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It’s a three-horse race for Turkish Cypriots

Veteran politician Mustafa Akinci is making a comeback and is seen as neck-and-neck with Dervis Eroglu and Sibel Siber

By Agnieszka Rakoczy

IT’S a neck-and-neck race among the three main contenders in Sunday’s elections in the north, with the only certainty being that Turkish Cypriots will return to the polls next Sunday to choose among the two front runners of the first round.

“This is 100 per cent certain,” Serhat Incirli, deputy news editor of leading Turkish Cypriot daily Kibris told the Sunday Mail. “We estimate that out of 176,000 registered voters, around 140,000 will cast the ballot. There is no way anybody could get 70,000 votes during this election, absolutely no way.”

The three leading the latest opinion polls – all hovering around the 30 per cent mark – are  the incumbent president of the so-called ‘TRNC’, Dervis Eroglu, left-wing deputy Siber Sibel, the only female candidate, and pro-solution veteran Mustafa Akinci.

Eroglu, a right winger, is running as an independent candidate with the backing of the National Unity Party (UBP) he once headed and of the Democratic Party led by Serdar Denktash. Sibel, speaker of the 50-seat Turkish Cypriot assembly and member of the Turkish Republican Party (CTP), briefly served as the ‘prime minister’ in the north two years ago. Akinci, is the former leader of the Communal Liberation Party and a long-serving former mayor of the Turkish Cypriot part of Nicosia.

In a seven-candidate field, each of these three hopes to win some 30 per cent of the vote in what is proving to be one of the closest races in the north.

Trailing in fourth place is election ‘dark horse’, the former Cyprob negotiator and rising star of the Turkish Cypriot political scene, Kudret Ozersay. The latest polls predicted he could even garner up to 16 per cent of popular support, but not enough to get through to the second round.

Pollsters agree that unless there is a major upset, none of the top candidates will secure an absolute majority in Sunday’s race leaving the outcome to be decided among the two front runners next weekend.

Most Turkish Cypriots had expected either Akinci or Siber to face Eroglu in the second round. However, with the latter having recently suffered significant defections among his traditional support to newcomer Ozersay, there is mounting speculation that this might be sufficient to clear the way for an Akinci-Siber showdown.

According to one insider, Siber, despite being seen as a controversial candidate (even within the ranks of her own CTP), would benefit from the party’s unequivocal and disciplined support when and if it came down to a two-horse race.

With the prize beckoning, CTP would close ranks and rally behind her, thus giving Siber a party machine edge and in the view of one expert, “a strong chance of winning against an independent Akinci.”

As ever, in the background, rumour and speculation swirl about Ankara’s role and interests in the outcome. Some suggest that a Siber win would best suit Ankara, since it is believed to consider Eroglu or Akinci too independent for its taste.

“I don’t know why Ankara does not like Eroglu, but they don’t. And it is obvious why they would be opposed to Akinci,” said Sener Levent, veteran journalist and chief editor of Afrika, the outspoken opposition paper, and himself a candidate for Member of the European Parliament last May.

There have even been claims that Turkey was involved in behind-the-scenes efforts to influence today’s first round outcome by juxtaposing Eroglu and Ozersay in the hope that the latter would bleed away votes from the incumbent. Ozersay’s supporters vehemently deny the allegation.

Meanwhile, political monitors warn that the parties cannot be complacent and take their traditional support for granted. A mood of disillusionment among segments of Turkish Cypriot voters could indicate a departure from usual voting patterns.

This may explain why the incumbent president, elected with over 50 per cent of the votes in 2010, is believed to have such a slim chance of getting re-elected.

“Old parties do not seem to be in touch with their grassroots any more. Already, the last couple of elections have shown that the electorate is shifting. People don’t vote the same way as in the past,” said political analyst Dr Omur Yilmaz.

In the circumstances, the outcome of the election could prove much more unpredictable, she warned.

According to PRIO senior researcher Mete Hatay, “people are tired of old faces, corruption scandals, unkept promises. They want somebody clean whom they can trust. Akinci with his good record both as a politician and a consistent supporter of the solution to the Cyprus problem might just provide them with such an option”.

“He is also perceived to be the only one who could prove to be a worthy interlocutor for Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is someone with enough of the political weight and experience to be able to talk to him more like an equal.”

Just like Erdogan, Akinci has a moustache, jokes Hatay, and this also “weighs in his favour.”

Whoever is next Turkish Cypriot community leader, everything points to a change of the guard in the north’s political landscape. In this context, Ozersay is perceived as one of the biggest winners.

“He is already seen as the leader of the new centre-right in the north, and a possible future president or prime minister,” one independent expert told the Mail. “His next step will be to create a new party. We will see a lot of him in the coming years.”

Yet another PRIO consultant, Ayla Gurel, noted that traditional divisions between left and right no longer work “the same way as in the past”.

She maintains that Ozersay is perceived “as more to the right because the majority of his votes come from this direction, but he also gets votes from the other side”.

“The truth is a lot of people like what he is saying and how he wants to change things,” she adds.

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