Turkish Cypriots elect leader amid tensions in eastern Mediterranean

It is an election over which hangs the shadow of tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. The inhabitants of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Turkey, elect their leader on Sunday, October 18. A second round for which the ” President “ outgoing, Mustafa Akinci, goes favorite against the protégé of Ankara, Ersin Tatar.

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Mr. Akinci, at odds with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came second in the first round with nearly 30% of the vote, behind nationalist Ersin Tatar (32%). But he should, except surprise, win against the ” Prime Minister “ leaving thanks to the support of the candidate who arrived third last Sunday.

The 738 polling stations opened at 8 a.m. local time and will close at 6 p.m. Some 199,000 people are called to vote, for a total population of around 300,000 inhabitants. At 1:00 p.m., participation was 30.17%.

The election comes against a backdrop of strong tensions around the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece, the main ally of the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the European Union (EU) since 2004, which exercises its authority over the southern two-thirds of the island.

After drilling off the TRNC, this week’s return of a Turkish exploration vessel to waters claimed by Greece has stirred up discord and led to condemnation by EU leaders of the ” Provocation “ from Turkey.

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72-year-old social democrat, Akinci defends the reunification of Cyprus in the form of a federal state and has never hidden his intention to loosen ties with Ankara. Mr. Tatar, 60, is defending a two-state solution.

After voting, Akinci said he hoped the Turkish Cypriots would remember the election “As a celebration of the will of the people” while his rival stressed the importance of maintaining good relations with Turkey.

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“The right solution is the federalist solution”, says Said Kenan in front of a polling station in North Nicosia. Extolling localization “Strategic” of the island, this 76-year-old cardiologist explains that Cyprus could get by on its own thanks to the hydrocarbons which attract other countries to its waters.

Considering the TRNC as a major piece in its strategy to defend its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, Ankara is closely monitoring the election and has stepped up its nudges to Mr. Tatar.

The inauguration with great fanfare of an underwater aqueduct between the RCTN and Turkey and the partial reopening of a former famous seaside resort, abandoned and sealed off by the Turkish army after the partition of the island, have sparked accusations of interference from Turkey and irritated many Turkish Cypriots, Mr Akinci in the lead.

“Turkish Cypriots are not happy to be seen as dependent on another”, believes Umut Bozkurt, political scientist at the University of the Eastern Mediterranean. According to the researcher, Ankara’s interventions turned the ballot into a referendum on their ” dignity “ for Turkish Cypriots.

But displaying an independent line from Ankara is difficult as the TRNC has been under Turkish economic influence since its creation in 1983. The economic crisis, amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, has not helped: it is Ankara that has had a hospital (100 beds) built in TRNC to deal with it.

Cyprus gained independence from the UK in 1960, but Turkish troops invaded the north of the island in 1974 in reaction to a coup attempting to reattach the island to Greece. With his election in 2015, Akinci rekindled hopes for a peace deal, but the last official negotiations collapsed in 2017.

“We cannot do anything without Turkey, history has shown that the Greek Cypriots will never accept that we are equal in the Republic”, protests Dilek Ertug, 60-year-old real estate agent.

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On Saturday, Greek Cypriots gathered near the buffer zone to demand the return of the northern territories, claiming that Cyprus was “Greek”.

The question of reunification is also dividing even within Turkish Cypriot families. Condemning the “Interventions” from Turkey, the brother of Mme Ertug, Asaf Senol, 64-year-old retiree, asserts that his compatriots “Can use their brain to choose” their president and is in favor of federalism. “Difficulties await Akinci on this subject if he is elected”, anticipates political scientist Umut Bozkurt. “Ankara now seems to prefer a hard line that excludes a federation. “

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