NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Turkish Cypriots began voting Sunday for a leader tasked with overcoming their 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.
The election comes amid allegations that Turkey is overtly trying to steer the 200,000-strong electorate toward right-wing candidate Ersin 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.
Analysts predict a race between leftist incumbent Mustafa Akinci, center-left CTP party leader Tufan Erhurman and Tatar.
The election in Cyprus’ breakaway north is likely to head into a runoff in a week. Most opinion polls put Akinci into the second round, against either Tatar or Erhurman.
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.
Allegations that Turkey is trying to influence the election’s outcome this time more than ever came to a head last week when Turkey opened to the public a beach in uninhabited Varosha, a Famagusta suburb that for has remained off-limits since 1974 when its Greek Cypriot residents fled advancing Turkish troops.
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.
The United Nations 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, 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, denounced the move as a “stain” on democracy and a direct bid to meddle in the election.
He claimed he had received threats against him and his family, urging him to withdraw his candidacy.