NICOSIA — Turkish-held northern Cyprus, a breakaway state recognised only by Ankara, voted on Sunday for a new leader amid charges of interference by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Polling stations closed as scheduled at 6:00 pm (15:00 GMT), and the electoral commission said 55 per cent of the almost 199,000-electorate had voted by 5:00 pm.
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.
The TRNC election pitted the incumbent and favourite, Mustafa Akinci, who supports the eventual reunification of Cyprus as an EU member, against nationalist Ersin Tatar, who is backed by Erdogan.
The result of the polls held with precautions against the spread of COVID-19, was due to be released later Sunday.
If as expected no candidate wins at least 50 percent, the two leading candidates will face off in a second round on October 18.
“This election is crucial for our destiny,” Akinci said after casting his ballot, complaining of Turkish political meddling.
The vote came three days after Turkish troops angered the Republic of Cyrus, 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.”
Eleven candidates ran in the polls, with the frontrunner Akinci, 72, a Social Democrat who 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.”
The 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, 60, currently “prime minister” of the breakaway north, who on Sunday insisted that “the TRNC and its people form a state”.
“We deserve to live on the basis of equal sovereignty,” Tatar said 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 people cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the TRNC.