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As voting in North Cyprus presidential run-off ends, fate of the island hangs in the balance

Electorate faces choice of incumbent president or prime minister - and drastically different visions for the future of the divided island
A Turkish-Cypriot man casts his ballot at a polling station on 18 October (AFP)
By in
Nicosia, Cyprus

The prospects for a united Cyprus may rest on Sunday’s presidential run-off election in North Cyprus, which could determine whether or not the breakaway Turkish north will reunite with the Greek south after 46 years - or take a more nationalistic path.

Voting ended at 6pm (1500 GMT), with footage showing voters wearing masks and gloves as part of measures against the novel coronavirus.

Analysts and some Turkish media have underscored the significance of the vote, which pits incumbent President Mustafa Akinci, a 72-year-old social democrat who supports a united federal Cypriot state, against rightwing Prime Minister Ersin Tatar, 60, who is backed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and who favours a two-state solution.

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The tiny Mediterranean island has been split along ethnic lines between an internationally recognised Greek Cypriot government in the south and the breakaway Turkish north since the 1974 Turkish invasion.

The north was occupied by Turkey in reaction to a coup that aimed to annex Cyprus to Greece.

Since unilaterally declaring independence in 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is financially supported by Turkey, is only recognised by Ankara.

But the presidential vote could prove to be decisive in determining the future of the island.

International community looks on 

What makes Sunday’s vote critical, says European Union MP for Cyprus Niyazi Kizilyurek, is that “everyone, including the United Nations, is waiting for this election to start fresh talks”.

“This time, everyone expects very clear positions to finally settle the Cyprus conflict,” he told Middle East Eye, adding that the UN and the EU were more determined to reach a solution than ever before.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced last month plans to restart the stalled reunification negotiations after the North Cyprus election.

Decades of UN-mediated talks have failed to deliver a peace deal. A 2004 referendum on the UN Annan Plan for reunification found 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots voting in favour, and 76 percent of Greek Cypriots voting against. 

The latest negotiations ended in 2017, notably on the question of the withdrawal of more than 35,000 Turkish troops in the north.

At the failed Crans-Montana talks, Turkey supported a federal solution.

It was the Greek Cypriot side that pulled the plug on any deal by demanding that Turkey give up its intervention rights under the guarantor system - upheld by Greece, Turkey and Britain - and withdraw all its forces from the north.

Diplomats at the time said Turkey had appeared willing to consider a phased troop withdrawal with a sunset clause, but the Greek Cypriot side insisted its red line was "zero troops, zero guarantees".

While the idea of a federal solution for Cyprus was originally proposed by Turkey, Ankara appears to have hardened its position on a Cyprus settlement in the past several years.

'Now or never'

In addition to the fate of the island, the next president of Northern Cyprus will have to oversee a growing dispute over sea boundaries and energy exploration rights in the Mediterranean.

On Tuesday, Ankara redeployed a search vessel - shadowed by two navy frigates - for a new gas exploration mission in disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean, reigniting tensions with Greece and Cyprus.

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Underlining its changed position, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy, reacting to Guterres’ recent call for a revival of talks from where they left off in 2017, last month floated the idea of a two-state solution and said the North Cyprus election did not automatically mean a relaunch of new negotiations.

“Turkey is becoming more aggressive in its foreign policy. Rather than diplomacy, it’s using military power to establish dominance in different parts of the world,” says Umut Bozkurt, a political science professor at the Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta, Northern Cyprus.

Whether Turkey decides to return to its previous position will depend on how much pressure the UN, the United States and the European Union are willing to put on Ankara, Bozkurt said, adding that the US presidential election in early November will also affect the situation.

“Clearly you have an authoritarian government in Turkey and unless some kind of pressure is exerted on it by international actors, they will not be very much inclined to support a federal solution,” she said.

But some caution against the Greek Cypriot side’s own intransigence. Kizilyurek believes Greek Cypriots need to “also understand that this time there is no time to waste anymore; North Cyprus could be lost forever, maybe we will become part of Turkey if there is no solution soon”.

Before, he said, Greek Cypriots “thought being a member of the EU would give them a better chance or a better option for a political solution, but political reality will show them that it’s now or never”.

Electoral interference

The inconclusive 11 October vote, marred by accusations of Turkish interference, saw Tatar, the prime minister, score a two-percent lead over incumbent Akinci, but not enough to secure a win in the first round.

Akinci is expected to grab votes that went to other left-leaning parties in the first round, while Tatar could receive support from the Rebirth Party, which represents migrants from Turkey who arrived in the north in the aftermath of the 1974 Turkish invasion.

Turkish intervention in North Cypriot politics has been a longstanding affair, but what has set this election apart from previous ones, analysts say, is that the interference has never been so blunt and explicit.

Despite electoral law banning campaigning in the two weeks prior to the vote, Turkish media carried live broadcasts of Tatar and Erdogan in Turkey announcing the launch of a repaired water pipeline and the partial reopening of the off-limits military zone of Varosha in North Cyprus for the first time in decades.

Three days before 11 October vote, Turkey’s Agriculture Bank said it would donate 2,000 Turkish lira ($252) each to 10,000 Turkish Cypriot farmers - a significant move given North Cyprus’ population of a few hundred thousand.

Meanwhile, Turkish government-backed media have repeatedly painted Akinci as a Greek agent. 

“With every election, Turkish Cypriots feel the pressure has grown greater,” a Turkish Cypriot businessman, who asked not be named, told MEE.

Ankara has accused Akinci of wanting to “give away land and sell Turkish Cypriots to Greek Cypriots”, the businessman said.

North Cypriots split

The alternatives have left North Cypriots divided, with some fearing more pronounced Turkish intervention.

“Akinci’s election success would be a historical chance for Cyprus, maybe it will be one of the last chances for a Cyprus solution to go in the direction of unification,” says Kizilyurek, who is a Turkish Cypriot. For him, Tatar, on the other hand, “believes North Cyprus is kind of part of Turkey”.

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“It’s become like a referendum in absolute submission to Turkey and demanding respect from Turkey,” said political analyst Mete Hatay from the PRIO bicommunal research centre.

Hatay claimed that North Cyprus could become a protectorate of Turkey if Tatar is elected - something “even secessionists don’t want”.

“In Erdogan’s mind, the peace plan is finished. From now on, he favours partition! Perhaps even annexation!” wrote prominent Turkish writer Fehim Tastekin on the news website Gazete Duvar earlier this month.

“If we lose this election, it means Erdogan will get what he wants. If Erdogan is serious about annexation then that’s what will happen,” said Mine Atli, a volunteer with Akinci’s campaign.

“I think he wants a kind of settlement that will maintain his power in the Mediterranean,” she added.

But Tatar’s supporters are not convinced by the alarmist rhetoric.

Turkish Cypriot journalist Kerem Hassan told MEE that he would vote for Tatar because he no longer had faith in the “endless, open-ended negotiations”.

“Voting for Tatar means that we can also explore alternative solution models,” says Hassan, suggesting a Kosovo model or even a unique Cyprus model “where the world can still trade with us without recognising us and have direct flights”.

The official narrative of the right in North Cyprus is a demand for recognition of the TRNC that would pave the way for a two-state formula, says Bozkurt.

However, she says it is unlikely they would reach their goal, as it goes against UN Security Council decisions.

Hassan, meanwhile, dismissed the possibility of annexation by Turkey: “The vast majority of Turkish Cypriots, even pro-Tatar supporters, do not want annexation with Turkey. They want an independent state.”