Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, a pro-reunification moderate, and Ankara-backed Prime Minister Ersin Tatar will contest a runoff vote next week following an election in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
With results counted from 723 out of 738 polling stations, the election council said right-wing nationalist Tatar won 32.5 percent of Sunday’s vote, narrowly ahead of the incumbent, Akinci, who secured almost 30 percent in a field of 11 candidates. Centre-left candidate Tufan Erhurman trailed in third place.
With no candidate winning a majority of 50 percent, a second round between the top two contenders will be held on October 18.
Next Sunday’s winner will be tasked with overcoming Turkish Cypriots’s deep political chasms with rival Greek Cypriots in order to pave the way for a deal to end 46 years of division in Cyprus and quell tensions over offshore energy reserves.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 after a Turkish military intervention in response to a Greek-inspired coup.
The election took place amid allegations by Tatar’s political rivals that the Turkish government was trying to steer the 200,000-strong electorate towards him.
Tatar advocates fully aligning Turkish Cypriot polices with those of Ankara, such as pursuing a possible two-state deal as an alternative to the long-held federal model for the divided Mediterranean island. He also says a deal with Greek Cypriots to divide up rights to potential offshore gas and oil deposits should precede peace negotiations.
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.
The move on Thursday dealt a blow to already strained relations between the TRNC, which is only recognised by Turkey, and the internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus, which controls the southern, Greek Cypriot portion of the island.
When Turkish tanks advanced on Famagusta in August 1974, some 40,000 Greek Cypriot residents of Varosha fled. Since then, the area has remained uninhabited.
United Nations resolutions have said any attempt to settle the suburb with anyone other than its Greek Cypriot residents would be “inadmissible”.
The UN Security Council on Saturday 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”. Greek Cypriots expressed anger at the beachfront’s reopening, which they saw as the first step of taking over the whole suburb.
The first major test for the winner will likely be a meeting hosted by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that will bring together the two sides with Cyprus’s three guarantors powers – Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom – to scope out the chances of resuming frozen peace talks.
Ahmet Sozen, head of the department of political science and international relations at Eastern Mediterranean University, said whoever wins the poll will have a tough road ahead.
“The upcoming negotiations will be basically five-partite negotiations – not just between the two Cypriot sides but also including the three guarantor powers – so whoever is elected needs to work with Turkey in order to formulate the best policies in the negotiations,” he told Al Jazeera.
The vote also comes at a time of heightened tensions between Turkey and Greece in a dispute over maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean.