Nearly 200,000 voters will choose from among 11 candidates, including the independent incumbent Mustafa Akinci and Prime Minister Ersin Tatar from the conservative National Unity Party (UBP).
The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was voting on Sunday for a new leader amid heightened tensions on the divided island and in the wider eastern Mediterranean.
The presidential election in the breakaway region pits the incumbent Mustafa Akinci, who supports the reunification of Cyprus, against nationalist Ersin Tatar, who is backed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The vote in the TRNC, which is recognised only by Ankara, comes three days after Turkish troops angered the Republic of Cyrus, an EU member, by reopening access to the seaside ghost town of Varosha for the first time in decades.
That move sparked protests in the majority Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, which exercises its authority over the island’s southern two thirds, separated from the north by an UN-patrolled buffer zone.
Almost 200,0000 of them about 300,000 residents are registered to vote in the TRNC, which was established after the northern third of the island was occupied in 1974 by Turkey in reaction to a coup to annex Cyprus to Greece.
The election comes amid tensions in the eastern Mediterranean over the planned exploitation of hydrocarbons between Turkey on the one hand, and Greece as well as its close ally Cyprus on the other.
Erdogan announced on Tuesday, together with Tatar, the partial reopening of Varosha, a beachside resort that drew Hollywood stars and other celebrities in the 1970s before it was abandoned by its Greek-Cypriot inhabitants during the Turkish invasion.
The move to allow visitors back into the abandoned and fenced-off area was condemned by Akinci and other candidates, who saw it as Turkish interference in the election.
It was also heavily criticised by the Republic of Cyprus, the European Union, and the United Nations, whose peacekeepers monitor the 180-kilometre (112-mile) buffer zone between the two parts of the island.
Kemal Baykalli, the founder of the non-government group Unite Cyprus Now, told AFP that “the main issue of this election is how we will define our relationship with Turkey”.
– ‘Pressure from Turkey’ –
Eleven candidates are in the running, and the favourite is Akinci, 72, a Social Democrat who favours loosening ties with Ankara, which has earned him the hostility of Erdogan.
The negotiations aimed at reunification stalled during Akinci’s term of office, notably on the question of the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers stationed in the TRNC.
Turkey supports the nationalist Tatar, 60, currently “prime minister” of the breakaway north.
“We’re actually choosing the president who will be negotiating with the Greek Cypriots about the future of Cyprus, so I think that it is important,” said one voter, Esat Tulek, a 73-year-old retired public servant.
Voting at 738 polling stations was to close at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT), with the result due to be released in the evening.
If no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote, the two leading candidates will face off in a second-round on October 18.
The Varosha announcement led to the withdrawal of the party of one candidate, Kudret Ozersay, from the ruling coalition and its de facto collapse even though it continues to run day-to-day affairs.
Yektan Turkyilmaz, a researcher at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien, said many Turkish Cypriots felt “wounded in their honour and identity” by what they considered to be interference from Ankara, even if the reopening remains largely symbolic.
Another voter, Aysin Demirag, a 59-year-old yoga teacher, said the reopening “is really unfair to the owners (of property in Varosha) — they were ignored, this was to be part of a future agreement.”
She said that the Varosha reopening, “under pressure from Turkey, organised as a show with days to go before the elections, was really a bad decision”.
Residents queing at polling booths, masked amid the Covid-19 pandemic, kept their distance from one another, guided by markings on the ground and police officers.
The election is being held amid an economic crisis, amplified by the pandemic, which has largely shuttered the tourism sector and led to the closure of Ercan airport in north Nicosia and the crossing points to the south of the island.