NICOSIA – As Turkish Cypriots prepare to go to the polls this Sunday to elect a new president for their Turkish-occupied enclave, the current administration chief Mehmet Ali Talat appears to be the clear favorite. Talat, a militant of long standing who supports the reunification of the divided island, has emerged as the front-runner in a nine-person field of candidates in which veteran politician and outgoing president Rauf Denktash is notable by his absence. After four stints as head of the self-declared state recognized only by Turkey, the 81-year-old Denktash is bowing out, citing differences with the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, Denktash has already said that he could form a new political party to oppose any effort to end Cyprus’s three decades of division under a plan drawn up last year by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The Annan plan aimed to reunify the island before it joined the European Union last May 1, but it is now moribund after being rejected by Greek Cypriots in an April 2004 referendum despite its acceptance by Turkish Cypriots in a separate referendum. The outcome meant that the Greek side alone joined the EU. Denktash’s decades of nationalistic intransigence in maintaining the island’s division eroded his support over the years and the final blow was his archrival Talat’s 2003 election as chief of the administration. A recent poll showed that Talat, head of the center-left Republican Turkish Party (CTP), should garner 60 percent of the vote on Sunday, far ahead of the 28 percent forecast for his nearest rival, Dervis Eroglu of the nationalist National Unity Party, an opponent of the Annan plan. The CTP won the legislative elections in February and governs the Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus in a coalition with Mustafa Arabacioglu’s small center-right Democrat Party. Should Talat fail to obtain 50 percent of Sunday’s vote, the top two candidates will face off in a second round of voting on April 24. At stake is the possibility of reviving the Annan plan, as the new president will automatically become chief negotiator for the Turkish-Cypriot side if and when reunification talks resume. «We hope things will move after the election,» a European diplomat in Ankara said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity. The general view is that Talat’s election will put the pressure on Tassos Papadopoulos, president of the island’s internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot government. Papadopoulos has so far refused to accept a resumption of the talks and Talat has indicated that if elected, he will ask the United Nations to restart the peace process. «I plan to launch an initiative that will result in a resumption of negotiations just after the presidential election,» he said in a recent interview. Other than Eroglu and Arabacioglu, Talat’s other rivals for the presidency, one of them a woman, are three politicians and three independents, none of whom has a chance of getting elected, according to opinion surveys. The Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus has 147,823 registered voters out of a population of a little over 200,000 and the 500 voting booths will remain open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. local time, with the first unofficial results expected at around 10 p.m.