Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, a pro-reunification moderate, and Ankara-backed challenger Ersin Tatar are to contest an October 18 runoff in breakaway northern Cyprus, following an election Sunday.
Right-wing nationalist Tatar won 32 percent of the vote, ahead of the incumbent, Akinci, who netted almost 30 percent in a field of 11 candidates, the election council said.
With no candidate winning a clear majority, Tatar and Akinci are to hold a second round next Sunday.
The incumbent president is tipped to overcome his 60-year-old challenger with the backing of Tufan Erhurman, a fellow Social Democrat and supporter of reunification in a federation with the Greek Cypriot south, who won 21 percent in Sunday’s vote.
“Akinci will probably win the second round with more than 55 percent,” said Mine Yucel, the head of Prologue Consulting which specialises in polling.
More than 200 of Akinci’s supporters celebrated Sunday’s results with dancing and drum beating outside the offices of the 72-year-old former mayor of northern Nicosia who is seeking a second five-year term.
The presidential vote in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was held amid heightened tensions on the divided island and in the wider eastern Mediterranean, as well as precautions against the spread of Covid-19.
The election council said 62 percent of the almost 199,000-electorate voted.
The vote came three days after Turkish troops angered the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member, and many Turkish Cypriots, by reopening public access to the fenced-off seaside ghost town of Varosha for the first time since Turkish forces invaded the north in 1974.
That move sparked demonstrations in the majority Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, which exercises its authority over the island’s southern two thirds, separated from the north by a UN-patrolled buffer zone.
The TRNC, now with an estimated population of 300,000, was established after the north was occupied by Turkey in reaction to a coup that aimed to annex Cyprus to Greece.
Esat Tulek, a 73-year-old retired civil servant, said as he voted: “We’re actually choosing the president who will be negotiating with the Greek Cypriots about the future of Cyprus.”
‘Pressure from Turkey’
The election comes amid tensions in the eastern Mediterranean over the planned exploitation of hydrocarbons between Turkey on the one hand, and Greece as well as its close ally Cyprus on the other.
Erdogan announced last week, alongside Tatar, the partial reopening of Varosha, a beachside resort in the city of Famagusta that once drew Hollywood stars before it was abandoned by its Greek-Cypriot inhabitants during the Turkish invasion.
The move to allow visitors back into the abandoned and overgrown area was condemned by Akinci and other candidates, who saw it as Turkish interference in the election.
Last Thursday’s opening was also heavily criticised by the Republic of Cyprus, the European Union and the United Nations.
Kemal Baykalli, founder of the non-government group Unite Cyprus Now, told AFP: “The main issue of this election is how we will define our relationship with Turkey.”
Akinci favours loosening ties with Ankara, earning him the hostility of Erdogan.
“There are two situations that are not normal,” Akinci said after voting. “One is about our health, there is a pandemic.
“And the second one is our political health, communal health, and I’m talking here about the intervention of Turkey.”
UN-brokered negotiations aimed at reunification stalled during Akinci’s term of office, notably on the question of the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers stationed in the TRNC.
Turkey supports the nationalist Tatar, currently “prime minister” of the breakaway north and advocate of a two-state solution.
“We deserve to live on the basis of equal sovereignty,” Tatar said Sunday to applause from his supporters.
Yektan Turkyilmaz, a researcher at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien, said many Turkish Cypriots felt “wounded in their honour and identity” by what they considered to be interference from Ankara.
The election was held amid an economic crisis, deepened by the pandemic, which has largely shuttered the tourism sector and led to the closure of Ercan airport in the north and the crossing points to the south of the island.
The virus has cost four lives and more than 800 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in the TRNC.