha. The Famagusta suburb has remained off-limits and under Turkish military control since 1974 when its Greek Cypriot residents fled advancing Turkish troops.

U.N. resolutions said any attempt to settle the suburb with anyone other than its Greek Cypriot residents would be “inadmissible."

Many Turkish Cypriots voiced opposition to the move that they saw as a ploy to boost support for Tatar, and Greek Cypriots expressed anger at the beachfront's reopening, which they saw as the first step of taking over the whole suburb.

The U.N. Security Council on Saturday expressed “deep concern” over the beach reopening and called for its reversal while cautioning against “any unilateral actions that could raise tensions on the island.”

Akinci, denounced the move as a “stain” on democracy and as an attempt to turn Varosha into a campaign tool.