NICOSIA, CYPRUS — Mustafa Akinci, a veteran politician with a strong track record of reaching out to rival Greek Cypriots, was elected Sunday as leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots in ethnically divided Cyprus, pledging to focus his energy on breaking decades of stalemate and achieving an accord reunifying the small island nation.
Akinci handily defeated hard-line incumbent Dervis Eroglu with 60.5 percent of the vote, final official results showed. The turnout was just over 64 percent of about 177,000 registered voters.
Akinci is seen as a moderate who can propel forward stalled reunification talks that are expected to resume next month. Akinci rode a wave of discontent with five years of rule by Eroglu, who failed to rally right-wing supporters.
“We achieved change and my policy will be focused on reaching a peace settlement,” Akinci told thousands of exuberant supporters at a victory rally. “This country cannot tolerate any more wasted time.”
Akinci said that he had already spoken to Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and both men agreed to meet soon.
“Anastasiades and I are the same generation … if we can’t solve this now, it will be a tremendous burden on future generations,” said Akinci, adding that voters answered those who accused him of being a sell-out to Greek Cypriots.
U.N. envoy Espen Barth Eide congratulated Akinci on his win and “welcomed his commitment to resuming negotiations as soon as possible,” the U.N. said in a statement. Eide will return to the island early next month to prepare for the resumption of talks that Anastasiades put on hold following a clash over rights to the island’s offshore natural gas reserves.
Anastasiades tweeted late Sunday that Akinci’s election win is “a hopeful development for our common homeland,” adding that he looks forward to meeting him.
Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and maintains more than 30,000 troops in the north. Cyprus is a European Union member, but only the internationally recognized south enjoys benefits.
With his win, Akinci, 67, capped a remarkable comeback after spending years in the political wilderness.
He built his political reputation during a 14-year stint as mayor of the Turkish Cypriot half of the capital Nicosia from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. During that time, he collaborated with his Greek Cypriot counterpart on an architectural plan for a future reunified capital that earned international accolades.
Since that time, he has held several government posts, led and helped found left-wing political parties.
“Akinci’s election was not so much a referendum on a Cyprus peace deal, but rather on Eroglu’s failed leadership,” said Erol Kaymak, political science professor at East Mediterranean University.
Eroglu’s blatant string-pulling coupled with the big political parties’ failure to rally supporters amid infighting had soured many voters who opted for a candidate they saw as untainted by scandal, Kaymak said.
Many jaded Turkish Cypriots remain skeptical whether a peace deal is anywhere near following decades of false hopes. But Akinci’s election does bode well for the U.N.-brokered peace talks.
He supports the island’s reunification as a federation, unlike Eroglu’s unyielding pursuit for a separate Turkish Cypriot state merging with Greek Cypriots in a looser partnership. Separate Turkish Cypriot statehood rankles with the vast majority of Greek Cypriots who see that as legitimizing an armed land-grab.
Akinci is also willing to discuss practical steps on building confidence between the two sides that would run parallel to negotiations.
“We feel that we have gotten rid of the old guard and the status quo. Akinci is our very last hope for a peace deal. If he can’t do it, no one can,” said 33-year-old Cim Seroydas wearing an olive wreath on her head and clutching a glass of champagne.
A key step is opening up Varosha, a Greek Cypriot suburb of the eastern coastal town of Famagusta that had morphed into a virtual ghost town after being fenced off and kept in the Turkish army’s control since the 1974 war.
Varosha would open up under U.N. control in exchange for the opening up of Famagusta port to international traffic and allowing direct flights into the north’s main airport.
Proponents of the plan have said rebuilding Varosha would be an economic boon to both sides, as rebuilding the suburb would bring in many millions in investments and put thousands to work.
Kaymak said it’s still unclear whether Turkey will throw its full support behind Akinci.
The discovery of gas off the island’s coast has also raised the stakes in any peace deal, possibly helping to forge new energy-based partnerships in a region wracked by conflict and instability.