Turkish Cypriot hopes fade after an election deadlock

Settlement of reunification row appears unlikely ahead of EU accession next year

Turkish Cypriot hopes of joining the European Union alongside their Greek neighbours next May were in limbo today as results from Sunday's elections showed a dead heat between supporters and opponents of a UN-led plan to bring the two communities together.

Both sides won 25 seats in the 50-seat parliament - on the surface, a resounding triumph for chief opposition leader Mehmet Ali Talat whose Republican Turkish Party (RTP) topped polls with almost three times as many votes as in 1998 elections.

Speaking at his party headquarters with 80 per cent of the votes counted, Mr Talat described the results as a victory 'for peace, a solution and the European Union', and promised that 'we will change the status quo'.

But if this was a victory, it was a Pyrrhic one.

In the run-up to elections, Mr Talat had promised to use a winning mandate to take over as chief negotiator in talks aimed at reuniting an island that has been divided between Greeks and Turks since 1974.

His party won 19 seats in parliament, more than any other. But without a clear majority, he is almost certain to be unable to dislodge the present negotiator, Turkish Cypriot president Rauf Denktas.

A hard-line nationalist, Mr Denktas broke off talks with the UN and Greek Cypriots earlier this year, claiming that the plan, pushed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was tantamount to a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Observers say that, if anything, the lack of a clear parliamentary majority has played into Mr Denktas' hands. 'He campaigned hard for the 'anti-Annan plan' before the elections, in clear breach of presidential impartiality', said Erdal Guven, Cyprus expert for the liberal Turkish daily Radikal. 'He's hardly likely to accept their arguments that they should take power now.'

One way out of the impasse would be for the Democrat Party (DP), the smaller of the anti-Annan plan groups, to form a coalition with its opponents.

But the DP, run by Mr Denktas' son, Serdar, will be unlikely to give its support without assurances that Rauf Denktas remains chief negotiator. That, observers said, is likely not only to condemn the Turkish Cypriots to further isolation, but seriously to undermine Turkey's own hopes of getting a date for European accession next year.

Turkey is the only country to recognise Mr Denktas' 20-year old Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkish subsidies make up more than 50 per cent of its annual budget of US$650 million. Mr Denktas has solid support among hardliners in the Turkish military and civilian bureaucracy.

Mensur Akgun, foreign policy director at the Turkish Foundation for Economic and Social Research, believes the time has come for Turkey to step in and push Mr Denktas towards the negotiating table.

'They have fought hard to bring Turkey in line with European accession criteria,' Mr Akgun said. 'They know that if nothing changes before May 2004, Turkey will be considered an occupying force on EU territory. That will postpone Turkey's accession hopes indefinitely.'

In northern Cyprus, observers fear the electoral results could deepen divisions between Turkish Cypriots and the estimated 70,000 settlers brought in by Mr Denktas since 1974.

More attached to their motherland than most Turkish Cypriots, Turkish settlers have traditionally opted for parties that support the continuation of a divided island.

On Sunday, the settler-heavy districts voted overwhelmingly against the Annan plan. Omnipresent at anti-Annan plan demonstrations, Turkish flags were all but absent at the headquarters of the two main opposition parties yesterday.

With evidence mounting that Turkish Cypriot authorities may have given shotgun citizenship to several thousand settlers in the last year alone, it is not difficult to find Cypriots ready to blame the settlers for the electoral impasse. 'Our demands have been blocked by a bunch of semi-literate peasants from Anatolia,' said a Cypriot shopkeeper.