By Simon Bahceli
VOTERS GO to the polls in the north today in what is expected to be a muted affair with few definitive outcomes.
The election comes after eight deputies from the ruling National Unity Party (UBP) resigned, leading to a vote of no confidence on June 5. ‘Prime Minister’ Irsen Kucuk resigned the following day.
“No single party will have enough of the vote to form a government alone. Therefore, we shall have a coalition,” head of Turkish Cypriot pollster KADEM Muharrem Faiz told the Sunday Mail this week. He added that he expected the opposition centre-left Republican Turkish Party (CTP) to gain the largest share of the vote, closely followed by right-wing UBP. The only gains will be made by the Democrat Party led by Serdar Denktash, who will double his previous 10 per cent of the vote to around 20 per cent.
Most notable in today’s election, Faiz predicted, would be an increased number of voters opting for a “mixed vote”, where voters split their vote between a number of candidates rather than plumping for a single party.
“Traditionally we’ve seen seven to eight per cent of the electorate choosing to vote in this way, but this time I expect that figure to be double if not more”.
Increased mixed voting stems from an epidemic of voter disillusionment over the two main parties’ inability to stand up to Ankara’s plans to rein in Turkish Cypriot public service spending and sell off many of the north’s ‘state’ owned enterprises, Faiz said. Incessant price increases, particularly that of fuel, were also cited as a source of deep displeasure with the two previous ‘governments’.
Whatever ‘government’ emerges from today’s vote will be faced with the same problems that have plagued the two previous administrations, Faiz insisted, and remained pessimistic about any administration’s ability to stand in the way of Ankara’s plans.
“To resist will take great sacrifices that no one seems willing or able to make,” he said.
A stark indication of this had come when the cross-party caretaker administration holding fort till today’s election, had been forced to sign a promise to adhere to the Turkey-‘TRNC’ protocol in order to release funds to pay state employees at the end of last month, he said. Withholding funds until the promise had been signed has widely been seen as an indication that Ankara will not tolerate non-adherence to the protocol, regardless of who is in power in northern Nicosia.
It is the Turkey-‘TRNC’ protocol that lies at the heart of the matter for whoever takes over governance of the north from tomorrow onward. As Turkish Cypriot economist Erdal Guryay of the Near East University (NEU) said in a recent interview, “With the government having to live according to the protocol, it has little room to manoeuvre, meaning in effect that it cannot rule. They [Ankara] can tell you what to privatise and which companies will benefit from the sell-off.”
What binds the north to the protocol, signed initially by the CTP in 2009 and then later by the UBP, is the mountain of debt under which the breakaway state languishes. At around 4.7 billion dollars it constitutes approximately 145 per cent of GDP, a situation Guryay describes as “worse than that of Greece, Spain or Portugal”.
As another Turkish Cypriot economist Mustafa Besim of the Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU) explained, the north owes 3.2 billion US dollars to Turkey for its help covering the budget deficit since 1974, plus a further 1.5 billion dollars to local banks.
“We are fortunate that Turkey does not ask for all the money back,” he says, but adds that in order to gain further credit the north “has to adhere to the conditions of the protocol, which is almost wholly unsuited to the needs of the Turkish Cypriot economy”.
While many Turkish Cypriots oppose the protocol because it aims to switch Turkish funds from paying public sector wages to building a sustainable private sector, it is deemed a sensible approach by a Turkish government hoping to boost GNP by attracting foreign (for foreign, read Turkish) investment to the north. The problem is that it does not take into account that the breakaway state remains under crippling economic embargoes that place local businessmen at a disadvantage to powerful Turkish business interests not affected by such restrictions to trade, Besim says.
And then there is the further 1.5 billion dollars the ‘state’ owes local banks.
As Guryay says, “incessant borrowing” by the ‘state’ has deeply damaged the north’s banking sector. Two state-owned banks, namely the Cooperative and the Vakif Bank, along with the ‘state’ provident fund, have effectively been raided by successive governments to raise cash to pay for ‘state’ employees’ salaries, he says.
“It’s not just a question of the debts but the damage done to these institutions,” he said ominously.
Memories of the UBP as Ankara’s stooge may still be fresh in voter’s minds, but those thinking the CTP might be better were on Wednesday reminded that it might not be the case as maverick daily Afrika published a pre-election bombshell.
It came in the form of a “secret” transcript of a recording from 2009 where Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat was quoted as saying, “I never gave a thought to the economy when I was prime minister”. He is also quoted as saying he would wage war on the unions, supposedly his staunchest allies, but what is perhaps most striking about the transcript is that it showed Talat and co’s genuine surprise at Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence that the Turkish Cypriots produced some sort of budget.
Today as Turkish Cypriots go to vote, they find themselves in an uncannily similar situation to that faced by Greek Cypriots just months ago. Greek Cypriots had to decide whether to cut ties with the euro, or face years of externally imposed austerity with virtually no fiscal control. Sadly, they had little choice and chose austerity. Turkish Cypriots seem destined to do the same.