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 a UN-patrolled buffer zone.
Almost 200,0000 of the 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, 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”.