Turkish Cypriots vote in presidential second-round poll

Turkish-held northern Cyprus, a breakaway state recognized only by Ankara, started voting Sunday for a new leader in a run-off election.

The presidential poll pits the incumbent and favorite, Mustafa Akinci, 72 — who supports reunification with the majority Greek-speaking EU member the Republic of Cyprus in the south — against the right-wing Turkish nationalist Ersin Tatar.

Around 200,000 people are eligible to vote in the runoff after both candidates failed to gain an absolute majority in the first round last week.

Akinci received 29.8% of the votes in the first round, according to state broadcaster BRT, while Tatar received 32.3%.

Read more: Coronavirus tears Greek and Turkish Cypriots apart — again

The 60-year-old Tatar, who advocates a two-state solution, now holds the title of prime minister and has controversially received the open backing of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Incumbent in stronger position

Akinci, however, is in a stronger position, having won the backing of Tufan Erhurman, a fellow Social Democrat, who came third last time around.

Akinci won the presidency in 2015 in a runoff with more than 60% of votes. In the lead-up to the first round, the 72-year old complained of political meddling from Ankara.

He also said he'd received threats against him and his family, urging him to withdraw his candidacy.

The first vote took place three days after Turkish troops sparked controversy by allowing public access to a fenced-off seaside ghost town that was abandoned when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974.

The Varosha beach reopening sparked demonstrations in the majority Greek-speaking area, separated from the north by a UN-patrolled buffer zone.

Turkish troops moved into northern Cyprus 46 years ago after a coup by supporters of a union with Greece.

The island has been split ever since between an internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot government in the south and a breakaway north. Decades of talks have failed to deliver a peace deal.

Read more: Germany warns Turkey against 'provocation' in Mediterranean over gas exploration

Ongoing energy row awaits winner

As well as fresh pressure to resolve decades of division, the next leader of Northern Cyprus will oversee a growing dispute with Greece, Turkey and the Greek-Cypriot government over energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

Last week, Turkey resumed gas exploration, stoking tensions with its neighbors and drawing fresh criticism from the European Union.

The polls come amid an economic crisis, deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has largely shuttered the tourism sector and led to the closure of Ercan airport in the north and crossing points to the south.

mm/rc (AFP, dpa)