Turkish Cypriots elect new leader for breakaway enclave

Patrick Galey
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Turkish Cypriot independant candidate for the presidential elections, Mustafa Akinci, and his wife Meral (R) arrive with their family at a polling station on April 26, 2015 in the northern part of Nicosia

Turkish Cypriot independant candidate for the presidential elections, Mustafa Akinci, and his wife Meral (R) arrive with their family at a polling station on April 26, 2015 in the northern part of Nicosia (AFP Photo/Birol Bebek)

Nicosia (AFP) - Turkish Cypriots voted in a new leader Sunday, with challenger Mustafa Akinci beating incumbent Dervis Eroglu in a run-off poll that could accelerate UN-backed efforts to reunify the long-divided island.

Akinci, a former mayor of Nicosia in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and vocal advocate of reconciliation with the internationally recognised government, won 60.5 percent of the vote, organisers said.

Soon after it became clear he would win, celebrations began at Akinci's office in north Nicosia, a few hundred metres (yards) from a UN-controlled buffer zone separating the Turkish and Greek Cypriot sides of Europe's last divided capital.

Akinci told his supporters: "When the time comes for real change, no power can stop it."

Eroglu, speaking at north Nicosia’s presidential residence, conceded defeat and welcomed what he termed a "changing of the guards".

Voters streamed steadily into polling stations in Nicosia from early morning, many with their children in tow.

"For our future and our children's future it is important to vote," said Arman Anik, 38. "We are entering a critical period and it is important to give the job to the right person."

Akinci will now be tasked with heading negotiations with the Republic of Cyprus aimed at reunifying the Mediterranean island after more than 40 years of division.

A UN-monitored ceasefire line has split the island since 1974 when Turkish troops occupied its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup seeking union with Greece.

The Turkish Cypriots, who had already pulled out of government institutions in the face of communal violence in 1963, declared their breakaway state in 1983.

But it is recognised only by Turkey, which provides around a third of its budget.

Voters said they hoped for a leader who would end Turkish Cypriots' international isolation.

"We are under stress. There are economic problems and respect for each other has decreased due to our indefinite (status)," said Nazife Kunt, 65.

- 'Unwanted developments' -

Eroglu, in power since 2010, won a close first round, just over one percentage point ahead of Akinci and edging out the territory's first woman prime minister Sibel Siber.

But Akinci benefited Sunday from support from Siber's centre-left Republican Turkish Party, and was seen by observers as the disputed territory's best hope to kickstart reconciliation with Cyprus.

He weathered an unedifying week of campaigning that saw Eroglu accuse him of seeking to remove a giant TRNC flag from the mountains overlooking Nicosia and alleging that he is backed by the United States.

Akinci admitted there had been "unwanted developments" in the lead-up to polling day.

Election organisers said they were investigating reports that about 50 ballot papers had gone missing from a polling station in Famagusta.

Turnout among the territory's roughly 176,000 registered voters was 64.1 percent, organisers said.

Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades welcomed the result, posting on Twitter that Akinci’s win was "a hopeful development for our common homeland".

The two men later spoke by telephone and expressed "the desire for genuine reunification of our country", he tweeted.

The UN's Cyprus special adviser Espen Barth Eide also telephoned Akinci and "welcomed his commitment to resuming negotiations as soon as possible".

UN-sponsored peace talks are set to resume after Sunday's election following a Greek Cypriot decision to end a six-month boycott.

Although a fresh dispute over Mediterranean oil and gas has soured relations between Turkish and Greek Cypriot authorities, both Ankara and Washington voiced hope last week that 2015 could finally be the year that Cyprus is reunited.

But voters were more circumspect about the prospects of that long sought-after goal.

"If the new leader can deliver change, then good. He's welcome," said Ugur Barani, 48. "The people we elected in the past gave us hope then did nothing."