Turkish Cypriots vote for new leader amid Mediterranean tensions
The election in the breakaway TRNC that is recognised only by Ankara comes three days after Turkish troops controversially reopened access to the seaside ghost town of Varosha for the first time in decades.
That move sparked anger in the majority Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, which exercises its authority over the southern two thirds of the island and has been a member of the European Union since 2004.
TRNC authorities opened 738 polling stations at 8:00am (0500 GMT) for what they call a presidential election, and voting was to close at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT).
If no candidate obtains at least 50 percent of the vote, the two leading candidates will face off in a second round on October 18.
Residents, masked and some wearing their own gloves amid the Covid-19 pandemic, began casting their ballots at a school in north Nicosia, AFP journalists reported.
Some 198,867 people are registered to vote in the TRNC, which was established on the northern third of the island when it was occupied in 1974 by Turkey in reaction to a coup to annex Cyprus to Greece.
Tensions over hydrocarbons
The election comes amid tensions in the eastern Mediterranean over the planned exploitation of hydrocarbons between Turkey on the one hand, and Greece as well as its close ally Cyprus on the other.
Eleven candidates are in the running, including outgoing "president" and poll favourite Mustafa Akinci, 72, a Social Democrat.
Akinci is in favour of reunifying the island and loosening ties with Ankara, which has earned him the hostility of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The negotiations aimed at reunification stalled during his term of office, notably on the question of the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers stationed in the TRNC.
Turkey supports the nationalist Ersin Tatar, 60, currently the "prime minister" of the TRNC government.
Erdogan announced on Tuesday, together with Tatar, the partial reopening of Varosha, a beachside resort that used to draw Hollywood stars and other celebrities in the 1970s before it was abandoned by its Greek-Cypriot inhabitants during the Turkish invasion.
The move to allow visitors back into the abandoned and fenced-off area was condemned by Akinci and other candidates, who saw it as Turkish interference in the election.
It was also heavily criticised by the Republic of Cyprus, the European Union and the United Nations, which monitors the buffer zone between the two parts of the island.
The election is also being held amid an economic crisis, amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to the closure of Ercan airport in north Nicosia and the crossing points to the south of the island.