Turkish Cypriot opposition claims victory in elections

Turkish Cypriot opposition parties took a narrow lead last night in elections that could determine the fate of stalled talks to reunite the island.

Opposition leaders have promised to oust the hardline President, Rauf Denktash, as negotiator and relaunch the United Nations peace talks that could reunify Cyprus before its entry to the European Union in May 2004.

Mehmet Ali Talat, the pro-EU Turkish Cypriot opposition leader, claimed victory after more than half of the votes had been counted. He vowed to unite his Republican Turkish Party (CTP) with other parties opposed to Mr Denktash.

"We don't have the exact results yet, but it will be a coalition," he said. With votes from 390 of the 554 ballot boxes counted, the CTP and the Peace and Democracy Movement together had 51 per cent of the vote.

The governing National Unity Party and the Democrat Party had 45 per cent of the vote. Both parties oppose the UN-sponsored plan, claiming it will lead to the dominance of the wealthier and more populous Greek Cypriot community.

Seats in the 50-member parliament are divided according to a complicated formula based on the population in voting districts. It is not clear that a party that wins a tight majority in the elections would gain a majority of seats.

Mr Denktash's son Serdar Denktash, who leads the Democrat Party, said: "The people seem to be divided into camps."

One voter, Guldane Saatci, said that she voted for the opposition despite the loss of her brother, who died fighting Greek Cypriots during Turkish intervention in 1974.

"My brother came here to bring peace, peace has not come to this country for 40 years, I hope that peace ... will finally come out of the ballot boxes today," she said.

European leaders meeting at the summit in Brussels backed supporters of the UN plan and that said a positive result would greatly "facilitate" Turkey's bid to enter accession talks with the 25-nation bloc at the beginning of 2005. Failure to push Turkish Cypriots towards a deal could have repercussions for Ankara's EU ambitions.

The UN proposals call for a bi-communal federation to enter the EU, while opponents favour an official recognition of the current two-state solution.

Known as the "quiet crisis", Cyprus is in its 30th year of division with the UN's longest running peace-keeping operation manning the barbed wire buffer zone dividing the two communities.

The Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to an abortive coup engineered by the military junta in Athens. Of the 140,000 voters, half are Turkish settlers who have moved to the island since partition in 1974.

Opposition groups accuse Mr Denktash's government of granting citizenship to thousands of mainland Turks and leaving Turkish Cypriots in a minority in their own land.

Emine Erk, a legal adviser to the CTP, said: "I do not believe the elections will be entirely fair however hard we try. Those people do not necessarily have any connection with north Cyprus ­ they don't live here, they don't have anything at stake on the island."

Tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots marched in favour of UN proposals and EU entry earlier this year.

The three main anti-Denktash parties say that they will replace the leader and push for a settlement that could take the north into the EU with the south when the Greek Cypriot government joins next year.

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