NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The election for the Turkish Cypriot leadership will go to a second round after none of the candidates managed to garner enough votes Sunday to avoid a runoff, authorities said, as talks to reunify the ethnically-split island of Cyprus are expected to resume next month.
The hard-line incumbent, Dervis Eroglu, and independent challenger Mustafa Akinci will vie for the leadership of the breakaway north in next week's runoff. Official results show Eroglu garnered 28.18 percent of the vote, edging out Akinci by just over a percentage point.
Sibel Siber, who was backed by the left-wing CTP party, finished third with 22.54 percent, marginally ahead of Eroglu's former top adviser, Kudret Ozersay. Ozersay saw his support surge in the final days of campaigning, draining a significant amount of votes from his erstwhile mentor.
Turnout was at just over 62 percent of about 177,000 eligible voters who were choosing between seven candidates.
The poll will decide who sits 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. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and keeps more than 30,000 troops in the north. Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but only the internationally recognized south enjoys membership benefits.
"This result was a turning point," Akinci told The Associated Press surrounded by a throng of jubilant supporters. "I'm convinced next week's results will be a win for all those who want peace in Cyprus and a better future not only for Turkish Cypriots, but for the whole island."
Akinci supporter Mine Yucel said Akinci's strong showing was the result of a growing desire by many Turkish Cypriots for change not only on how peace talks are conducted, but how a host of economic and social problems should be tackled.
"This was meant to be an election for change," said Yucel. Akinci, who has spent more than half of his 67 years in politics, has strong support among left-wing voters and supports the island's reunification under federal structure.
The mood was more somber in Eroglu's camp, stung by the relatively low turnout. Eroglu told a gathering of supporters to work harder and convince those who didn't vote to cast their ballot in the runoff. Eroglu has built his political career on the vision for a separate state for Turkish Cypriots in a looser partnership with Greek Cypriots.
"People who want their sovereignty and say Turkey is the motherland and the guarantor must go and vote," said Eroglu.
Mustafa Bayraktar, 50, said: "Eroglu knows the Cyprus problem best and we want him to solve it."
Anastasiades halted peace talks last year after accusing Turkey of violating the Cypriot government's rights to the island's potential offshore gas reserves. Turkey, which doesn't recognize Cyprus as a state, says a unilateral Greek Cypriot search for gas infringes on the rights of Turkish Cypriots and had launched a search of its own in waters were the Cypriot government licensed other companies to drill.
That feud has simmered down, raising prospects of a resumption of talks by mid-May, according to U.N. envoy Espen Barth Eide.
The discovery of gas off the island's coast has raised the stakes in any peace deal. 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.