By Simon Bahceli
There is a tangible feeling that something has changed in the northern part of Cyprus. Hope has returned for the first time in ten years. And although the jubilant crowds are no longer singing and dancing in Inonu Square, the Turkish Cypriot community feels it is on the verge of something important.
But as the dust settles over dovish Mustafa Akinci’s landslide victory in the ‘presidential’ election last weekend, it is worth pondering on what has caused such a dramatic shift in Turkish Cypriot sentiments, and what, in real terms, such a shift might mean for the north, and ultimately the whole of Cyprus.
Of course, this is not the first time the Turkish Cypriots have voted for a pro-solution leader, or indeed for solution itself. In 2004, they famously backed the UN-brokered Annan plan for reunification, and in 2005 elected moderate Mehmet Ali Talat. However, on neither occasion did the community reap the fruits of their actions.
It was for this reason that in 2010 Dervish Eroglu, a nationalist and philosophical ally of founder of the breakaway state Rauf Denktash, was elected to replace Talat, who people now saw as having failed to deliver on his promises, says Eastern Mediterranean University researcher Ahmet Sozen.
“It’s like a pendulum that swings from hardline to pro-solution,” Sozen says, adding that the community has, at least since 2000, wanted a solution. But when it doesn’t get it, or when it feels shunned by the Greek Cypriots and the international community, it replaces the dove with a hawk.
It would be hard to explain Akinci’s success by this alone however, and others have argued that the shift in support towards a pro-solution leader might have less to do with the community’s desire for a solution than for sweeping changes within the community.
“All indications are that Turkish Cypriots elected Akinci, not only – or perhaps not even primarily – as a man who will work for federation, but also as one who will stand up for them,” Cyprus-based anthropologist Rebecca Bryant wrote in an article recently published on her blog.
Interestingly, the “standing up for them” refers not to standing up to the Greek Cypriots or the international community, but to the north’s patron and supposed protector, Turkey.
Bryant describes how Turkish Cypriots often feel “they are not political actors” in a land that was ostensibly carved out for them in 1974 to live freely in, and adds that while the north’s close association with Turkey has brought many of the trappings of neo-liberalist economy – something that might make people less isolated – franchises to the branded stores that dot the high streets are generally owned by Turkish businesses based in Turkey, and not by Cypriots.
Even massive projects, like the one that will, we are told, bring water in a pipeline under the Mediterranean from southern Turkey to the north this summer is looked upon with mistrust by many Turkish Cypriots who see the project as “yet another mark of Turkey’s increasing presence and dominance on the island,” Bryant says.
Others like sociologist and pollster Kutred Akay, believe that, along with a desire for a realignment of relations with Turkey, last Sunday’s election was a call for change that came not only from the pro-solution camp but from a broader section of society.
“There is the view that the vote was a rerun of the referendum, but there is no such connection. Three of the four main candidates were for social transformation, and that is the important thing,” Akay told the Sunday Mail this week.
Akinci’s success, and that of Kudret Ozersay, the young independent who campaigned on a platform of “clean politics and transparent administration”, winning himself 20 per cent of the vote in the first round, stemmed precisely, Akay says, from their not offering up specific solutions to the Cyprus problem.
“Only Eroglu focused on the Cyprus problem,” he adds, suggesting that this was a major reason for his resounding defeat in the second round.
EMU researcher Sozen agrees, saying that Akinci’s focus instead on issues such as universal human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, and even animal rights drew votes from educated people regardless of what kind of solution they might think best for Cyprus.
Even Eroglu’s last minute warnings that Akinci would “sell the north out” or that “Turkish settlers will be deported”, fell on deaf ears this time, even among Turkish immigrants, who also evidently leant their support to Akinci in sufficient numbers to not thwart his victory.
“Luckily, no one believes that stuff anymore,” Sozen says.
Today, it seems that what the Turkish Cypriots and the Turkish immigrants living in the north want most of all is to stand on their own two feet economically and to feel they have the deciding say in how their community is run. That does not mean that solution to the Cyprus problem is not important to them. Naturally, it is, as it is the only way available to rid the community of its non-recognised status internationally and thereby allow them to be a lot less dependent on Turkey.
But what are Akinci’s chances of cutting the umbilical link to Ankara, particularly when Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan appears to be insisting that the mother-child relationship remain intact?
Predictably, Erdogan’s telling Akinci that “his ears should hear what his mouth is saying” in response to the new leader’s call for “brotherly” relations with Turkey based on “neither conflict nor submission” has only served to increase the new leader’s popularity among Turkish Cypriots. But it has also created a real fear that Turkey might stand in the way of Akinci’s plan to transform the north into something more than a satellite of Ankara.
Although most observers believe Akinci and Erdogan will have to reach some kind of modus vivendi when they meet in Ankara on May 11, it is harder today to see what Turkey would get out of allowing Akinci to realign his community away from Turkish economic and cultural dominance and ultimately forge a reunion with Greek Cypriots. In the past, the carrot for Turkey was EU membership.
“Turkey’s interests are no longer concerned with the EU membership but with how it can benefit from energy sources in the region. Because of hydrocarbons and pipelines, Cyprus is once again of high strategic importance,” Akay says, adding: “In the same ways, as Turkey was NATO’s strategic outpost, Cyprus is Turkey’s.”
Moreover, Akay believes a major sticking point for Akinci and Erdogan in the coming days will be closed “ghost city” of Varosha, which Akinci has already stated he wants to open up to its predominantly Greek Cypriot owners in return for the opening of the north’s Famagusta port and Ercan Airport to international traffic.
“I don’t sense that Turkey has been convinced on the subject of Varosha,” he observes.
Perhaps Akinci has been unlucky that his victory comes just weeks before Turkey’s general election on June 7 from which Erdogan hopes his AK party will win enough of the vote to change the constitution and make him supreme leader. This bad timing will mean that Akinci will need, at least until the election is over, to brace himself for increasingly nationalistic rhetoric from the Turkish president as he seeks desperately to snatch votes from resurgent nationalists parties.
But Akinci is not alone, not even in Turkey, and not even in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of which Erdogan is a founding member. After Erdogan had berated Akinci last week, deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc took a much more conciliatory stance, and even appeared to back Akinci’s call for a “brotherly relationship” by saying, “We are like elder and younger brothers, and a brotherly relationship expresses friendship and respect.”
And there are other hopes emerging from Turkey that could benefit Akinci and the Turkish Cypriots’ search for a new politics devoid of rampant nationalism, Akay says.
“The emergence of the People Democratic Party (HDP), which started out as a Kurdish movement but has broadened its appeal by championing human rights, if it continues to grow, could shatter this paradigm.”
As Akinci’s stance towards his paymaster in Ankara becomes clear over the coming weeks, pro-solution Turkish and Greek Cypriots must keep in mind that as much as the new leader truly wants a solution to the benefit of all Cypriots, he will have to convince Turkey of its benefits too.