The leftist incumbent looks set to take on a hard-line challenger in a runoff after Turkish Cypriots voting in a leadership election Sunday chose no clear winner.
With all votes tallied, right-wing candidate Ersin Tatar came out on top with 32.35% of ballots cast, edging out incumbent Mustafa Akinci with 29.84%. Neither garnered the required majority to win outright. Center-left candidate Tufan Erhurman trailed in third place with 21.68%.
Next Sunday's winner will be tasked with overcoming Turkish Cypriots' deep political chasms with rival Greek Cypriots in order to pave the way for a deal to end 46 years of ethnic division in Cyprus and quell tensions over offshore energy reserves.
The election took place amid allegations that Turkey was overtly trying to steer the 200,000-strong electorate toward Tatar. 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 that a deal with Greek Cypriots to divide up rights to potential offshore gas and oil deposits should precede peace negotiations.
Turnout was a record low in a leadership election, with just under 55% of voters casting their ballots, around 7% lower than the last poll five years ago. Analysts had predicted that no one candidate would able to muster a clear majority in the first round of voting.
The first major test for the winner will likely be a meeting hosted by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres that will bring together the two sides with Cyprus’ three "guarantors" – Greece, Turkey and Britain – to scope out the chances of resuming frozen peace talks.
The Mediterranean island has been divided between a Greek Cypriot south – seat of the internationally recognized government – and the breakaway north since 1974, when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Decades of talks have failed to deliver a peace deal.
Allegations that Turkey tried to influence the election’s outcome this time more than ever while starkly demonstrating who pulls the strings in the north came to a head in recent days when Turkey opened to the public a beach in uninhabited Varosha. The Famagusta suburb has remained off-limits and under Turkish military control since 1974 when its Greek Cypriot residents fled advancing Turkish troops.
UN resolutions said any attempt to settle the suburb with anyone other than its Greek Cypriot residents would be “inadmissible."
Many Turkish Cypriots voiced opposition to the move that they saw as a ploy to boost support for Tatar, and Greek Cypriots expressed anger at the beachfront's reopening, which they saw as the first step of taking over the whole suburb.
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.”
Akinci, a strong supporter of a federal accord with Greek Cypriots and a champion of Turkish Cypriots who oppose Turkey’s complete dominion over their affairs, denounced the move as a “stain” on democracy and as an attempt to turn Varosha into a campaign tool.
He spoke of a Turkish media campaign to sully his name and earlier said he had received threats against him and his family, urging him to withdraw his candidacy.
“Unfortunately during the campaign, authorities of the Turkish Republic openly intervened and kept biased stance," Akinci told reporters Sunday, adding that some officials had canvassed villages to trade favors for votes.