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The North Cyprus election's wide reverberations

Sunday's vote by Turkish Cypriots could elect hardline prime minister Dervis Eroglu.

Namik Kemal square is decorated by flags of Turkey, left, and breakaway Turkish Cypriot state, right, before an election rally of the Turkish Cypriot presidential candidate Dervis Eroglu in Famagusta, in the Turkish part of Cyprus, April 15, 2010. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

ATHENS, Greece — It’s an election for the presidency of a country whose existence most of the world doesn’t even recognize. Yet the results of Sunday’s poll in the Turkish-controlled third of Cyprus will reverberate widely, and threaten to derail fragile efforts to reunite the divided island as well as Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union.

Voters in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — recognized only by Turkey — look set to elect their hardline prime minister, Dervis Eroglu, as the enclave’s next president in a move many observers fear could scupper tentative hopes for a peace deal. Cyprus has been ethnically divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the island after an Athens-backed coup.

The president in Northern Cyprus also serves as the Turkish Cypriots’ chief negotiator in the peace talks. But Eroglu supports a two-state federation rather than the bi-zonal, bi-communal state currently under discussion.

Mehmet Ali Talat, northern Turkey’s current president, has warned that talks would collapse if Eroglu were elected. But in an interview published Saturday with Today’s Zaman, an English-language newspaper in Turkey, Eroglu said he would continue peace talks and blamed Greek Cypriots for their failure so far.

“Claims that I do not favor a solution are nothing but election campaign claims,” he said. “Mr. Talat is said to be pro-settlement, and what has this changed? Has anything changed? No. The uncompromising side is the Greek Cypriots.”

But analysts say that with Eroglu at the helm, success at the negotiating table is unlikely.

“In the end, Turkish diplomacy will not allow the Turkish Cypriots to create problems,” said Erol Kaymak, a professor of International Relations at Eastern Mediterranean University in northern Cyprus. “But on the other hand, if Eroglu is a very unwilling negotiator it seems very unlikely we’ll see a settlement.”

Only 164,000 people are eligible to vote in Sunday’s elections. But the frozen conflict in Cyprus, an island just over half the size of Connecticut, has proven to be one of Europe’s thorniest diplomatic issues.

Although millions of visitors come each year to sun themselves on the Mediterranean island’s beaches, blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeepers still patrol the cease-fire line between the two sides. Since 2003, people have been able to pass freely between the two sides through a number of checkpoints, but 36 years after the island’s division, there is still deep bitterness on both sides. Many fear that as time passes, reunification becomes more rather than less difficult. Younger Cypriots have no memory of a time when Cyprus was whole.

The tangled Cyprus issue has defeated repeated international attempts for a solution, most recently in 2004 when Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N.-backed peace deal, known as the Annan Plan after former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, that would have reunited the island and ushered it, undivided, into the EU.

Despite the plan’s failure, the island was admitted. But in practice, the benefits of membership only extend to Greek Cypriots who have used their membership in the union to freeze Turkey’s progress toward EU ascension.