Ankara intervenes in Northern Cyprus election that could shape peace process

Politics in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is heating up in the final days before the Oct. 11 presidential election, with the governing coalition collapsing on Wednesday in response to overt intervention by Ankara in support of its favoured candidate and incumbent President Mustafa Akıncı revealing threats from Turkey to end his re-election bid on Friday night.

“The election has turned into a referendum on Turkish intervention,” Rebecca Bryant, a professor at Utrecht University and co-author of Sovereignty Suspended: Building the So-Called State, told Ahval.

The crowded ballot includes a number of notable figures, but the race, postponed from its original April date due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, has long been seen as a contest between Akıncı and Prime Minister Ersin Tatar.

On Tuesday, in a joint press conference in Ankara with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to celebrate the repair of the Turkey-Northern Cyprus water pipeline, Tatar announced that the TRNC government will reopen the coastal ghost town of Varosha.

Varosha’s primarily Greek Cypriot population fled during the 1974 Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus that followed an Athens-sponsored coup attempt by Greek officers to unite Cyprus with Greece. The once popular resort town has been fenced off by the Turkish army ever since and a 1984 United Nations Security Council Resolution states that it can only be resettled by its original residents.

Referring to the TRNC electoral authority, Bryant noted that “the Supreme Election Council (YSK) had forbidden a ceremony to mark the pipeline opening, since we’ve now entered a period right before the election when rallies and demonstrations are not allowed.”

Ahead of planned Tatar event in Varosha on Thursday morning, the YSK reiterated that any attempt to hold a ceremony or make speeches in the resort town or its vicinity is prohibited and it notified the police forces to act accordingly. Tatar visited the newly opened beachfront flanked by supporters carrying Turkish flags, but he did not make any statements.

The TRNC government rapidly collapsed following Tatar’s announcement, with the People’s Party (HP), the coalition partner of Tatar's National Unity Party (UBP), withdrawing from the government on Wednesday.

The HP Chair Yenal Senin said his party supports the eventual opening of Varosha, but that Tatar failed to inform both the HP and its founder, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kudret Özersay, who is also a presidential candidate.

"The current situation may be considered as an interference with the election, but the breakdown of the state is important for us," Senin said.

Akıncı also said Tatar’s Varosha announcement amounted to “interference in our elections” and condemned it as a “disgrace for our democracy”.

Turkish Cypriots rely on the security and financial guarantees provided by Ankara, which is the only state to formally recognise the TRNC, but the largely secular population is wary of attempts by Erdoğan’s Islamist government to influence its culture and politics.

“Although there has been a large number of undecided or non-voters, (the Varosha announcement) has galvanised basically everyone one way or the other. Without serious meddling in the election, Tatar absolutely does not have the votes to win,” Bryant said.

“Many Akıncısupporters always saw support for the current president as a form of resistance to Turkey, but there were also many people who supported other candidates and thought that Akıncı often created tensions with Turkey unnecessarily,” she explained.

“The irony is that this obvious Turkish interference turned support for Akıncı into a form of resistance even for those who hadn’t seen it that way before. This opens the door to the possibility of Akıncı even winning in the first round, if enough people abandon the candidates they otherwise would have supported,” she concluded.

On the Greek side of the island, Republic of Cyprus government spokesman Kyriakos Kousios called the Varosha move “a pre-election stunt created in Ankara”.

The Republic of Cyprus is internationally recognised as the government of the entire island. It became a member of the European Union in 2004, however, per the Republic of Cyprus’s request, the EU’s body of laws are currently suspended in the territory that it does not have effective control over. The EU’s legal stipulations will therefore be a critical issue for reunification.

To a certain extent, the challenges of integrating the TRNC-controlled territory can be addressed by encouraging the Turkish Cypriots to align their laws and procedures to the EU in advance. The prospects of the TRNC doing so could be affected by the outcome of the Oct. 11 election.

The EU’s foreign affairs and security chief, Josep Borrell, expressed concern that Tatar’s announcement “will cause greater tensions and may complicate efforts for the resumption of Cyprus settlement talks”.

In recent weeks, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he is committed to revitalising the stalled Cyprus peace process shortly after the Oct. 11 election. The Greek Cypriot government hailed Guterres’ remarks, but it also said negotiations could not begin while Turkish exploration for hydrocarbons in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone and threats to settle Varosha continue.

There is clearly a sense of frustration and fatigue at the international level about Cyprus,” James Ker-Lindsay, visiting professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Ahval. Several rounds of settlement talks have failed, most recently in 2017.

“No one will want to invest considerable time, effort and even money into pursuing something that clearly has no hope of a successful conclusion. If the Turkish Cypriots elect someone who clearly has little interest in a settlement on realistic terms, then it will obviously affect perceptions,” Ker-Lindsay explained.

Akıncı is in favour of restarting negotiations and supports a federal solution to the Cyprus problem. Tatar does not explicitly oppose a federal solution, but he has proposed a two-state solution. Furthermore, his support for Turkey’s bellicose moves in the eastern Mediterranean raise the question of whether he would be an amicable negotiating partner in talks.

“In general, there’s a lot of anxiety right now in Cyprus, but I would say that most people even on the right consider a two-state solution completely unrealistic,” Bryant said.

“The big question at the moment is where Ankara, and especially President Erdoğan, stands on a settlement. While the Turkish Cypriot leadership will decide on many of the specifics of any deal, Turkey needs to sign off on the security and other elements of an agreement,” Ker-Lindsay said.

If the U.N. Secretary-General and the other parties do press ahead with talks the stakes will be high. Ker-Lindsay said he fears “that if another effort is launched and it fails, it will mark the end of any realistic opportunity to resolve the issue and reunify the island. There will be a lot resting on any new process”.