Presidential election raises stakes in Northern Cyprus

After a heated summer in the eastern Mediterranean, with renewed prospects of war and tense political statements between regional competitors, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is holding its presidential election on Oct. 11.

The election, postponed in the spring amid the COVID-19 health emergency, are being held in a deeply divided Cyprus after the pandemic triggered the Republic of Cyprus to unilaterally close the crossings opened in 2003 between the two sides of the island, a politically opportunistic move. But once the first COVID-19 cases were reported on the island, the closure of the crossings was pursued by both administrations and supported by the vast majority on either side of the divide.

However, following the closures, tensions have continued to build in Cyprus driven by internal and external political dynamics. Growing friction between Turkey and neighbouring countries over the delimitation of national waters, corresponding economic rights and the prospect of exploiting undersea energy resources have shaken the political landscape of Cyprus, a key element in this regional quagmire.

In the context of a more volatile and militarised eastern Mediterranean, the TRNC presidential election will demonstrate the will of the Turkish Cypriot community in regards to not only their future negotiations with their southern neighbours, but also their preferred political and economic relationship with Ankara.

Main Contenders

TRNC President Mustafa Akıncı and Prime Minister Ersin Tatar are the two main political contenders, each offering opposite ways of resolving the conflict in Cyprus. According to the polls, Tatar is set to win the election with 54 percent of the votes in a second round runoff. But according to different analysts, a third candidate, Tufan Erhürman, should not be ruled out of the race.

Mete Hatay, senior researcher at PRIO Cyprus, explained that “these polls are unreliable, since it is believed that around 40 percent of Turkish Cypriot voters are undecided, and nobody can predict where these votes will go”.

Tatar, leader of the conservative National Unity Party (UBP), has been pushing for a harsher stance over partition. With clear support from Ankara, he favours a two-state solution,  telling the Sunday Express in January, “we are different. We speak Turkish, they speak Greek. We are Muslims, they are Christians”.

Furthermore, Tartar’s political programme makes direct reference to the Turkish government’s “Blue Homeland” (Mavi Vatan) doctrine. This envisions Turkey extending its maritime influence by claiming Turkish Cypriot rights to natural gas drilling activities and supporting Turkish exploratory vessels activities in Cypriot waters.

Tatar’s recent announcement, alongside President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara, of the reopening of Varosha, a highly valued tourist resort occupied since Turkey’s military intervention in 1974, yet again signalled his total support from the Turkish government.

Besides triggering cabinet resignations and the breakup of Tatar’s governing coalition, the  move will likely have further negative consequences regarding peace talks with the Republic of Cyprus, backed by Greece and leading political figures in the European Union.

Opposing Tatar stands the incumbent, President Akıncı. Former mayor of the Turkish municipality of Nicosia, he remains committed to a federal solution for the unification of Cyprus under a sole political authority.

Despite the last failed attempts in 2017, Akıncı is still pushing for a peace agreement under United Nations supervision, which he sees as the only viable solution for a democratic and peaceful resolution of the conflict.

According to Hatay, despite failed negotiations, “Akıncı presents the federation as a solution for the Turkish Cypriot community”, a position that represents “a secure area in which to live”.

Akinici has repeatedly stated that his fears of Turkey having an overwhelming presence in Northern Cyprus, a situation that could lead to the unique Turkish Cypriot identity dissolving in the Turkish national identity and the region ultimately becoming a de facto Turkish province.

Hatay also believes that Tufan Erhürman is in with a chance. The social democratic leader of the Republican Turkish Party (CTP) has maintained a more moderate position in Akıncı’s clashes with Ankara, but he has received explicit support from Turkish government officials, making him a potentially attractive alternative.

Hatay points to the pragmatism of the Turkish Cypriot voters, who, he said, react against too much political meddling from Ankara but also see Turkey as a guarantor and could therefore opt for a middle ground figure like Erhürman.

Although the main candidates clash regarding the political solution for the Cyprus conflict, any future TRNC president will have to face new negotiations with the Greek Cypriot community alongside Turkey.

As indicated by Dr. Hubert Faustmann of the University of Nicosia and director at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Cyprus, “these elections are a symbolical measure of the Turkish Cypriot community’s political will”, highlighting that “the TRNC president’s main duty is the Cyprus question, not the internal affairs of this community”.

Faustmann also suggests that “the TRNC presidential elections will not affect the final outcome of the Cyprus peace negotiations, as this is a gradual and long-term process”, but adds “core decisions on the Cyprus question are taken by Turkey, and no Turkish Cypriot leader would be allowed to decide over the outcome of peace negotiations”.

External Factors

Besides internal political factors, this electoral campaign has also been greatly influenced by regional political developments. Given the political nature of the TRNC, a self-proclaimed republic only recognised by Turkey, the influence Ankara exercises in this territory is critical.

And Ankara played an active role in setting the political agenda through the previous TRNC presidential election campaign, which was postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In November 2019, Akıncı criticised Turkey’s decision to name its military offensive in northern Syria as “Operation Peace Spring”, in apparent reference to the 1974 invasion of Cyprus. In a public statement, Akıncı declared that “dialogue between all peoples of the region” is the only way towards a peaceful and happy future.

Akıncı’s comments triggered an aggressive reaction from Ankara, and their relations have further deteriorated in recent months. This situation that appears to benefit both sides – with Akıncı presenting himself as the protector of the Turkish Cypriot community’s value and Ankara repeating its decades-long discourse that it is the sole protector of the TRNC.

These divisions have deepened in recent months, further distancing Akıncı from other political developments in the TRNC. This includes, for example, talks led by TRNC Foreign Minister and fellow presidential candidate Kudret Özersay and Turkey regarding the reopening of Varosha, a red line in peace negotiations with the Republic of Cyprus.

In another example, Tatar recently signed an emergency economic protocol with Turkey ahead of the election, despite a year of stalemate in negotiations. According to Hatay, this has allowed Tatar to work on new infrastructure projects in the TRNC, to the benefit of his public profile.

More recently, Tatar made a last-minute trip to Ankara, suspending his campaign and even pulling out of a televised debate with the other presidential candidates on Sept. 29, a further sign of his close communication channels with the presidential palace in Turkey.

On the other hand, Akıncı appears to also have external support. U.N. Secretary General, António Guterres recently announced his intention to restart peace negotiations in Cyprus, and on Oct. 2  announced a call with Akıncı. Criticised by other candidates and Ankara as political interference in the presidential campaign, the call “could be seen as a gesture of support from Guterres to Akıncı”, Faustmann said.

As Hatay argues, “political tensions in the TRNC are likely to decrease after the electoral results. And even if Akıncı wins he will also have to compromise with Turkey”. That may be true, but Tatar and Ankara have raised the stakes through the recent announcement of the opening of Varosha. The political impact on peace negotiations remain to be seen.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.