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Turkish Cypriots Vote Could Complicate Reunification Talks

Turkish Cypriots are holding parliamentary elections Sunday in a vote likely to boost hardliners and complicate efforts to resolve the long-running division of Cyprus.

The opposition National Unity Party is leading in opinion polls, and the ruling Republican Turkish Party trails by a wide margin as Turkish Cypriots vote in legislative elections.

The ruling party backs Turkish-Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, who in U.N.-backed talks with the island's majority Greek Cypriots, has promoted reunifying Cyprus as a federation of two ethnic regions. But the National Unity Party backs a two-state model rejected by Greek Cypriots.

Analysts say a strong election showing by the opposition could weaken Mr. Talat's negotiating position.

Cyprus' Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities are engaged in U.N.-sponsored peace talks aimed at ending the island's 35-year division. The negotiations, which restarted last year, have been described as the 'last chance' for Cyprus peace.

But with nationalists, who want northern Cyprus to remain a single state, predicted to take seats from Mehmet Ali Talat's ruling party there are concerns the peace talks could quickly run into serious difficulties.

London School of Economics senior research fellow James Ker-Lindsay says whatever the outcome at the polls, Talat will remain the chief negotiator for the Turkish Cypriots. But, he says, a weakened party in parliament may mean that his power to bargain for unity will be compromised.

"Well it is obviously going to limit Talat's ability to act in a lot of ways, you know parliament is going to have a much greater say in all of this and really can tie his hands," said Lindsay.

Erman Kursat, a candidate standing for the newly established Peoples Political Party (HiSP) in Famagusta, like so many others, is disillusioned with the ongoing peace talks and thinks it is time for north Cyprus to stand alone.

"The Greek side people do not want us; they said in the memorandum [2005 Annan Referendum] four years ago, they said no, what it means? They do not want us," he said.

Most Turkish Cypriots seem to have lost confidence a solution can be found in recent years. And some have bitterly complained that a promise made by the European Union to end the isolation of north Cyprus remains unfulfilled.

Cyprus joined the European Union as a divided island soon after the internationally recognized south rejected a U.N. reunification plan in 2004, even though the Turkish Cypriots in the north overwhelmingly supported it.

Hardline nationalists have also complained of foreign interference in these elections, in what they say is an attempt to keep the ruling party in power.

Former Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash agrees.

"There are a lot of interferences, suggestions by the Americans, by the European Union to sustain the present government," he said. "They say it is the present government that can make peace with the Greek Cypriot side."

Last month, the Greek Cypriot president sent a clear message to Ankara that Turkey will not be able to join the European Union unless it ends its occupation of the northern sector of Cyprus.

But Kursat, like many in northern Cyprus, does not think Turkey will ever enter the European Union.

"I do not think that Turkey will get into the European Union, ever. Because the European Union communities do not want Turkey, because, you know, Turkey is a Muslim country, the European Union is a Christian group," said Kursat. "I do not think so."

More than 161,000 voters will cast ballots with 345 candidates from seven political parties and eight independent candidates are competing for the seats at the breakaway state's parliament.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the northern part of the island in response to a military coup that was backed by the Greek government. South Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004 and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey.