Ankara has its man in Tatar, will it get a two-state Cyprus?

Turkey now has its chosen candidate in power in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). After an initial six-month delay of the polls due to the pandemic, Prime Minister Ersin Tatar was elected president in the second round of voting on Sunday, defeating incumbent President Mustafa Akıncı.

Analysts initially expected that Akıncı would be reelected despite Ankara’s extensive support for his opponent, which made the election a referendum on Ankara’s role in the breakaway Cypriot state. However, following a lead in the first round of voting and a narrow win in the second round it is clear that polarisation worked in Tatar’s favour.

Rebecca Bryant, a professor at Utrecht University and co-author of Sovereignty Suspended: Building the So-Called State, told Ahval, “There were just too many people angry at Akıncı for, on the one hand, sitting on his hands since the Crans Montana talks in 2017 and, on the other hand, creating a rift with Turkey.”

The talks in Crans Montana, Switzerland were the last attempt at peace settlement talks between the TRNC, which is only recognised by Turkey, and the Greek-populated Republic of Cyprus, which is an internationally recognised state that became an EU member in 2004.

In September, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres repeated his intention to revive the peace process after the TRNC election by holding informal talks between leaders on the ethnically divided island.

On Monday, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades congratulated Tatar on his victory and called on him to back a new U.N.-led peace initiative. Tatar accepted the invitation with his new counterpart for a meeting on U.N. premises in the divided capital of Nicosia, for the purposes of getting to know each other.

Tatar campaigned on a two-state solution to the peace process, a position that Ankara prefers. Akıncı and Tufan Erhürman, the more centrist Republican Turkish Party (CTP) candidate who came in third in the first-round election before endorsing Akıncı in the second-round, both advocate for a federalist solution that would reunify the island.

Cyprus has been divided since a coup designed to unite the island with Greece prompted Turkey to invade in 1974 to protect the interests of ethnic Turks. A ceasefire agreement established the U.N. Buffer Zone, colloquially known as the Green Line, and the north later declared independence as the TRNC in 1983.

Although Akıncı accepted the election results, he also reiterated his criticism of Ankara’s involvement. “These events, interventions should never happen again. The people of Turkish Cyprus don’t deserve this,” Jurnal Türkiye reported Akıncı saying.

“There’s no indication that Turkey tampered with the vote, but they certainly did everything short of that to show their support for Tatar,” Bryant told Ahval. Had it not been for the breadth of Ankara’s intervention, she expects Akıncı would have been reelected.

The mobilisation that occurred between the first and second rounds played a critical role in the outcome. “Tatar’s party really set all its machinery into motion, this time with the strong support of the Turkish embassy,” Bryant said.

Initially, Turkish intervention did backfire. In the first round, Akıncı likely got more votes than he would have if the election had not become a referendum on Ankara’s role in the TRNC.

“There were a lot of people who would have voted for other candidates, such as Kudret Özersay or Serdar Denktaş, who voted for Akıncı instead. And in the second round, the CTP managed to enforce party discipline and get its supporters to go to the polls for Akıncı,” Bryant said.

However, Tatar’s governing National Unity Party (UBP) was ultimately successful in turning out voters who sat out the first round. Bryant noted that the party has a huge network in the village that placed enormous pressure on people to vote. She also highlighted that “The government issued 10,000 checks of 2000 TL each in the past week, supposedly financial support for losses during the lockdown.”

“The Turkish government also threatened certain businesspeople, particularly owners of private universities. The universities in north Cyprus are accredited through Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YÖK), and apparently, the Turkish government threatened to withdraw their accreditations, meaning that there would be no more Turkish students coming to Cyprus. There were also rumours of other threats to large businesses that rely on Turkey,” she explained.

Turkey now has an ally in the TRNC who, in stark contrast to Akıncı, will energetically work in tandem with Ankara on tense regional issues, particularly maritime delimitation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the associated competition over hydrocarbon reserves.

The international community, which tends to favour the reunification of Cyprus, will be confronted with Tatar’s endorsement of Ankara’s preferred two-state solution. It remains to be seen exactly how his stance will affect any new U.N. attempt to mediate a settlement.

Tatar’s election also opens the door for more multipolar developments. “Turkey may ask Azerbaijan to recognize the TRNC in exchange for its military support, and Britain has often played with it as an option. Partial recognition, such as Kosovo has, would serve the purpose,” Bryant said. Turkey is currently providing extensive support to Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh.

Bryant also said she, “would not even completely discount the idea of Russia and Turkey exchanging recognition for their client states, especially since Turkey has a lot of pressure from its Abkhaz diaspora to recognize Abkhazia,” referring to the Moscow-backed de facto state within the borders that most countries recognise as Georgian territory. She noted that while these are possibilities, it is not possible to determine how probable they are at this point.

The first item of business for the TRNC going forward will be to form a new government. In the run-up to the presidential election, Özersay’s People’s Party (HP) withdrew from its coalition with the UBP over Tatar’s controversial partial opening of Varosha, a resort town shuttered since its Greek inhabitants fled Turkish troops in 1974. Byrant said a new UBP-led coalition is most likely to consist entirely of right-wing parties.

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