Can Europe Make It?

Yes we can? Mustafa Akıncı and a new hope for Cyprus

Akıncı's election victory was greeted with euphoria by both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. After 40 years of separation, could a solution to the Cyprus dispute finally be within reach?

Umut Bozkurt
30 April 2015

Mustafa Akinci - the new President of Northern Cyprus. Wikimedia. Public domain.A carnivalesque celebration prevails in the dusty streets of northern Nicosia this evening. It is the 26th of April and people who have been anxiously waiting for the election results in front of the office of the presidential candidate Mustafa Akıncı finally let their hair down. Former mayor of Nicosia and a member of the parliament, the left-wing leader Mr. Akıncı won 60.4% of the votes, defeating the incumbent right wing president Derviş Eroğlu.

“We made it brother” a young woman exclaims. Greek Cypriots pass through the border and hug their Turkish Cypriot compatriots. There is a lot of crying and dancing going on. Even people who are not well known for their dancing skills, such as members of the parliament, former ministers and academics perform rather striking dance figures in front of the cameras. People shout altogether: “Kıbrıs’ta Barış Engellenemez!” (Peace cannot be prevented in Cyprus!)

The euphoria continues throughout the night as more and more Cypriots fill the İnönü Square waiting for their president. People continue drinking, singing and chanting slogans. Friends from Turkey and Greece keep calling and sending messages, congratulating Akıncı. North Cyprus elections epitomize the wind of change that is sweeping Eastern Mediterranean democracies these days, where entrenched political parties are crumbling, paving the way to the rise of left wing parties such as Syriza in Greece and the Kurdish backed HDP in Turkey.

What unites the crowd is hope, despite the debilitating cynicism that whispers that things will not change. A hope that has been killed long time ago, a hope that despite everything rose from the ashes. Akıncı finally arrives and in his ever demure and decisive manner delivers his speech. He says he will aim for bringing a settlement to the Cyprus problem and start peace negotiations with the Greek Cypriot president Mr. Nicos Anastasiades as soon as possible. He says he will not intervene in the internal affairs of the country but “of course will take sides on issues related to social justice, gender equality, children rights and environmental issues”.

I am listening to his speech with a bunch of close friends, half drunk at this point on beer as well as happiness. If anyone is looking for a dispassionate, dry analysis of an “objective expert” on the presidential elections in the North Cyprus, they should look somewhere else. I care too much about this country and the world to be dispassionate. I have supported Mr. Akıncı since the beginning of his campaign with the hope that things will change and I will not apologize for that.

Objectivity is overrrated anyway. I let Slavoj Zizek to do the talking: “Politics is precisely the struggle to define the ‘neutral’ terrain”. What appears as the ‘objective’ expert position which defines itself as universal-apolitical tries to mask itself as non-partisan by imposing itself as the voice of the Whole and reducing its opponents to the agents of particular interests.”

Akıncı’s electoral victory cannot be explained with the rise of the Left in Cyprus. It is way more complicated than that. Akıncı was one of the four significant presidential candidates that competed in the 2015 elections: the other three were Derviş Eroğlu, the candidate of the center left CTP-BG Sibel Siber and the International Law expert Dr. Kudret Özersay. The two main parties that supported Akıncı in the first round, TDP and BKP had only received around 10% in the 28 July 2013 parliamentary elections. Yet Akıncı won 26.94% in the first round of the elections. This means that he managed to win votes not only from the supporters of the center-left CTP-BG but also from the constituency that traditionally voted for right-wing parties.

This tendency became even more explicit during the second round of the elections. Following the first round of the elections that ended with the electoral victory of Eroğlu and Akıncı, the CTP-BG took a decision to support Akıncı in the second round. The candidate of CTP-BG, Sibel Siber had won 22.53% of the votes. The turnout in the two rounds of the elections were around 63%. This meant that Akıncı’s 60.4% votes came not only from the support base of left wing parties such as the TDP, BKP and CTP-BG but also from the right wing consituency.

Akıncı benefited from the split in Derviş Eroğlu’s right-wing party UBP. Eroğlu - who had managed to attract 50.35% of the votes in the 2010 presidential elections - gained only 28.15% of the votes in the first round, losing half of its supporters to Akıncı as well as center right Kudret Özersay. A significant reason behind this was the fact that Eroğlu kept on interfering in his party the UBP, eventually leading to the leader of the party İrsen Küçük experiencing a humiliating electoral defeat in the 2013 parliamentary elections. So the disillusionment on the part of the right wing constituency played an important role in Akıncı’s success.

Akıncı also benefited from the disillusionment amongst the left wing constituency and especially the supporters of the CTP-BG. Apart from the decision to declare Sibel Siber as the presidential candidate which seems to have antagonized a significant percentage of the party’s supporters, CTP-BG has been criticized due to its conformist position and especially because of its perceived subservience to the conservative AKP government in Turkey.

Due to the influence of the liberal wing in the party, the major party on the left could not take a critical standpoint on the austerity measures imposed by Turkey. CTP-BG’s policies on the Cyprus issue were not very different either. The party did not embrace confidence building measures. A member of the parliament from the CTP-BG (and the current foreign minister Özdil Nami) revealed that his position is not any different from the right wing Eroğlu especially regarding opening Varosha under the UN administration. The common denominator between Eroğlu and Nami is that they both belive that Varosha should be considered as part of a comprehensive settlement.

Both the UBP and the CTP-BG had created disappointment in many people for not standing up to the constant interventions of Turkey. Indeed this was one of the main dynamics behind Akıncı’s electoral victory. Akıncı is well known in the Turkish Cypriot public opinion precisely for standing up to Turkey.

In 2000, when he was a deputy prime minister, he got into a big row with the Turkish general in Cyprus over transferring the control of Turkish Cypriot police from the Turkish military to civilian authority. His coalition government collapsed as a result. In his electoral campaign for the presidential elections, Akıncı promised to work for a federal solution as well as embracing confidence building measures. He is interested in opening Varosha under the UN administration as well as opening Ercan for direct flights and opening Famagusta port to direct trade. Many commentators argue that if Varosha can be opened under the UN administration, Greek Cypriot leader Mr. Nicos Anastasiades would counter this move by opening Ercan airport and the Famagusta port. In any case Akıncı’s presidency will also reveal the real intentions of Mr. Anastasiades. He will no more be able to use the intransigent position of a nationalist leader in order to suspend the negotiations.

Another promise of Mr. Akıncı is establishing a more balanced relationship with Turkey based on mutual respect. He said he wanted to transform the “motherland-infantland” relationship between Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots into a relationship between two sister states. We will neither surrender to Turkey nor establish a confrontational relationship with Turkey, he has said.

The declarations made by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reveals that Mr. Akıncı might face a significant challenge in achieving these promises. Right after the elections, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has engaged in a war of words with Akıncı over the nature of the relationship between the two countries. During a press conference on April 27, president Erdoğan said: “Do his ears hear what he says? Even working together as brothers has its conditions. 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,” he added.

This statement also gives hints about Mr. Erdoğan’s position on the opening of the Varosha under the UN. In his party’s aim to attract the votes of the nationalist constituency in Turkey before the elections in June, there is a high possibility that the AKP and Erdoğan will adopt a hawkish position on Cyprus. Indeed commentators such as Cengiz Çandar expressed this concern and talked about a u-turn in the AKP’s policies on Cyprus. The pro-solution approach adopted by the AKP in the early 2000s seems to have given way  to a pro-status quo standpoint that does not prioritize a settlement in Cyprus.

Mr. Akıncı has taken over the rather arduous task of presiding over a people who have lived with the uncertainty of life in an unrecognised state for more than four decades. His presidency gave many Turkish Cypriots the hope that they can act as political actors, express their political agency and take their fate in their hands. Akıncı has to tread carefully in order to deliver his promises without antagonizing the authoritarian AKP and the Turkish president Erdoğan. This is not an easy task yet Akıncı is well aware that he owes this to the people who have pinned their hopes in him and filled the İnönü Square on the 26 April evening in thousands.

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