Ghost town reopening upends Turkish Cypriot election

Nicosia (AFP) –

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Turkish Cypriots vote Sunday in a presidential election upended by a controversial move by Ankara restoring access to a beach resort sealed off since its Greek Cypriot inhabitants fled in 1974.

The reopening of the ghost town of Varosha gave an 11th-hour boost to nationalist challenger Ersin Tatar in his bid to unseat dovish incumbent Mustafa Akinci.

But the return of the one-time holiday destination of Hollywood stars to its former inhabitants has been a part of every plan to end the island's decades-long division and the reopening of its ruins drew condemnation from the island's internationally government and from the European Union.

Sunday's vote is the only Turkish Cypriot election that has any standing with the international community, which deals with the president as leader of the island's minority community.

The breakaway state which Turkish Cypriot leaders declared in the north of the island in 1983 remains unrecognised, except by Ankara, whose role in its affairs has again been thrown into the spotlight by Thursday's reopening of Varosha.

The Turkish Cypriot economy was already beset with problems when the coronavirus pandemic hit, forcing the postponement of the election from April.

The virus has dealt a heavy blow to two of the private sector's mainstays, tourism and higher education.

- How close to Turkey? -

Budget support from Ankara provides a vital lifeline for the large state sector but many Turkish Cypriots resent what they see as the erosion of their identity by creeping annexation.

"Since the president will be the leader in charge of protecting our rights, interests and future, they must have strong, sincere relations with Ankara," said graphic designer Cagin Nevruz Ozsoy.

"But it must be on a political level, in line with the interests of the Cypriot people and not in their own interests," the 24-year-old said.

Akinci won election in 2015 on a promise to relaunch UN-backed talks on ending the island's long division.

Despite the collapse of those talks in Switzerland in July 2017, he is standing for re-election on a similarly dovish platform.

While his role in promoting the island's reunification as a bizonal federation earned him international plaudits, his commitment to preserving a separate Turkish Cypriot identity has led to sometimes frosty relations with Ankara.

When earlier this year he described the prospect of Turkish annexation as "horrible", Ankara called him "dishonest".

In contrast, his main challenger Tatar, who currently serves as the breakaway state's prime minister, higlighted his influence in Ankara with the reopening of Varosha, which he announced on Tuesday after talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But political scientist Bilge Azgin said the strategy could backfire because it "mobilised people who weren't even going to vote".

"They turned it into a referendum on respecting the people's will," Azgin told AFP.

Student Berke Cevik, 21, agreed, calling the decision "selfish and provocative".

It is "a mistake which cannot be rectified," he told AFP.

- Disputed waters -

Before troops reopened Varosha, the campaign had been dominated by Turkey's hunt for natural gas, which has pushed it into waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.

Last weekend, Turkey pulled a drill ship away from Cyprus after being threatened with economic sanctions by EU leaders, who welcomed the move.

But Turkey's move to reopen Varosha is likely to revive the sanctions threat.

Both Cyprus and Greece said they would make a new push for the bloc to impose sanctions next week.

No candidate is expected to win Sunday's election outright. The field of 11, all of them men, will be whittled down to two for a second-round runoff the following Sunday.

Competing with Akinci for the votes of Turkish Cypriots eager to see reunification is former prime ministrer Tufan Erhurman, of the centre-left Turkish Republican Party.

Also in the fray is the breakaway state's former foreign minister Kudret Ozersay, who resigned on Tuesday in protest at Varosha's reopening.

"There are at least three to four serious candidates," said Ahmet Sozen, political science chair at the Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta, predicting that the runoff would be won by a candidate from the pro-reunification camp.