The Republic of Cyprus was established as a bicommunal state in 1960 after 82 years of British colonial rule. While the bicommunal state was constructed as a unitary system, its constitution stipulated consociational features that ensured firm checks and balances between the two communities (Bahcheli 2000). For example, the constitution provided for a Greek Cypriot (GC) president and a Turkish Cypriot (TC) vice-president who were elected by members of their own communities; each could veto the other over foreign affairs, defense, and security.
The bicommunal government established at independence collapsed after just three years, triggering communal violence and the withdrawal of the TCs from all government institutions in 1964. After a Greek-led coup that prompted the 1974 invasion by the Turkish armed forces and the subsequent de facto division of the island, virtually all TCs settled in the Turkish-controlled territory in the northern third of the island. Since then, GCs and TCs have searched for ways to reconcile their political differences and find a mutually acceptable solution to the Cyprus problem; for 40 years all such efforts have been unsuccessful, given the two communities’ opposing visions of federalism. It seems that the majority of TCs, having exercised self-rule for nearly 40 years, prefer to maintain a separate TC ‘state’ (Bahcheli 2000).
Self-rule was embodied in the formation of the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ in 1983; the ‘TRNC’, however, is actually an illegitimate quasi-state, and is not recognized by the UN nor any other country in the world but Turkey. According to the constitution, the executive branch of the ‘government’ consists of the ‘President’ who is the Head of State, and the council of ministers led by a ‘Prime Minister’. The ‘President’, who is elected for a five-year term, is also the state’s Commander-in-chief, although typically the security forces answer to the ‘Prime Minister’ with Turkey making all crucial decisions. The ‘President’ chooses his ‘Prime Minister’ from those elected to the legislative assembly, and the two together appoint all other ministers, who need not be elected members. The power vested in the president’s office places the elected President at the heart of the political system. This, combined with the importance attached to the negotiations for the solution of the Cyprus problem (for which the ‘President’ is responsible), adds moral weight to the presidential powers.
The April 2015 elections were the seventh time the TCs went to the polls to elect their leader, the first being in 1985. In total, 21 candidates have stood in these seven elections. Rightist-nationalist Rauf Denktash won the first four elections, followed by (leftist) Mehmet Ali Talat in 2005 and (rightist) Dervis Eroglu in 2010. The lowest ever turnout was in 1995 (80.1%). The 2015 voting featured four major candidates (seven in total): the incumbent D. Eroglu, supported by the two major parties of the right – the National Unity Party (UBP) and the Democratic Party (together accounting for 50.49% of the vote in the 2013 parliamentary elections); Kudret Ozersay (independent and former head of the Turkish Cypriot negotiation team); Sibel Siber, speaker of the ‘parliament’ and candidate of the Republican Turkish Party –CTP (38.38%); and Mustafa Akinci (independent), supported by the Communal Democracy Party and the United Cyprus Party (combined vote 10.56%). All major candidates but Eroglu were considered to be pro-solution albeit in varying degrees, with Akinci being the most committed to finding a settlement.
In view of the forthcoming new round of negotiations announced to start on 15 May 2015 after months of stalemate, the TC elections were considered critical, and by both political analysts and the media. The voting was crucial in another respect. In recent years, TC politics have been marked by increasing fluidity and realignment. At the heart of this process lies the relationship between the TCs and Turkey, as well as voters’ disillusionment with the traditional political parties, both the right and the left. As a result it was very difficult to interpret public opinion regarding the 2015 elections based on the polls, which offered contradicting predictions throughout the campaign.
Fluidity and fragmentation among the electorate and the political actors were already evidenced in the parliamentary elections of 2013 and the municipal elections of 2014, which were combined with a referendum over constitutional changes. Both elections, as well as the referendum, revealed political behaviours outside the traditional TC voting behaviour. The traditional right-wing majority failed to produce results, whereas the mainstream left also failed to draw significant support. The results indicated shifting voting patterns, both within (intra) and between (inter) ideological blocks that favoured new movements and organizations, both of leftist and center-right nuances.
For many TC analysts these new trends are indicative of an ongoing restructuring of the relationship between Turkey and the TCs, away from the traditional ‘mother-child’ relationship and towards the weaning of the TC community from Turkey. This restructuring seemed to begin in the aftermath of the failed 2004 referendum for the Annan plan. There are very many TCs who consider Turkey as rather like ‘the IMF of Northern Cyprus,’ not only because it adopted an intransigent position regarding a settlement in Cyprus, but because it imposed severe austerity measures on the ‘TRNC’ (Bozkurt 2014).
Following the 1974 invasion, Turkey’s involvement in the north of Cyprus was always obvious and intense (Ozsaglam 2003); this was especially true with regard to electoral politics, with Turkey favouring right-wing parties and candidates. Changes in the TC community over time, however, led Turkey to distance itself from the 2015 elections — at least overtly — for the first time; its interference in 2010 proved a failure and it was possible that a new intervention could backfire.
The results of the first round of the voting were a clear sign of the changes taking place and can be described as a surprising upset of power relations. There were two obvious winners and two losers: Akinci and Ozersay on the winning side and Eroglu and Siber on the losing end. Eroglu finished first, polling 28.15%, just above half of the combined percentages of the parties’ supporting him, whereas Akinci polled 26.94%, well above the percentages of his supporting parties. Ozersay polled 21.25%, a very high score given his independent status and without any party endorsement. Siber polled merely 24.27%, representing only 63% of her party’s voters. Akinci and Eroglu progressed to the second round where Akinci comfortably won by 60.3%.
Akinci’s electoral victory cannot be explained solely as the rise of the Left in the TC community. It is far more complicated than that. His high score in the first round, well above the accumulated percentage of the two leftist parties supporting him, means that he managed to win votes not only from the supporters of the center-left CTP but also from those traditionally voting for right-wing parties. This was more explicit during the second round of the elections. Akinci benefited from the split in Eroglu’s party, UBP, as well as from the disillusionment amongst the left wing constituency and especially the supporters of the CTP. The latter was criticized for its conformist position and especially because of its perceived subservience to the conservative AKP government in Turkey.
Akinci’s win signals strong support for the new Cyprus-centered societal trends in the TC community. His victory symbolizes what a Turkish commentator called ‘the secular and peculiar resistance of the Turkish Cypriot identity’. Essentially, his election reflects both a protest against Turkey’s power in the ‘TRNC’ and at the same time a strong desire to find a solution to the Cyprus problem. Akinci is a firm supporter of a federal bicommunal state and he has also stated his intention to open the closed city of Varosha (of high symbolic significance for GCs) under the auspices of the UN as a measure of good will. His candidacy represented TC communal claims for dignity and political equality with Turkey, as well as the preservation of the Cypriot aspect of TCs identity.
Arguably, his relation with Turkey will be crucial for a(n) (un)successful tenure, given the ‘TRNC’s’ total economic dependence on Turkey. Immediately after his election he was engaged in a war of words with Turkey’s President Tayip Erdogan. Erdogan criticized Akinci for his position on Turkey, saying: ‘We paid a price for northern Cyprus. We gave martyrs and we continue to pay a price. For Turkey, northern Cyprus is our baby. We will continue to look at it the way a mother looks at her baby’. Akinci’s response in a live interview with CNN Turk, was clear: ‘Doesn’t Turkey want to see its baby grow up? Should we always be a baby?’.
Akinci has taken on the arduous task of leading a community that has lived in uncertainty for more than four decades. His election has given many TCs new hope that they might be able to act in a politically viable way, express their political agency and take their fate in their hands (Bozkurt 2015). Delivering his promises and maintaining a balanced relation with Turkey will be his most difficult task amidst a volatile internal setting. Many people fear that Akinci will eventually succumb to Turkey’s demands. Turkey’s Prime Minister Davutoglu implied this when he declared that: ‘The same thing happened when Mr Talat came to power but he stayed on the rails’. Alternatively, Akinci’s election could turn into an opportunity for the resolution of the Cyprus problem in a way that could also unlock the impasse in Turkey’s EU membership.
Bahcheli, Tozun (2000). ‘Searching for a Cyprus Settlement: Considering Options for Creating a Federation, a Confederation, or Two Independent States’. The Journal of Federalism, 30 (1-2) (Winter/Spring), pp. 203-216.
Bozkurt Umut (2014). ‘Turkey: From the ‘Motherland’ to the ‘IMF of Northern Cyprus’?. The Cyprus Review, 26 (1), pp. 83-105.
Bozkurt Umut (2015). ‘Yes we can? Mustafa Akıncı and a new hope for Cyprus’. https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/umut-bozkurt/yes-we-can-mustafa-ak%C4%B1nc%C4%B1-and-new-hope-for-cyprus. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
Ozsaglam Muhittin (2003). ‘The Role of Turkey in 14th December Elections in Northern Cyprus’. The European Rim Policy and Investment Council (ERPIC) © 2003.