Turkish-Cypriot incumbent leader Mustafa Akinci will square off against nationalist Ersin Tatar in a final election after the two topped a primary ballot for an election that could alter hopes for reunification of the divided island.
The first round came during a time of growing tension over Turkish drilling for energy in the island's waters, defying soft European Union sanctions, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Tatar, the favorite of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, finished first with 32.35 percent while Akinci, whose rise to power in 2015 raised hopes for a reunification deal with the legitimate Greek-Cypriot side, got 29.84 percent.
Akinci said Erdogan influenced the ballot with a decision to reopen a beach outside the abandoned resort town of Varosha on the northern third of the island occupied since an unlawful 1974 invasion.
An Oct. 18 run-off is required because neither Tatar nor Akinci, who was unable to reach an agreement with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades for a reunity plan, were able to get a majority. Center-left candidate Tufan Erhurman was third with 21.68 percent.
The election took place amid allegations that Turkey was openly trying to steer the 200,000-strong electorate toward Tatar and return to a hard line that could lead to permanent partition.
Tatar advocates fully aligning Turkish-Cypriot polices with those of Erdogan, such as pursuing a possible two-state deal as an alternative to the long-held federal model for the divided Mediterranean island.
He also said that a deal with Greek-Cypriots to divide up rights to potential offshore gas and oil deposits should precede any peace negotiations although Erdogan and Akinci had rejected an offer from Anastasiades to share 30 percent of potentially lucrative energy revenues.
Anastasiades' government has licensed foreign companies to hunt for oil and gas in the island's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ,) parts of which Turkey doesn't recognize, also demanding to take part in granting permits for energy research.
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, accused Turkey of meddling in an election more than ever.
Turnout was a record low in a leadership election, with just under 55 percent of voters casting their ballots, around 7 percent lower than the last poll five years ago. Both candidates urged for a bigger turnout
“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."
Whoever wins will part in a likely meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who was unable to bring a solution when the last round of reunification talks collapsed in July, 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana.
Those talks fell apart when Akinci and Erdogan said they would never remove a 35,000-strong standing army on the occupied side and wanted the right of further military intervention when they wanted.
The meeting will include the island's three guarantors of peace, Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom, the former Colonial ruler that still has military bases on the island but little influence anymore.
Guterres, who after the Swiss debacle issued a report blaming neither side nor the UN, is keen to take another shot at it despite Erdogan's hard line and a Tatar win could see all hopes vanish.
Turkish-Cypriots now face the choice of sticking to the idea of a federal agreement with Greek-Cypriots to share power or a two-state deal that could see their side stay unrecognized by any other country in the world and no hope of getting into the European Union, to which the legitimate government belongs.
The options are clear: whether to completely fall in line with Turkey's directives or opt for a more independent course, political analyst Tumay Tugyan told the Associated Press.
Regardless of who wins, the next leader will inevitably have to coordinate with Turkey on which the breakaway north is dependent both economically and militarily, leaving any Turkish-Cypriot leader at the whim of Erdogan.
The opening of the beach at Varosha played to Erdogan's hard-core base of nationalists but upset many Turkish-Cypriots who saw it as a transparent attempt to get an essential straw man for him, Tatar, in power.
Erdogan has openly said he wants to renovate and reopen Varosha, in violation of UN resolutions, likely another nail in the coffin of any idea of reunification with Turkey seeing its hopes of joining the EU also slipping away fast.
The UN Security Council on 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, but otherwise did nothing.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)