Has Anastasiades just lost the North Cyprus elections for Akinci?
On April 26, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a country recognised only by Turkey, will hold presidential elections. Incumbent Turkish Cypriot president Mustafa Akinci, an unapologetically left-wing candidate, will face tough challenges from his resurgent right-wing rivals Ersin Tatar, the current prime minister and head of the National Union Party (UBP), and former chief negotiator Kudret Ozersay, who serves as the foreign minister and head of the People’s Party (HP). Akinci will also need to fend off centre-left nominee and former prime minister Tufan Erhuman of the Republican Turkish Party (CTP). The top two candidates from the first round of voting will go through to a second round run-off stage in which a president will be elected.
Back in 2015, Akinci won the run-offs with a landslide victory of 60.5 percent to his then-rival Dervis Eroglu’s 39.5 percent. By the second round, Turkish Cypriots were left with two very clear and contrasting choices. On one hand they had Eroglu, a veteren politician already in his late 70s whose entire re-election campaign was based on archaic nationalist rhetoric, and on the other they had Akinci, a progressive, softly-spoken former mayor who in the past never quite fit into the paradigm of wartime politics. In the end, Turkish Cypriots chose the candidate they believed would conclude the decades-old frozen conflict and finally deliver on promises to unite Cyprus under the framework on a UN-endorsed bi-zonal, bi-communal federal peace plan.
When Akinci was elected in 2015, there was still hope for peace in Cyprus. Yes, Turkish Cypriots had tired from many failed plans and broken promises in the past, namely the Annan Plan which failed as a result of Greek Cypriot rejection of it in a 2004 referendum, but there was a general acknowledgement that not all options had been exhausted. The bi-zonal, bi-communal plan still looked good on paper. For Turkish Cypriots, it was perhaps the best and fairest deal they’d seen to date. There was real belief the plan was workable and acceptable for both sides. However, in reality the Greek Cypriot population weren’t as enthusiastic about the plan. Many of them, especially Greek Cypriot refugees with land in the north, saw it as a concession, a de facto Turkish annexation of the north. To enforce the plan on the Greek Cypriot population would have been a huge political risk for the recognised republic’s centre-right president Nicos Anastasiades.
At the Crans Montana talks in the summer of 2017, just when nearly everything outlined in the plan was on the verge of being agreed, Anastasiades decided to bring up the issue of guarantors. Anastasiades demanded a complete end to the guarantorship system, based on a 1960 treaty that grants Turkey, Greece and Britain the legal right to militarily intervene in Cyprus to protect its state of affairs. He did this knowing it was a red line for most Turkish Cypriots, even for those as moderate as Mustafa Akinci. Either way, Akinci could never have agreed to such a stipulation without at least consulting his people, so the talks concluded with no deal. For many Turkish Cypriots, the collapse of negotiations left them feeling that the last chance for reunification had just been blown out the window. Accordingly, the mood among Turkish Cypriots going into this election is very much different to what it was in the last. The hope and energy they had for a peace deal back in 2015 is no longer what it was.
Nowadays, Turkish Cypriots seem more keen on just making the most of a bad situation. In the midst of their depression and overbearing pessimism of there ever being a peace deal, it is highly likely that the factors behind their votes this time won’t be based so much on who can deliver a peace deal with the Greek Cypriots, but who can deliver better domestic services and policies in the TRNC. Of course, with the TRNC, referred to by mainland Turks as the “baby state,” still metaphorically attached to Turkey by the umbilical cord, improving the TRNC’s economy will depend largely on the leader of the country having a good relationship with Ankara.
Unfortunately for Akinci, he has always lacked in that department. On his first day on the job he was scolded by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for saying he hoped to help the TRNC grow out of its patronising role as a “baby state” and become more of a “brother state” to Turkey, much like Azerbaijan, another Turkish-speaking country. Although Akinci’s words didn’t go down very well in Turkey, they boosted his image with Turkish Cypriots in northern Cyprus who disagreed with Ankara treating the TRNC as a de facto province. With 60.5 percent of his people behind his efforts to unite Cyprus, Akinci undoubtedly had the mandate to set the tone of his relationship with Ankara. While Ankara was clearly uneasy about Akinci’s ideological stance, any attempts by the Turkish government to alienate a popular Turkish Cypriot leader would have jeopardised its own standing with the Turkish Cypriots.
Ironically, the unwritten rules of diplomacy dictate that even Turkey should support reunification efforts in Cyprus, at least at face value. Even if a Turkish Cypriot president was personally opposed to reunification, and elected on that premise, Turkey would still encourage the Turkish Cypriots to participate in negotiations with full-knowledge that ultimately that leader is on their side. Akinci, however, was clearly a man with his own mind, and even if for better or worse he went along with Turkey’s advice-cum-demands over the peace process, Ankara was always going to be suspicious, if not intimidated, by his nature as an independent thinker.
But now, following the collapse of the Crans Montana talks, increasing tensions between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, and most recently President Anastasiades’ unilateral decision to temporarily close four checkpoint crossings along the Green Line divide as a supposed precaution against the spread of the coronavirus, it is becoming more and more difficult to justify a pro-peace stance to the Turkish Cypriot population. Suddenly, Akinci is being reminded that in the first round of voting in 2015, he only garnered 26.9 percent of the vote, finishing second behind Eroglu’s 28.2 percent. Opposition voices argue this means that 73.1 percent of Turkish Cypriots actually don’t want him in power. Furthermore, there were only 5,000 votes between his progression to the run-off stage and him being eliminated in the first round by then-CTP candidate Sibel Siber.
To add, Akinci doesn’t have much going for him domestically either. With the Turkish Cypriot economy so dependent on that of Turkey, and with Turkey’s economy in shambles, Turkish Cypriots are bearing the brunt of the devaluation of the Turkish Lira and rising inflation. Young Turkish Cypriots fresh out of university are still struggling to find opportunities outside of becoming a civil servant. Rent prices are soaring, and those who took out mortgages in a foreign currency, as is the norm in North Cyprus, are struggling to pay back the banks. The cost of food, medicine and utilities were already high enough as it was before prices started rocketing, and Turkish Cypriot exports have been falling as the TRNC’s main trade partner, Turkey, no longer has the economic strength to import in the same quantities it did in the past. In fact, Turkey has always preferred cheaper alternatives to imports from northern Cyprus. Where they can, mainland Turks also opt for their own locally made imitations of traditionally Turkish Cypriot products such as halloumi. The TRNC has often exported goods like oranges and potatoes via Turkey to third countries like Russia and Iran. These third countries always undoubtedly have cheaper alternatives available at other markets, but they agree to help Turkey keep the TRNC afloat within the framework of other major trade deals with Ankara. Of course, that trade has always depended on Turkey maintaining good diplomatic relations with those countries, but under President Erdogan, Turkey’s diplomatic relations in general have been quite volatile. As if keeping track of Turkey’s foreign policy isn’t frightening enough, Anastasiades’ closure of checkpoints on the Green Line really gave Turkish Cypriots a reason to be worried.
Thousands of Turkish Cypriots depend on those checkpoints remaining open, particularly exporters of fruit and vegetables to the south. The closure of the checkpoints was not a good situation for Turkish Cypriot farmers who are already struggling to make a profit due to depleting exports and suffocating government policies. Also affected were Turkish Cypriots who were blocked from travelling to and from their jobs in the south. The majority of these individuals work in construction, providing the Greek Cypriots with a relatively cheap labour source. They work in the south, where they get paid in euros, and live in the north, where they spend that money on relatively cheaper services. It is one of the few benefits of being a Turkish Cypriot. Yet with the checkpoints closed, Turkish Cypriots were reminded that they are still very much at the mercy of the Greek Cypriots, and that the Greek Cypriots reserve the right to shut them out on a whim.
Whether President Anastasiades’ intentions behind closing the checkpoints were sincerely about stopping the spread of coronavirus or not, the move exposed the internal vulnerabilities of the Turkish Cypriot side. The fact Anastasiades made the decision to close the checkpoints unilaterally also gave the message that it is the Greek Cypriots who hold all the cards in Cyprus and that they can turn the tables on the Turkish Cypriots whenever they want. Needless to say, many Turkish Cypriots did interpret the closures as being politically motivated, as Anastasiades failed to provide any logical explanation to his reasons for closing the checkpoints. Citing the presence of 3,000 Iranian students in the north (Iran being a heavily hit country by the coronavirus) didn’t quite cut it, as there are probably just as many students from affected countries studying in the south. The timing of the closures immediately after Turkey opened the gates for refugees looking to cross into Greece was also at very least an ill-advised coincidence, unless of course the Greek Cypriot side was deliberately trying to provoke a reaction.
Regardless of the motive, they got that reaction as hundreds of Turkish Cypriots marched on the checkpoint on Ledra Street on March 7. They were pepper sprayed and beaten back with batons by Greek Cypriot police, images caught on cameras that were reminiscent of Cyprus prior to Turkey’s 1974 intervention. On top of that, the closures inspired anti-Turkish marches in the south, organised by the Greek Cypriot far-right party ELAM, which is an offshoot of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, and Greek nationalist supporters of APOEL football club. They called to make the closure of the checkpoints permanent, not because of coronavirus, but for political reasons. Meanwhile, many comments on social media coming from Turkish Cypriots who saw footage of their countrymen being forcibly pushed back at the checkpoints rang to the tune of “serves them right for ever believing the Greek Cypriots saw them as equals”.
This appears to be the mindset of Turkish Cypriots going into the April 26 election, and Akinci knows it. He cannot depend on playing the game to get re-elected, and has therefore upped his far-left political rhetoric as he seeks to consolidate whatever votes he can from his core support base in the hope it will be enough to push him through to the run-offs. There’s little chance of him sneaking into the right-wing garden this time, so he has to first grab votes away from his left-wing rival Tufan Erhuman. Akinci is certainly the more charismatic of the two, but Erhuman comes from the stronger party. Assuming however he does get through to the run-offs, it would almost be mission impossible against Tatar or Ozersay, who have the momentum of public opinion behind them. Akinci, probably the most keen for a Cyprus solution out of the four main candidates, has Anastasiades to thank for that.
Anastasiades is often dubbed by his critics as the “president of taksim,” referring to the partition of the island of Cyprus. He would never admit it, and neither would any other Greek Cypriot leader at the risk of being lynched by their people, but politically-speaking partition is probably the most ideal outcome of the Cyprus problem for the Greek Cypriots. In such a world, they would continue to uphold uncontested legitimacy as the sovereigns of Cyprus, and Turkish Cypriots would have no say in the wheelings and dealings of the state. If it is the Turkish Cypriot side that is the more averse party to a solution, all the better, because the Greek Cypriots would maintain the moral high ground and be absolved of any blame in both the international arena and the historical narrative of the conflict. Turkish Cypriots, meanwhile, would remain in limbo. Turkey would not generate the international support needed to officially annex the north, and it certainly wouldn’t attempt to do so if threatened with crippling sanctions. Likewise, TRNC would not seek recognition because for Turkey that would mean inviting competitors into a state which they already have 100 percent control over. Any statements from Ankara that suggest otherwise would always be considered a bluff. So yes, if Anastasiades’ actions result in Akinci being voted out of office, the Greek Cypriot leader would most certainly celebrate the outcome as a success on his half.
What does the future hold for Cyprus? In my opinion - two leaders of two separate communities, neither of them particularly believers in a solution, both half-heartedly giving lip-service in favour of a solution, but at the same time both blaming each other for the absence of a solution. In other words, just more of the same - the only difference being that Cyprus will never see another politician like Mustafa Akinci again.
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