NICOSIA, Cyprus – NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Hard-line challenger Dervis Eroglu won a key Turkish Cypriot leadership election Sunday, vowing to continue peace talks amid fears his victory could grind reunification negotiations with the Greek Cypriots to a halt and scuttle Turkey's bid for European Union membership.
Eroglu won just enough votes for an outright victory, with 50.38 percent, compared to leftist incumbent Mehmet Ali Talat's 42.85 percent, according to results posted on the Turkish Cypriot High Electoral Board's Web site. Candidates needed 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff.
It was a much closer race than expected, as opinion polls had consistently predicted Eroglu to win by a wide margin.
Eroglu assured supporters who rushed to his party headquarters in the northern, Turkish Cypriot half of the island's divided capital, that he would not abandon negotiations aimed at reunifying the divided island.
"It's time to find peace," he said.
"No one should expect me to leave the negotiating table," he told the crowd that cheered, honked horns and set off fireworks at an impromptu victory rally. "We will be at the negotiating table for an agreement that will continue the existence of our people in this land with honor."
Talat said he remains determined to "help and support" a peace deal.
"My dream for a solution to the Cyprus problem continues," he told reporters at the Presidential Palace.
The island's division is already hampering Turkey's EU drive and could halt it if peace talks collapse. Since Turkey is a NATO member such a move also could cripple closer cooperation between the military alliance and the EU, and increase regional instability.
Greek Cypriot government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou told state-run CyBC TV that the election outcome was a "negative development," but that Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias would press on with negotiations.
Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared the independent republic in 1983, but only Turkey recognizes it, and maintains 35,000 troops there.
Divided Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, with only the internationally recognized south's 800,000 Greek Cypriots enjoying membership benefits. The island's division is already blocking parts of Turkey's EU membership negotiation process because of Ankara's refusal to recognize the Greek Cypriot government.
Eroglu's resurgence was mainly due to public disillusionment with Talat, whom many Turkish Cypriots fault for not delivering on a promise of a swift deal after opening negotiations with Christofias 19 months ago.
Although Eroglu insists he would continue peace talks, he's at odds with an agreement between Talat and Christofias envisioning a future partnership under a federal roof. Eroglu insists on separate sovereignty for the breakaway north, something that Christofias has warned he wouldn't accept.
Eroglu's assurances that peace talks would continue did not assure Talat supporters.
"This is the end of the peace process, if ... he will not accept single sovereignty and he will not accept anything apart from a two-state solution," said Izzet Izcan, head of the small, left-wing United Cyprus Party.
The Turkish government has been careful not to take sides in the election, and has said that peace talks must continue regardless of the winner.
"Whoever is president there, he has to continue with the determination (for talks)," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an interview with the private NTV news channel. "Eroglu himself has said he would press ahead with this determination. I don't think there will be a different situation."
Seven candidates ran in the election, but the others were not considered serious contenders and trailed far behind. Eroglu party defector Tahsin Ertugruroglu was in third place with 3.81 percent of the vote.