Turkish Cypriots vote in poll critical for peace talks

Turkish Cypriots vote in a presidential election on Sunday which could shape the future of Cyprus’s fragile reunification process and Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

Some 164,000 Turkish Cypriots are choosing between incumbent Mehmet Ali Talat and challenger Dervis Eroglu. Opinion polls put Eroglu, a staunch supporter of Turkish Cypriot independence, in the lead.

Polling stations open at 0500 GMT and voting ends at 1500 GMT. The final result of the vote, which has to be ratified by an election council, is expected by 1800 GMT.

The winner will have to negotiate a settlement on the divided island with rival Greek Cypriots now living in the south and who represent Cyprus in the European Union. Without a deal, the Greek Cypriots will block Ankara’s bid to join the bloc.

“A lot of people see it’s (a deal) within reach, and if you can’t do it now it’s very hard to see when the next opportunity will come along,” a diplomat close to the peace process told Reuters.

Eroglu, prime minister of a breakaway state in northern Cyprus recognised only by Ankara, supports more sovereign power for each community in any peace settlement, a view the Greek Cypriot side sees as unacceptable.

Incumbent Talat and President Demetris Christofias, the Greek Cypriot leader, launched peace talks in 2008, attempting to re-link the island as a loose federation.

Diplomats worry over a setback to negotiations if Eroglu wins. He has said he would continue reunification talks, though his tougher demands for Turkish Cypriot independence will at the very least slow down reunification talks, say diplomats.

The outcome of the vote in northern Cyprus has major implications for Turkey whose own negotiations to join the European Union are virtually hostage to the resolution of the decades old island dispute.

Cyprus was ethnically split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief coup inspired by the military then ruling Greece.

The conflict not only burdens Turkey’s bid to join the EU, but also makes decision making on defence issues between NATO, of which Turkey is a member, and the EU problematic.