Voting is under way across Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus in presidential elections deemed crucial for the resumption of peace talks that could end 46 years of ethnic division on the Mediterranean island.
The 200,000-strong electorate began casting their ballots in polling stations following a campaign fraught with allegations of overt meddling from Ankara.
The incumbent, Mustafa Akıncı, a moderate who has pledged to push for reunification with Greek Cypriots under a federal “roof” if re-elected for a second five-year term, shocked voters on Friday by publicly accusing Turkey of interfering in the polls.
Speaking in a televised debate, the veteran leftist said he had been advised to withdraw his candidacy for his own good and that of family members in what had been a “clear threat” from Ankara.
Turkey has openly rooted for Ersin Tatar, a rightwing nationalist and the current prime minister, who favours closer ties with the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
With Turkey’s backing, Tartar orchestrated the opening of the once fabled beachfront of Varosha last week. Part of the sealed off area of Famagusta abandoned by Greek Cypriots when Turkish forces invaded in 1974, it has been off limits ever since and is a component of the negotiations.
Critics decried what they saw as a political stunt intended to improve Tatar’s poll ratings, and Akıncı described the move as a stain on democracy.
Turkey’s involvement has added what analysts have called a thriller-like dimension to an election that almost certainly will go to a second round on 18 October.
Both men are seen as frontrunners, along with the centre-left CTP party leader, Tufan Erhurman. Nearly all opinion polls place the incumbent in next week’s vote.
At 72, Akıncı is one of the few politicians to still have memories of co-existence with Greek Cypriots before an Athens-inspired coup prompted Ankara to invade and seize the island’s northern third. Since unilaterally declaring independence in 1983, the enclave has been bankrolled by Turkey, which is also the only country to recognise it internationally.
For Turkish Cypriots who view the ballot as a last chance to stop the territory becoming tantamount to a province of Turkey, Akıncı’s re-election is vital if the community is to retain its independent cultural and political identity. Under his preferred bi-zonal and bi-communal federation, the north would automatically become part of the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the EU since 2004.
“Akıncı represents the last best chance of reunification talks restarting and getting Turkish Cypriots out of their international isolation,” saidSertac Sonan, who teaches political science at Cyprus International University in northern Nicosia.
“Given that Turkey is doing its best to avoid that happening, the election has turned into a referendum on what many see as a question of political and cultural identity,” he told the Guardian. “There is an element of suspense around what Turkey will do next to avoid Akıncı winning.”
In contrast to his opponent’s embrace of reconciliation, Tatar sees a two-state solution as a viable solution to the Cyprus problem.
A federal accord that would bring the two self-governing entities under the umbrella of a single state had been the focus of stalled reunification talks that the UN secretary general, António Guterres, would like to resume in the coming months.
Tatar, 60, not only has the support of Ankara but also Turkish settlers who have arrived from the mainland. The influx has been widely attributed for the creeping Islamisation and gradual change of the north’s demographic make up.
The talks, which collapsed in Crans Montana in July 2017, were led by Nicos Anastasiades, the president of the island’s internationally recognised and Greek administered south and Akıncı, a former Nicosia mayor who, like Anastasiades, was born in Limassol.
Their failure terminated what had been seen as the most promising process in decades to end the conflict.
With mounting tensions in the eastern Mediterranean over offshore energy deposits, international pressure is again growing for negotiations to resume.
“If Akıncı doesn’t get re-elected, we will lose a genuine supporter of reunification,” said Sonan, who openly supports the candidate.
“Of course it takes two to tango but if he doesn’t win it will give Anastasiades the pretext to leave the table. The prospect of Turkish Cypriots seeing their political and cultural identity being eroded further will I think be a mobilising factor in these elections.”