Turkish Cypriots in leadership vote
Polls open with right-winger tipped to replace pro-unification incumbent as leader.
Last Modified: 18 Apr 2010 17:32 GMT

Voters in Turkish-held northern Cyprus have gone to the polls to elect a new leadership that could put a hardliner in power and jeopardise talks on reunification of the divided island.

There are 164,072 registered voters out of a population of about 250,000 in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC),  which declared independence unilaterally in 1983.

Polling stations opened on Sunday at 8:00am (0500 GMT) and are due to close at 6:00pm (1500 GMT).

The vote has pitted incumbent leader Mehmet Ali Talat - who is seen as backing a settlement with Greek Cypriots - against veteran politician Dervis Eroglu, tipped as a favourite in opinion polls.

Eroglu, whose commitment to the talks with Greek Cypriots is considered doubtful, has given assurances he will not abandon the negotiations. But he has also said he will not actively push for a settlement.

Opinion polls suggest most of the voters may choose Eroglu, a right-winger, to replace Talat.

If the election bears out the poll predictions, it will be a reversal from five years ago, when the leftist leader swept to power on a pro-peace ticket.

Lawrence Lee, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Nicosia, Northern Cyprus, said the race could be close.

"It boils down to this - are the Turks of northern Cyprus prepared to carry on with this seemingly endless process of reunification talks, or is there now so much mistrust towards the Greek Cypriots that they think it will never happen, and that in the end they will just want to throw in the towel and claim self-determination of their own right," he said.

"There are very big implications to the choice they make."

Talks derailment fears

A Turkish Cypriot swing to the right has sparked fears that slow-moving reunification talks between Talat and Dimitris Christofias, the Greek Cypriot president, could be derailed.

 Eroglu, left, is considered a hardliner whose victory would derail the peace process [Reuters]

Failure at the negotiating table would, in turn, halt Turkey's drive for European Union membership, cripple closer EU-Nato security co-operation and keep Cyprus as a source of instability on the EU's frontier with the Middle East.

Cyprus is already blocking parts of Turkey's EU membership negotiation process because of Ankara's refusal to recognise the Greek Cypriot government.

The island of Cyprus split in 1974 into the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish-held Northern Cyprus. It happened when Turkey invaded the island after a short-lived coup backed by Greece.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, with a population of 257,000, is recognised only by Nato-member Turkey, which maintains 35,000 troops there.

The Republic of Cyprus joined the EU in 2004. While all Cypriots (Turkish and Greek) have access to Republic of Cyprus passports, it is only the south that is physically considered a part of the European bloc and allowed full membership benefits.

Eroglu has stressed he would continue negotiations if elected, although this would have to be under the twin sovereignty banner.

Eroglu confident

Campaigning on the last day outside his party headquarters in north Nicosia, Eroglu told thousands of supporters dressed in the campaign's orange colours that he expected a landslide victory on Sunday.

He pledged to keep Turkish Cypriots fully informed of developments in peace talks, saying that unlike Talat he was not negotiating "behind closed doors".

But Talat has warned that an Eroglu win would wreck the peace process and reinstate the international pariah status that Turkish Cypriots held before embracing a UN-brokered peace deal that Greek Cypriots turned down in 2004.

"The people are already convinced. They want a solution to the Cyprus problem," Talat told the Associated Press news agency after speaking to thousands of supporters at his final campaign rally, a few hundred metres away from Eroglu's gathering.

Al Jazeera and agencies
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