NICOSIA, Cyprus – Turkish Cypriot nationalists won a parliamentary election on Sunday that could stifle a promising effort to reunite Cyprus, an ethnically divided island.
With 99 percent of the votes counted, the right-wing National Unity Party, or UBP, garnered 44 percent of the vote, a 14 point advantage over the ruling leftist Republican Turkish Party, or CTP, of Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, the Electoral Board said. About 160,000 people were eligible to vote in Sunday's election. Election officials estimated turnout at 81.3 percent.
The vote will not directly affect Talat, who began reunification talks with Greek Cypriots in September. But the outcome could limit his ability to negotiate a settlement, which must be approved by a referendum.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a coup by supporters of union with Greece.
The administration in the breakaway north is recognized only by Turkey.
But Sunday's election for the 50-seat assembly was being closely watched on both sides of the island since it could expose divisions among Turkish Cypriots over reunification prospects.
The UBP has traditionally espoused a long-held Turkish Cypriot demand for separate sovereignty, something that Greek Cypriots reject.
Talat broke with tradition and steered his community toward a federal solution. His talks with the island's Greek Cypriot president, Dimitris Christofias, have been viewed as the most promising peace effort in decades. But Christofias had repeatedly warned that a UBP win would make the talks difficult."
Problems such as a worsening economy have reduced the CTP's popularity.
"Only the UBP can make an agreement with the Greek side," said Hasan Akyioit, 48, one of hundreds of UBP supporters who celebrated the election result outside the party's north Nicosia headquarters.
Turkish Cypriot government official Mustafa Guclu said the UBPs margin of victory gives the party enough seats to form an administration without entering into a coalition. But he said the exact number of seats each party won was still being determined.
UBP leader Dervis Eroglu has opposed elements of the current reunification talks, but he struck a conciliatory note Sunday, saying he would "embrace everyone" and promising to back the peace process.
"We are supporting the continuation of negotiations and a settlement deriving from those negotiations," said Eroglu, who repeated his intent to appoint a representative accompanying Talat in the talks.
Talat, who met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington on Wednesday, had insisted peace talks will proceed, regardless of the election result.
Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, but Turkish Cypriots have been excluded from the benefits of membership after a previous U.N. settlement plan collapsed. Turkish Cypriots had backed that plan in a referendum, but Greek Cypriots rejected it.