NICOSIA — Turkish Cypriots began voting Sunday in a leadership runoff between an incumbent who pledges a course less bound by Turkey's dictates and a challenger who favors even closer ties to Ankara. The stakes have soared as a battle over energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean has intensified.
Veteran incumbent Mustafa Akinci, 72, is a champion of Turkish Cypriots who oppose Turkey's complete domination of their affairs. His hard-line challenger Ersin Tatar, 60, advocates fully aligning Turkish Cypriot policies with those of Turkey, the region's patron.
The Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north that is economically and militarily dependent on Ankara. The island's internationally recognized government has its seat in the Greek Cypriot south and is part of the 27-nation European Union.
The tussle between Turkish Cypriots who seek to retain more say in how they're governed and those who want to walk in lockstep with Turkey has been a prominent feature in past leadership races but this contest seems more polarized than ever.
Akinci has alleged that Turkey has engaged in "unprecedented" interference throughout the campaign in favor of Tatar and that he and his family have received threats to drop out of the race.
"We know that things happened that shouldn't have happened," Akinci said after casting his ballot, adding that he wishes voters will look back on Sunday's election with "pride for Turkish Cypriot democracy and will."
Tatar edged out Akinci in the first round of voting by less than three percentage points but Akinci now has clinched support from the third-place candidate. Analyst Tumay Tugyan says the contest could go either way as Tatar courted a significant pool of voters from the approximately 200,000-strong electorate — especially in rural areas — who may not have voted in the first round.
Tatar urged voters to get out and beat the first round's record-low turnout.
"The important thing is to reflect our will and send out a message to the world," Tatar said after voting.
A first test for the winner will be a meeting with Greek Cypriots and Cyprus' 'guarantors' — Greece, Turkey and Britain — that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is expected call soon. The aim will be to figure out if there's enough common ground to restart dormant peace talks.
Nearly five decades of U.N. facilitated attempts at achieving reunification based on a federal framework have failed.
Akinci believes that federation is the only way toward a peace accord. Tatar shares the Turkish government view that federation may not be the most viable option and alternatives such as a two-state deal should be pursued.
Tensions have soared this summer in waters off Greece and Cyprus over sea boundaries and energy exploration rights after Turkey redeployed a research vessel near the Greek island of Kastellorizo. The move cast doubts on fresh talks aimed at resolving the dispute.
Turkey insists it has every legal right to search for hydrocarbons in waters where Greece and Cyprus claim exclusive economic rights. The Greek and Cypriot governments accuse Turkey of violating international law. The dispute raised fears of a military conflict between Greece and Turkey, NATO members who are strong regional rivals.
By MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS Associated Press