A new president for the Turkish Cypriots to a new future?

Ersin Tatar has emerged as the victor of the recent presidential elections in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). With 51.69% of the votes Tatar beat his opponent, Mustafa Akinci, on the second round of the presidential vote.

Although the president of the TRNC has few effective political powers, since this figure is recognised as the representative of the Turkish Cypriot community in the international peace negotiations, Tatar’s victory could trigger further structural changes, ultimately limiting successful prospects of a peaceful unification of Cyprus.

His election is also legitimising Ankara’s aspirations and designs for a future settlement in Cyprus. During the election campaign Tatar received full support from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a strategy that now paves the way for Turkey to represent the aspirations of the Turkish Cypriot community.

The outcome of the second round of the presidential elections in the TRNC had been surrounded by uncertainty. In the first election round Tatar had led with 32.3% of the votes, but the two following candidates, Mustafa Akıncı and Tufan Erhürman, both from the centre-left political sphere, had gathered together 51.5% of the votes.

With less than 5,000 votes difference, Tatar finally proclaimed his electoral victory on October 18. Mete Hatay, Senior Researcher at PRIO Cyprus, in an interview with Ahval explained that Tatar secured his elections after his party was able to mobilise rural votes, either from Turkish settlers or from Turkish Cypriots. Hatay argues that this mobilisation was triggered after Tatar promised easing construction permits in rural regions.

The political battle between the two contenders turned mainly around the proposed solution for the Cyprus problem. Akinci had championed the project of a federal state where both communities live under a united Republic of Cyprus, opposing Tatar’s proposition of a two-state solution, leading to a final partition of the island.

The victory of Tatar will certainly shape the political parameters existing between the actors involved in the Cyprus problem. 

As expressed by Hatay “Tatar is proud to be the man of Ankara in the TRNC.” Within this new political context “Ankara will be now leading the negotiations with the Cyprus government, and Turkey’s interests will be more important than the actual Turkish Cypriot interests.” Hatay adds that “Cypriot President Anastasiadis encouraged Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu [during the failed peace negotiations of 2017] to find alternative solutions to the federation project. Therefore, Turkey is likely to push for starting from scratch the upcoming negotiations, ultimately proposing loose federation or confederation models in Cyprus.”

According to Prof. Hubert Faustmann of the University of Nicosia and director at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Cyprus, the election of Tatar vis-à-vis peace talks in Cyprus “is of secondary importance, since Tatar follows Ankara’s directions. He will do what is told”. Moreover, and given Tatar’s rough political stances regarding the Cyprus question, Faustmann tells Ahval that “Tatar is also the perfect excuse for the Greek Cypriot elite, in case settlement negotiations do not progress, to put the blame for the lack of progress on Turkey and Tatar”.

Therefore, the election of Tatar guarantees Ankara no public opposition from the TRNC presidency regarding its Cyprus political strategy, and further facilitates Turkey to enforce its political agenda in future negotiations with the Greek Cypriots. This new political context in the TRNC enhances Turkey’s role in upcoming negotiations with Cyprus and legitimises Ankara as the representative and defendant of the Turkish Cypriot community’s interests.

During this last presidential campaign Turkey played a key role in openly supporting Tatar’s candidacy. Although not officially, Ankara took a partisan stance through statements against Akinci’s figure, informal gatherings to form an anti-Akinci front, and ultimately by unilaterally re-opening the ghost city of Varosha during the last presidential campaign, a highly sensitive element in the peace negotiations with the Republic of Cyprus.

Varosha, a summer resort next to the city of Famagusta, became the most popular tourist place of Cyprus during the 1960s and 1970s, before the 1974 Turkish military invasion. Since then this location has been fenced off and its entrance to the public forbidden, taken as a sort of hostage for future negotiations with the Greek Cypriot community.

The unilateral opening of Varosha shows an additional sign of Turkey’s strength in Cyprus and in the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, the re-opening of Varosha, besides sending support from Ankara to Tatar’s candidacy, has also intensified the political polarisation in the TRNC, resembling political dynamics in Turkey.

This polarisation has focused on dividing TRNC voters in anti and pro-Ankara stances, with repeated verbal confrontations between Turkish government officials, including President Erdoğan, and the now former TRNC President Mustafa Akinci. 

With apparent success, this political polarisation in the TRNC could trigger further political changes. During Tatar’s victory speech the now President of the TRNC announced future social and economic reforms, added to previous speculations on possible structural changes in the TRNC allegedly dictated from Ankara.

As stated by Mete Hatay, “Turkey could be pushing for a system change in the TRNC and trying to impose a new presidential system”. The PRIO Cyprus senior researcher adds that this system change could “guarantee power to conservative and pro-Ankara political sectors in the TRNC”

This political strategy could reinforce the idea of making the TRNC a “little Turkey”, not only by now copying its political structure, but also, and more importantly, by identity and cultural assimilation. As several voices in the TRNC have warned, including Akinci, Turkey is progressively modifying the social dynamics in north Cyprus, with religion gaining ground in its education system and through the construction of new mosques, confronting Turkish Cypriots with newcomers originating from Anatolia.

Under Tatar these dynamics are expected to continue, further reinforcing divisions in Cyprus and perpetuating a de facto separation of this island through religious and national lines. Exposure to Ankara’s political agenda in Cyprus and in the Eastern Mediterranean has further increased with the election of Tatar, and the framework of future peace negotiations with the government of Cyprus remains to be seen.