NICOSIA, Cyprus – Uncertainty reigns as Turkish Cypriots vote for a new leader this weekend: There's no clear favorite and no way of knowing whether the winner can bring talks on reunifying Cyprus to a successful conclusion.
The Sunday vote in the island's breakaway Turkish side is expected to head into a runoff a week later. Polls suggest none of the leading candidates — including incumbent Dervis Eroglu and main challengers Sibel Siber and Mustafa Akinci — have enough votes to win outright. That's because traditionally strong allegiances of large chunks of voters to political parties have weakened.
"It would be unwise for anyone to try to predict the outcome of this election," said Tim Potier, head of the School of Law at the University of Central Lancashire, Cyprus.
The elections will ultimately decide who will sit opposite Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in talks to reunify the Mediterranean island, split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared independence in 1983, but only Turkey recognizes it and maintains more than 30,000 troops in the northern third of the island. Although Cyprus is a European Union member, only the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south enjoys full benefits.
United Nations envoy Espen Barth Eide said this month that peace talks could begin in May, ending a six-month pause that was triggered by a clash over the right to search for natural gas off the island's coast.
Turkish Cypriots want a say in how potential gas reserves are managed. They argue a unilateral Greek Cypriot gas search infringes on their rights to the island's natural resources. To press the point, Turkey — which doesn't recognize Cyprus as a state — launched a gas search last October in waters where the Cypriot government licensed other companies to drill. Anastasiades called the move a serious breach of the country's sovereign rights — and halted talks.
Energy riches have clearly raised the stakes in Cyprus peace negotiations.
A Cyprus accord could ease Turkey's bid to join the EU and allow for tighter security cooperation on NATO's southern flank. It may help forge new energy-based partnerships in a region torn by conflict and instability. Cypriot government officials have suggested a reunified Cyprus could be a transit point for east Mediterranean gas — including its own potential reserves — to markets in Europe and beyond through neighboring Turkey.
"Peace will bring a new economic impetus to both societies," Siber Sibel, one of only a handful of women to ever make a run for the Turkish Cypriot leadership, told The Associated Press in an interview. "Solving the Cyprus problem will be beneficial not only to Cypriots themselves but to guarantors Greece and Turkey."
Potier said the gas issue has become a "distraction" from the overriding need for both sides to figure out the nuts and bolts of peace before they can reap any benefits.
All three candidates are vying for a sizable group of undecided voters. Many of these are disillusioned over the lack of a peace deal after numerous failed rounds to talks — especially a U.N.- brokered agreement in 2004 that Greek Cypriots rejected in a referendum.
The disgruntlement is still palpable and may have diminished Turkish Cypriot appetite for a deal that would reunify Cyprus as a federation, instead giving traction to arguments for a confederation or a looser partnership of two states, said Potier.
Separate Turkish Cypriot statehood rankles with the vast majority of Greek Cypriots who see that as legitimizing an armed land-grab. It also feeds the perception that Turkish Cypriots would remain masters in the north while being given a say in the affairs of the south.
Akinci said a reunified Cyprus composed of "two federated states functioning in their respective zones under a federal umbrella" is the only way out of the current impasse.
"If we miss yet another opportunity," said Akinci, "not only the fatigue of the international community but also the fatigue of the communities themselves may lay down the foundations for a long-lasting or even permanent division."