Turkish Cypriots were voting yesterday in a parliamentary election that could see right-wingers make a comeback and possibly hinder UN efforts to reunify long-divided Cyprus.
Around 161,000 people are eligible to vote in the self-declared breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognized by Ankara.
Opinion polls predict major gains by the nationalist National Unity Party (UBP) ahead of the Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat’s governing Republican Turkish Party (CTP).
Opinion polls show a growing distrust of Talat’s policy of reconciliation with the majority Greek Cypriots who run the internationally recognized government on the eastern Mediterranean island.
His party is also likely to bear the brunt of voter discontent over the global financial crisis, which has hit hard in northern Cyprus as it depends on Turkey for most of its economic needs.
Whatever the outcome of the election, Talat will remain the chief negotiator for the Turkish Cypriots in the talks with Cyprus President Demetris Christofias.
“The [TRNC] president was elected by the people and represents them,” spokesman Hasan Ercakica said.
The election comes almost five years to the day since Turkish Cypriots voted in a 2004 referendum overwhelmingly in favor of a UN plan to reunify Cyprus after more than three decades of division.
But the UN peace blueprint was rejected by the Greek Cypriots in a separate referendum and a divided Cyprus joined the EU just a week later, in May 2004.
Talat took over in 2005 from long-time leader Rauf Denktash, who was seen by the international community as an intransigent nationalist.
The center-left CTP was behind parliament’s decision to bring forward by a year the elections, which are normally held every five years, as a way of reinforcing Talat’s position in the negotiations.
The CTP and a junior coalition partner, the nationalist Liberal Reform Party, together hold 30 seats in the 50-member parliament. In the 2005 election, the UBP ran a distant second to the CTP.
Talat and Christofias, both regarded as “progressive” in efforts to end the 35-year division of Cyprus, launched a much-heralded new reunification push under UN auspices in September.
They have been meeting each week, but with few concrete results, although UN special envoy Alexander Downer said last week they had made “real progress” and “put more on paper now of an agreed nature than at any time since 1974.”
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded and seized its northern third in response to an Athens-engineered Greek Cypriot coup to unite the island with Greece.
Turkey has a garrison of at least 30,000 troops on the island and refuses to establish diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cyprus until a settlement is reached.
Although UBP leader, the nationalist former prime minister Dervis Eroglu, has not questioned Talat’s role as chief negotiator, a strong showing by the party would weaken his bargaining position.
“If we can’t work things out with this man [Talat], who is considered progressive, then I don’t know if we could ever work things out,” Christofias told reporters last month. “There is a great danger that Talat will not form the biggest party in the so-called elections ... This will lead to a setback.”
Talat himself, who met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Wednesday, set a target date of April next year, when a presidential election is due in northern Cyprus, for a settlement with the Greek Cypriots.