Northern Cyprus heads to polls amid East Med tensions

Northern Cyprus heads to polls amid East Med tensions

Turkish Cypriots in the divided island’s north – the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – have started voting on Sunday to elect a new president.

Nearly 200,000 voters will choose from among 11 candidates, including the independent incumbent Mustafa Akinci and Prime Minister Ersin Tatar from the conservative National Unity Party (UBP).

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 after a Turkish military intervention in response to a Greek-inspired coup in the south.

The latest UN-mediated peace negotiations failed in 2017 and there has been no progress in talks since.

Akinci supports the unification of the island while Tatar, backed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, advocates a two-state solution.

If no candidate achieves an absolute majority, a runoff is scheduled for October 18.

Last week, Tatar exposed cracks in his coalition government when he announced the partial opening of Varosha, a Turkish-controlled former resort in Famagusta, 46 years after it became a ghost town.

Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Kudret Ozersay, who is also a presidential candidate, resigned in protest.

Ozersay’s coalition partner, the People’s Party, also pulled out of the government.

The partial opening of Varosha on Thursday dealt a blow to already strained relations between Northern Cyprus and the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus.

Famagusta in the east has remained a symbol of division.

When Turkish tanks advanced on the city in August 1974, some 40,000 Greek residents of Varosha fled. Since then, the area has remained uninhabited.

The return of Varosha to its former Greek Cypriot residents was seen as key to resolving the Cyprus conundrum.

The partial opening is an “irreversible” step towards the full opening, Tatar told a press conference this week in Ankara where Erdogan was present.

On Saturday, the UN Security Council expressed ���deep concern” over the reopening and called for its reversal while cautioning against “any unilateral actions that could raise tensions on the island”.

The vote also comes at a time of heightened tensions between Turkey and Greece in a dispute over maritime rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Tensions came to a head this summer when each side made overlapping claims to swaths of the Eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey dispatched a survey vessel, accompanied by warships, to map out possible oil and gas drilling prospects, infuriating Greece.

Greece sent its own warships to the area and put its armed forces on alert.

Turkey pulled the vessel out in mid-September. The two NATO countries have deployed naval and air forces to assert their competing claims in the region.