The situation surrounding the election of the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community on 11 October 2020 is a peculiar one for several reasons. A decisive factor in this is the position of Mustafa Akıncı according to which the relationship between Turkish Cypriots and Turkey should be governed by the principle of mutual respect instead of that between mother and daughter. Various parameters, enter into play, in particular, the relationship of the community and its leaders with Turkey, over time and today, the situation regarding the economy and the society, the stalemate in the Cyprus Problem and the conditions created by the coronavirus threat.
During the 40 years of Rauf Denktaş’s dominance in the community (1960-2000), the life of the Turkish Cypriots depended entirely on Turkey, especially after Christmas 1963. Denktaş considered the community and its people an integral part of Turkey, a concept that involves a desire for full integration to Turkey. Over time, he was detached or he rather became autonomous from the official Turkish leadership, with relations at other levels of influence, and was able to set policies that were not necessarily within Ankara’s favour. He could impose some choices of his own, without, however, openly coming into conflict with the Turkish leadership.
The Turkish Cypriots’ dependence on Ankara continued into the third millennium.
Denktaş’s successor, the leader of the Republican Turkish Party, RTP – CTP, Mehmet Ali Talat, had a peculiar relationship with Ankara, lacking autonomy, as he did not have the background and potential his predecessor had developed over the years. When he came to power in 2005, his party’s radical left-wing positions were already left behind. In public statements, in June 2012, he said that during his term he had experienced no problems, no interference by the Turkish leadership. Conversely, there were frictions in his relations with the Turkish army in Cyprus. He criticized the situation that prevailed after 2010, arguing that the Turkish Cypriots were in a relationship of submission to Turkey, as slaves with a master, which was harmful to the future of the community, he argued. In the spring of 2020, he criticized Mustafa Akıncı claiming that his positions and behavior were damaging relations with Turkey.
Derviş Eroğlu, leader of the conservative and nationalist National Unity Party, NUP-UBP, which advocated recognition of TRNC or integration with Turkey, was elected in 2010 against Mehmet Ali Talat, despite Ankara’s wishes, as well as those of the European Union and some Western governments. Despite official actions and statements from them that favored the re-election of Talat, which indicated, among other things, his good relationship with Ankara, the favor did not bear fruit. Eroğlu’s term in office coincided with his party being also in power until 2013 and was not marked by a problem with Ankara. Without charisma or a strong personality, in a time of economic crisis and greater dependence on Turkey, the Turkish Cypriot leader had no room or the potential to put forward his own choices, if any.
Mustafa Akıncı was elected with a proclaimed position that Turkey – Turkish Cypriots relations should be based on mutual respect, instead of dependence. This was one of the four main positions of his campaign, projected long time before 2015. From the very beginning of its existence, the Communal Liberation Party, CLP – TKP, was opposed to integration to Turkey. Akıncı himself had a row in public with the military commander of the security forces, when he stressed that in a democracy only those elected by the people should have a say. Less than six months later (mid-2001) he was no more in power. Despite the above, one could argue that his election in 2015 did not seem to pose a particular problem for Ankara, given having also in mind the other candidates, Eroğlu, Siber, Özersay. On the contrary, the moderation and good relations he had with the Greek Cypriot side during his career, could be considered a positive factor and perhaps a helpful one in presenting the Turkish side in general as compromising and with good will in efforts to find a solution to the Cyprus problem. Also, Ankara may probably feel confident that it has ways and means to subdue the community and its leader.
Several incidents in which Akıncı attempted to reaffirm in practice that he could act as an autonomous leader, and his critical stance towards Ankara politicians, led to a rift. Such examples are his stance during the Crans Montana talks, and his position on war, in relation to the Turkish military invasion of Afrin. The critical factor in this confrontation and rift is obviously the increasing radicalization of policies pursued by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the growing effort to intervene in the community. The high level of authoritarianism is clearly at odds with the beliefs of a politician who is characterized by a commitment to the fundamental principles of democracy.
Turkish Cypriot society has over time featured a fragmentation of political forces, which leads to divisions, with right and left wing forces head to head. The relationship of high dependence on Turkey in practice, with a constant flow of funding, the presence of the army, and other factors, is strengthened by the fragmentation of political forces. In several cases, it appeared that an invisible external hand could be felt behind party splits, especially of NUP – UBP, and the departure of top officials, leading to the collapse of coalitions. This has over time made it impossible for any party to fully dominate the community, with a strong voice at both the society and the leadership level.
A key feature of the community, maybe of the majority, is a strong feeling in favor of maintaining it as an autonomous entity from Turkey. This position does not preclude the acceptance of some forms of dependence, mainly for security and economic issues. There is of course a portion of the population that rejects any separation of Turkey and Turkish Cypriots. The size of the first group depends to a large extent on the situation regarding efforts to solve the Cyprus problem. In times of a stalemate or tension, most people turn to Ankara, feeling that this makes them secure.
The above show us that, at first sight, the current situation is not favorable or supportive of a fully autonomous from Turkey Turkish Cypriot community. Talat’s public statements last March on dangers coming from Akıncı’s stance towards Turkey, or from Turkish Cypriots drifting away from Turkey, and recent efforts of the conservatives and Özersay to win Ankara’s favor, are characteristic of the leadership’s dependence. At the same time, however, the community strongly feels the breath of authoritarianism and the threat against. It sees the imposition on the community of political, but also religious choices, and an Islamism that have never been its own characteristics.
Of course, here comes the crucial question: To what extent are attitudes at the leadership level reflected in the public? There are clear indications that the disengagement of a significant portion of citizens from their parties and leadership strengthens the will for an independent community. The election of Akıncı itself in 2015 is a confirmation. We witness also the presence of strong groups in civil society, who feel that it is their obligation to defend this autonomy. However, we have to admit that the mobilization potential is severely weakened and it is hard to expect anything similar to what was performed by the “this land is ours” platform in 2000.
What could be the outcome on 11 October 2020? How can dependence on Turkey, as well as Ankara’s potential for influence, determine the elections? In previous articles, I have indicated that the potential of directly influencing the vote is negligible. Delays in the flow of financial aid, that make Turkish Cypriots turn against their leaders, and interferences at the level of officials, to leading to party splits and divisions have been the usual forms of actions. Therefore, one can argue that the decisive factor is the will of the voters.
At the moment this will is not clear or crystallized. The dilemmas are strong and there are no factors to help. On the one hand, there is the threat of Ankara and Erdogan‘s Islamism. Negative trends are reinforced by the choices of the conservative Turkish Cypriot political forces, such as actions related to the opening of Famagusta that increase tensions. On the other hand, uncertainty about the “Cypriot” future of the community is reinforced by messages sent by the Greek Cypriot leadership since 2017 and the complications caused by activities connected to hydrocarbons.
Under the conditions and the climate we describe, the dilemmas for the Turkish Cypriots will remain until October 11, 2020. Even the day after the final result, regardless of their vote, too many will doubt whether they did well to vote for one or the other candidate. With the community locked between Ankara and the Greek Cypriot community, this condition will remain its critical problem, an existential one. This is eternalising its uncertainty and insecurity until there is a solution to the Cyprus problem. Despite the existential threat they feel from Ankara, they are unable to find a solution in case they reject Ankara. Can Mustafa Akıncı create a sense of self-
confidence and convince the community that he can resist, and ‘impose’ mutual respect, and continue, fully self-sufficient or with Turkey‘s assistance, in a ‘balanced’ relationship?