With 51.69% of the popular vote, Ersin Tatar, the Prime Minister and leader of the National Unity Party (UBP), was elected the 5th President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (Turkish Cyprus or TRNC) on 18 October 2020. Unlike Mustafa Akıncı’s landslide victory in the 2015 run-off ballot against incumbent Derviş Eroğlu, 2020’s second round was a nail-biter.
This was not just an election between the left and right, or social democrats versus conservatives; it was a deep-rooted contest of identity. The choice was between purportedly federalist forces supporting a singular political construct in Cyprus that would relegate Turkish Cypriots to being individual citizens within a Greek Cypriot state versus a patriotic establishment that has its roots in the national resistance movement and aligns itself, from inception, with Turkey and is underscored with Turkish guarantees. The patriotic establishment has recently become far more vocal with its desire to pursue a two-state settlement or other alternatives after nearly a half century of seeking credible action from Greek Cyprus in achieving a bi-communal, bi-zonal federal solution to the never-ending Cyprus conflict.
In contrast to Turkish Cyprus, all parties across the political spectrum in Greek Cyprus, including the Church, see themselves as being a Hellenic construct, and all have close relations with Greece, regardless of their ideological basis. Unlike the South, the ‘federalists’ in Turkish Cyprus, as witnessed throughout Akıncı’s presidency, are almost always at odds with Turkey and generic Turkish interests across the Eastern Mediterranean. This is likely the single most important difference between politics in Turkish Cyprus and Greek Cyprus.
For example, when Greek Cyprus acceded to the European Union (EU) in May 2004, the Greek Prime Minister at the time, Konstantinos Karamanlis and Greek Cypriot leader (and former EOKA member), Tassos Papadopoulos, patted each other on the back and declared that Enosis had been achieved. Now for anyone that knows anything about Cyprus, Enosis is the root cause of the Cyprus conflict and only has one meaning: Cyprus’ union with Greece. This should have been a taboo for all, and while the declaration was rejected by Turkey and Turkish Cyprus’ patriotic establishment, CTP’s Mehmet Ali Talat, the period’s Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister, was still focused on trying to find a means to achieve a federal settlement. Needless to say, Talat was unsuccessful with both Papadopoulos and his successor comrade Demetris Christofias. Seldom will there ever be any material differences across the Greek Camp, whereas on the Turkish side, the left in Turkish Cyprus regularly creates challenges in maintaining constructive relations with Turkey.
Akıncı and the federalist camp lost Sunday’s vote because they sought to further distance themselves from Turkey’s guarantees, typically a red-line in politics across Turkish Cyprus and campaigned on a premise that does not reflect reality. Akıncı was calling for a return to negotiations for a federal settlement, but he had achieved nothing over the past five years that could lead anyone to believe his campaign pledges and promises. Throughout his term, Akıncı made a mockery of Turkish Cyprus’ presidency on many occasions, particularly between 2015 and 2017 as he did not treat his rival as a competitor and tried playing PR stunts to demonstrate commonalities that may be alright on a personal level, but have no implications on the political level, such as downing shots of zivaniya (the equivalent of local moonshine) with Nicos Anastasiades, the Greek Cypriot leader, in Nicosia’s market area. With the original 1960 Republic of Cyprus being coercively usurped and effectively an unconstitutional, failed state for 57 years, and negotiations not delivering any constructive results for 52 years, Akıncı had to do more to win a second term, but could not deliver anything other than empty promises.
Following last week’s first ballot, Tatar took hold of the fact that he had to connect with a disenfranchised electorate to draw support as last week’s turn-out was very low (55.77%). Tatar campaigned hard and hit home with the facts: if a realistic federal settlement is not possible because Cyprus’ Greeks and Turks have irreconcilable differences, then Turkish Cyprus’s sovereign authority and equality must be respected. Alternatives, including a two-state solution must be considered and pursued, in a manner that is aligned to Turkey. A federalist future is unlikely because it has proven to fail time and again. This culminated with the rejection of the Annan Plan in 2003 and, more recently in 2017, at Crans-Montana. The Greek Cypriot leadership may show-up and appear to participate in the negotiations process, but has no genuine interest in reaching a compromise, solution, or settlement because it holds a monopoly on the recognized authority of Cyprus and enjoys the EU’s leverage, support, and protection since 2004.
The stakes are now even higher than before because, in addition to political power, billions of dollars in potential offshore gas reserves are at play in the Eastern Mediterranean. This has caused increased tension between the Turkish and Greek camps, as witnessed during recent months across the Aegean and Mediterranean. Although the current price of natural gas is relatively low due to the financial crisis, it will recover and a bankrupt Greek Cyprus, and Greece for that matter, are desperate for a financial windfall, giving Greek Cyprus even less incentive to compromise with Turkish Cyprus as they would have to share political power and the financial benefits of extracting and distributing natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe.
On an aside, Greek Cyprus’ political problems and financial woes were recently further perplexed for all the wrong reasons. After a number of blunders and failures that Anastasiades experienced with his attempts to outsmart Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and on the European stage, a corruption scandal uncovered by Al Jazeera’s investigative reporters has rocked Greek Cyprus – referred to as the Cyprus Papers. Greek Cyprus’ EU passports-for-sale scheme caught corrupt government officials wheeling and dealing with money launderers and wealthy criminals seeking easy access to valuable EU passports, and at times, new identities. The scandal resulted in the resignation of Christakis Giovanis, an AKEL Member of Parliament, and Demetris Syllouris, the President of the Greek Cypriot House of Representatives and the second most senior political post in Greek Cyprus.
Clearly, there is currently a high level of stress in the region and a lot at stake. Tatar’s election will be a game changer for Turkish Cyprus’ political future because the never-ending negotiation process has likely come to an end. More importantly, Tatar’s victory address was inclusive, constructive, and diplomatic yet frank. Tatar clearly stated that he aspires to be a president for all of Turkish Cyprus and its citizens and is willing to engage in negotiations with the TRNC’s southern neighbours based on the realities of the island and across the region – this means the implications of the Turkish Blue Homeland and Turkish Cyprus’ critical role within the Eastern Mediterranean. Tatar called for Turkish Cyprus’ sovereignty to be respected by all as it is legitimately backed by the will of its people. Cyprus’ Turks have embraced the success and survival of their state, its borders, and Turkey’s guarantees.
Working in tandem with Turkey, President Tatar must seek to foster an environment that is conducive to providing sustainable development and create opportunities for all of Turkish Cyprus’ residents. With the nation’s endorsement, as Turkish Cyprus’ new president, the following key strategies and objectives have to be implemented:
• Clearly articulate Turkish Cyprus’ expectations, including red lines and time limits, for negotiations that are to be considered with Greek Cyprus.
• If a mutually acceptable agreement cannot be achieved with Greek Cyprus, then peaceful coexistence needs to be pursued through level-headed and civil relations amongst two neighbouring sovereign, mutually independent, and equal republics on a shared island.
• From an economic perspective, a single, unitary market must be established that enables the free and unrestricted flow of trade, products, and services (i.e. tariff free) between Turkish Cyprus and Turkey. Recalling the relative size of Turkish Cyprus, it really shouldn’t be that difficult to transform and enable.
• While Turkish Cyprus maintains all local accountability for the political and administrative management of internal matters, macro level-political, security, and economic policies will be fully aligned with Turkey.
• Turkey will leverage its existing relations with other states to market Turkish Cyprus globally, including its products and services. If needed, goods and services produced in Turkish Cyprus, will be labelled “Product of the Turkish Municipality of Nicosia” as this is an entity that is constitutionally recognized within the constructs of the original 1960 Republic of Cyprus.
• To demonstrate that Ersin Tatar is genuinely the president of all Turkish Cypriots and residents of Turkish Cyprus, he must take a very hard position on anti-corruption and clear the system of patronage and impartiality. This may be the most difficult objective to achieve, but if successfully completed, President Tatar will gain the support of his citizens (and likely even some critics) because this is probably the single most significant structural obstacle to genuine progress in Turkish Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriot state must champion integrity and maintain the higher ground. President Tatar is in a position to deliver.