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Turkish Cypriot poll clouds peace talks prospects

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Turkish Cypriots vote on Sunday for a new leader in an election cast as a choice between a dovish incumbent striving for reunification with rival Greek Cypriots and a hardline challenger seeking to bolster a breakaway state.

Opinion polls show most of 164,000 voters in the Turkish Cypriot north of the divided island choosing right-winger Dervis Eroglu to replace Mehmet Ali Talat. If the election bears out the poll predictions, it will be a stunning reversal from five years ago, when the leftist leader swept to power on a pro-peace platform.

A Turkish Cypriot swing to the right has sparked fears that slow-moving reunification talks between Talat and Dimitris Christofias, the island's Greek Cypriot president, could be scuttled.

Failure at the negotiating table would, in turn, halt Turkey's drive for European Union membership, cripple closer EU-NATO security cooperation and keep the island as a source of instability on the EU's frontier with the Middle East.

Cyprus is already blocking parts of Turkey's EU membership negotiation process because of Ankara's refusal to recognize the Greek Cypriot government.

Cyprus was split into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a short-lived coup by supporters of union with Greece. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, with a population of 257,000, is recognized only by NATO-member Turkey, which maintains 35,000 troops there. The island joined the EU in 2004, but only the south's 800,000 Greek Cypriots enjoy membership benefits.

Former Talat supporter Mustafa Tumer said many swing voters who make up the majority of the electorate have switched allegiances because they're disillusioned with Talat, who they fault for failing to live up to a promise to swiftly deliver a peace deal.

"Five years passed and nothing happened," said the 42-year-old Eastern Mediterranean University business professor. "Eroglu does not pretend to have the support of outside forces and appears to be the candidate of the people of the" Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Mustafa Ozhan, 43, said Eroglu would be a more successful negotiator, speeding up the talks.

"I believe, for the Turkish Cypriot people, Mr. Eroglu will win. We trust him, I don't trust Talat," he said.

Talat and Christofias, old friends with common ideological roots, have agreed that any future deal would be a partnership under a federal roof. But Eroglu, the 71-year-old veteran politician and leader of the nationalist National Unity Party, favors an accommodation between two equal sovereign states, something Greek Cypriots spurn as entrenching partition.

Eroglu labels Talat as being a concessionist; Talat dismisses Eroglu as lacking vision.

Eroglu has stressed he would continue negotiations if elected, although under the twin sovereignty banner. But Talat warned that an Eroglu win would wreck the peace process and reinstate the international pariah status that Turkish Cypriots held before embracing a U.N.-brokered peace deal that Greek Cypriots turned down in 2004.

Christofias said last week any deviation from a federal framework could be a deal-breaker.

"I believe a person should be elected who could continue talks from where we left off," Christofias said. "Not someone who would ask that we start from zero and from distorted positions about two states, two entities, two functioning democracies that should sign a cohabitation agreement."

One voter, Mehmet Turter, predicted the talks would grind to a halt if Eroglu wins and insists on separate sovereignty.

"Of course Talat is going to be better (as negotiator)," the 59-year-old retiree said.

Talat has said he has Turkey's tacit support, but Ankara has been careful not to openly take sides. Turkish leaders have consistently declared their full backing to the talks, indicating that leadership choices ultimately take a back seat to the peace process itself.

"Turkey's Plan A is to solve Cyprus and re-energize its EU negotiations," said Hugh Pope, an analyst with the global think thank International Crisis Group.

Talat has been at pains to explain that negotiations have gone farther in scope and depth than five previous failed bids at reunification over the last 36 years.

But Eroglu's rallying cry for bolstered sovereignty has gained more traction among Turkish Cypriot voters, echoed in a stream of messages posted on his campaign Web site by some of the 3,800 fans — almost triple the number of Talat.

Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus "people aren't only electing their president in this election, they are voting for the continuation of their state," said one posting on Eroglu's Web site. "The only aim of Talat and his supporters is to abolish the TRNC."