On Sunday 23 January, Turkish Cypriots will head to the polls in the parliamentary elections, following the resignation of the precarious nationalist right-wing coalition formed by the National Unity Party (Ulusal Birlik Partisi - UBP), Democrat Party (Demokrat Parti - DP) and Rebirth Party (Yeniden Doğuş Partisi - YDP). Turkish Cypriot parliamentary elections are held every five years, since the first election in 1976. Through a proportional representation system, 50 seats are contested by competing political parties that either by themselves or in a party coalition must reach the electoral threshold of 5% of the national vote to enter the House, while 26 seats are required to form a working majority. The House of Representatives is the legislative branch of government responsible for holding the Executive branch of the Council of Ministers, which addresses how domestic issues will be handled by the incoming governments. External issues like relations with, for instance, the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), and Greek Cypriot Community, are instead handled by the President. Though the President is elected by popular vote in separate presidential elections held every five years, s/he is not the executive, but acts as the leader and chief negotiator of the Turkish Cypriot community in the Cyprus peace talks.
Since 1974, the island remains partitioned between a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north. While the Republic of Cyprus controlled by Greek Cypriots is recognized by the wider international community as the only legitimate Cypriot state, Cyprus became a full member state of the EU in 2004. On the other side, the northern part of Cyprus is under the de facto administration of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) since its declaration in 1983.
On the occasion of the last presidential elections held in October 2020, Turkey’s government explicitly intervened against Mustafa Akıncı, the former President of TRNC, also known as a fierce supporter of a federal solution. Alleging that interventions have made elections meaningless, “nothing’s gonna change” spirit fueled a stronger call for boycott firstly by the United Cyprus Party (Bileşik Kıbrıs Partisi - BKP), and then by the New Cyprus Party (Yeni Kıbrıs Partisi - YKP). In fact, the last presidential election), where Akıncı ran but did not win, revealed a personal vendetta between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Mustafa Akıncı. However, this will not be the case this time. There is no need for Turkey’s government to play an active role to change the course of the election.
Almost all the polls show the UBP, which follows Turkey’s path unconditionally, as taking the largest number of the seats in the House of Representatives despite not attaining an absolute majority in this election. Also, the main opposition Republican Turkish Party (Cumhuriyetçi Türk Partisi - CTP), a proponent of a bi-communal and bizonal federal solution as well as a healthy dialogue with Turkey, is expected to maintain its place as the second-largest party. In addition, the current ruling government of Turkey is too busy with its own gigantic problems – economic crises, depreciated Turkish lira, rising inflation and unemployment sitting on the top of the list. This time, compared to the previous elections in Northern Cyprus, there is much less energy and enthusiasm in the air for the electoral campaigns, as citizens are concerned primarily with their health, safety and economic welfare. The fact that the election is enforced with a short campaign duration has mobilized considerable pressure upon the parties, while Covid-19 has prevented effective mass meetings from being held. Political parties are running their electoral campaigns mostly through social media.
When it comes to relations with Turkey, Turkey’s government doesn’t seem to have any problems regarding the election campaigns of the competing parties. The current Prime Minister Faiz Sucuoğlu, the leader of the UBP, reiterated his insistence on a two-state solution based on both equal sovereignty and international recognition, on the joint management of hydrocarbons and on the reopening of Varosha – a town on the northern side of the island that was kept fenced off and closed to the public by the Turkish army since 1974. Being not only a symbol of Cyprus’ partition, but a bargaining chip in the decades-old conflict, the partial reopening of the town would be a move to throw prospects for reunification into doubt. This initiative also reflects the shifting Cyprus policy of Turkey, from the country’s traditional position in support of a bi-communal and bi-zonal federal settlement to a two-state one, since the prolonged UN-brokered Cyprus peace talks ended in Crans Montana in 2017 without resolution. Added to the UBP, also the DP and the YDP, which polls suggest they could pass the threshold, would follow these shifting policies with no reservations.
The left-wing parties CTP and TDP, and the centrist Peoples Party (Halkın Partisi - HP) would have some reservations in terms of Turkey’s policy initiatives, but they rather are inclined to seek dialogue with Turkey. The leader of the main opposition CTP, Tufan Erhürman, promises a viable country through the implementation of a long term socio-economic and cultural development plan and establishing healthier relations by enhancing dialogue with Turkey.Similar to CTP, the Communal Democracy Party (Toplumcu Demokrasi Partisi - TDP) emphasizes the importance of a self-sustained social state when considering the fact that the financial aids provided by Turkey have been gradually declined in recent years.
When it comes to relations with the Greek Cypriot community and the EU, left-wing parties seem more interested to pursue and promote. Particularly CTP’s manifesto highlighted the importance of and the need for improvements on Green Line Regulation,which settled movement of goods, services and people between the two sides of Cyprus. It is significant to emphasize the symbolic importance of the EU as a second source of finance – albeit a small one – after Turkey’s financial aid to Northern Cyprus. Nevertheless, it can be safely argued that following such a pro-EU and pro-federation path is not very promising for the political parties in terms of gaining votes. This is because the EU has by and large failed to fulfill most of its promises toward the Turkish Cypriot community after the 2004 failed referendums on the UN sponsored peace plan, such as the Direct Trade Regulation, which a was part of the bigger goal of the EU “to bring Turkish Cypriots closer the Union”. Added to that, the EU’s very narrow and strictly legalistic framework used in Protocol 10, which established EU’s relations with Turkish Cypriots, and the practice of engaging the Turkish Cypriot civil society without engaging the Turkish Cypriot community both distanced Turkish Cypriots from the EU and deepened the division in the island.
The intransigent position of the Greek Cypriot leadership on major negotiation issues like power-sharing with Turkish Cypriot side and security architecture of the future united island, as well as its refusal to any kind of cooperation with Turkish Cypriot side on the issue of the natural resources – predominantly the natural gas discoveries around Cyprus – in fact play the hands of the right-wing nationalist Turkish Cypriot political parties in the upcoming elections.
All in all, both the EU and the Greek Cypriot leadership should re-evaluate their positions and policies if they want to see pro-EU and pro-federation Turkish Cypriot political parties gaining power in the elections in Northern Cyprus.
Ahmet Sözen is professor of International Relations. He is the Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations as well as the Founding Director of the think tank Cyprus Policy Center at Eastern Mediterranean University (Famagusta, Northern Cyprus).
Devrim Şahin is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science and International Relations as well as the research assistant in Cyprus Policy Center at Eastern Mediterranean University (Famagusta, Northern Cyprus).