By Duran Kamgar-Parsi
This article discusses the recent Presidential election in Turkish Cyprus. The hard-line candidate Dervis Eroglu captured a narrow victory in the election on April 18, 2010. Many of his opponents claim that his victory will destroy chances of negotiation with Greek Cyprus. Eroglu argues, however, that he is fighting for transparency and Turkish sovereignty. Underpinning the election is Turkey’s bid to join the EU, making the showdown between incumbent – Mehmet Ali Talat – and Eroglu crucially important. Cyprus is a member of the EU, but Turkish Cypriots do no receive membership benefits. At stake for Turks is economic and political integration into the European system, should a successful negotiation take place. Eroglu’s victory also marks another key political gain for a hard line actor in the Middle East, creating a troubling pattern since 2009 of a resurgence of conservative elements taking political power in Middle Eastern states.
On Sunday April 18th Turkish Cypriots gathered to vote for a new President in what has been touted to be a crucial election in the history of the small island. The race had narrowed down to two major candidates, the incumbent Mehmet Ali Talat and the hardline challenger, Dervis Eroglu. The main campaign platform of each candidate, and a central feature underpinning the fabric of the island itself, was a reunification with the southern, Greek, half of the island. Talat has tried for his entire Presidency to negotiate a settlement with Greek Cyprus in hopes that the two-hundred plus thousand Turks living on the island would be able to receive EU membership benefits (currently denied to them) and integrate fully into the socio-political climate of Cyprus. His campaign slogan was focused on building a new history and moving away from the past of political isolation and economic stagnation. His challenger, Dervis Eroglu believes that Talat should not be given a second chance, supporting instead, a two-state solution and insisting that Turkish Cyprus receive international recognition. Pre-election polls predicted a victory for the hard-line candidate, while Talat continued to express confidence in his ability to win the election.
Decades of Conflict between North and South
Tensions between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus date back to the colonial era, and were intensified as the United Kingdom withdrew its presence on the island due to Greek guerilla fighters in the 1950’s. As the Greek Cypriots intensified their pressure on Britain and made increased demands for independence, hostility turned to Turks living on the island as well. Folding under pressure and unwilling to engage in open hostilities, the Greek and Turkish governments, in accordance with Britain, gave the island of Cyprus independence in 1959. The agreement was safeguarded under the Treaty of Guarantee, which mandated Cyprus secession or union with another state, and allowed Greece, Turkey, and Britain to act as overseers on important conflicting issues.
A complicated and oftentimes inefficient system of governance was set up between the Turks and Greeks living on the island, but Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios brazenly began to pursue a policy of enosis, or reunification with Greece, which angered Turkish Cypriots so much so that in 1963 they withdrew from political activity. In 1974 a group of Cypriots attempted to assassinate President Makarios, who had moved away from the policy of enosis in attempts to find a more centrist solution, and take control of the island. In response, the Turkish government, headed by Bulent Ecevit, ordered the Turkish military to intervene and protect the lives of Turkish Cypriots. The ensuing conflict resulted in the North-South split of Cyprus, with two hundred thousand Turks inhabiting the Northern part, and eight hundred thousand Greeks inhabiting Southern Cyprus. Cyprus has been internationally recognized and enjoys EU membership, while the Turkish Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey.
The Hard-liner Wins!
After more than 98% of voting returns have been reported, the hard line challenger Dervis Eroglu has been declared the winner of the election. Needing half of the vote to emerge victorious, Eroglu captured approximately 50.3% (a margin of just over 500 votes tipped the scales) while the incumbent took home 42.8%, and a humbling defeat. Opinion polls have shown that Talat’s failure to successfully negotiate a resolution to the division between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, in combination with the economic isolation suffered at the hands of its non-recognition by UN member states, has crippled his bid for re-election. A very high voter turnout rate of 76% suggested that the public strongly favors a change of scenery in the Presidential office and places a popular mandate in Eroglu’s hands, essentially putting the ball in his court. Eroglu will begin a five year term that will attempt to resolve the issue favorably for Turkish Cypriots.
Eroglu claimed Sunday that “negotiations will continue,” despite claims by opponents that he would refuse to negotiate with Greek Cypriots. Eroglu favors a two-state solution which is strongly opposed by the Greeks. His focus, however, is on the sovereignty of Turks living on the island. The preferred solution by Greek Cypriots and the UN is a federal state with distinct communal zones for Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
It is widely accepted that a successful resolution to the conflict in Cyprus will impact not only the Turkish Cypriots, but also Turkey’s bid to join the EU. The more broad-reaching implication is the general trend in the past year that has seen conservative or hard line elements in the Middle East gain political strength through elections in Iran (Ahmadinejad), Lebanon (Hezbollah), Israel (Likud), and now Cyprus. The apparent conservative resurgence in the region is a troubling thought – and could be a result of the failure of more liberal elements to exact meaningful progress, and a general breakdown of negotiations throughout the region coupled with anti-Western sentiments flaring.
More pressing however is Turkey’s desire to join the EU; Cyprus is applying pressure on Turkey and has the ability to block its bid for membership if an adequate solution to the problem is not found, and because Ankara refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Greek Cyprus. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan supports peace talks between Turkish and Greek Cyprus and hopes for a settlement to the issue at the end of the year.
The people of Turkish Cyprus are in limbo, despite the fact that in recent years trade restrictions between the North and South have been made less stringent. Their economic well-being relies heavily on Turkey, with over $3 billion in aid being given to Turkish Cyprus over the past 30 years. Eroglu has the ability to solve the dispute and fully integrate the economy of Turkish Cyprus with the European and world community, but ultimately international fears are that his hard line stance will deter further negotiations and Turkish Cyprus will be mired in a state isolation.