A hardline rightwinger backed by Turkey has been elected as president of northern Cyprus, casting uncertainty over efforts to reunite the divided island and resolve a mounting regional dispute about gas.
Ersin Tatar, who before the vote served as the country’s prime minister, beat his leftwing rival Mustafa Akinci, the incumbent, according to unofficial preliminary results. Mr Tatar, 60, secured 51.7 per cent of the vote.
While the government based in the Greek Cypriot south is viewed by the international community as the legitimate authority for the whole of Cyprus, the island has been divided since Turkey invaded the northern part in 1974. The incursion was launched in the name of protecting the Turkish Cypriot minority after a Greek-backed coup.
Internationally backed efforts to reunite the island have repeatedly failed, with the last round of talks collapsing in 2017.
UN secretary-general António Guterres had indicated prior to Sunday’s vote that he would seek to restart informal talks in its aftermath.
But Mr Tatar supports a two-state solution in Cyprus rather than the federal, power-sharing model that has previously been endorsed by both the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot sides as well as by the international community.
“Tatar overtly rejected that model,” said Erol Kaymak, a professor of political science and international relations at Cyprus’s Eastern Mediterranean University. “The Turkish side is going to come to the negotiating table effectively rejecting Guterres’s own framework.”
The long-running dispute has become part of an escalating regional conflict over hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean that has pitted Greece, Cyprus, Israel, France and the EU against Turkey and northern Cyprus.
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sent drilling ships and naval vessels to search for gas in areas claimed by Cyprus.
Ankara argues that it is acting in defence of its own maritime rights and those of northern Cyprus, which only Turkey recognises as an independent state. But it has faced strong condemnation for violating international law from the US and the EU, which accepted Cyprus as a member in 2004. The dispute has raised fears of a direct military confrontation between Nato members Turkey and Greece.
Fiona Mullen, director of the Cyprus-based consultancy Sapienta Economics, said Mr Tatar’s victory “doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s over” for attempts to solve the Cyprus dispute.
“I think it’s in Turkey’s interests for this problem to go away because it’s upsetting the relationship with the EU,” she said.
While Ms Mullen said that a full solution to the problem was “less likely” under Mr Tatar’s leadership, she argued that there could still be a “halfway deal” to resolve specific issues and reduce tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. “I suspect that what we might be looking at is getting a deal on gas first [before a broader resolution],” she said.
The role of Turkey in northern Cyprus loomed large over the election, which had been due to take place in April but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Tatar was openly backed by Ankara. On a visit to the Turkish capital 10 days before the vote, he announced that northern Cyprus would reopen part of an abandoned beach resort in the no-man’s land between the two halves of the island — a move that was strongly criticised by Greek Cypriots as well as the EU and the US.
Mr Akinci, a vocal critic of Mr Erdogan, had complained of “unprecedented” Turkish interference in the election campaign and claimed that he and his family were threatened by people who urged him to drop out of the race.
Mr Erdogan congratulated Mr Tatar on his victory. Writing on Twitter, he said: “Turkey will continue to make all the necessary efforts to defend the rights of the people of northern Cyprus.”