Cyprus, the “kingmaker”

President Erdoğan might use Northern Cyprus as a bargaining chip in the forthcoming peace talks sponsored by the United Nations and as part of a “transactional bargain” with the EU. In other words, the “Cyprus Question” is the new “Refugee Question” card for Turkey vis-à-vis the EU.

Cyprus has finally found itself at the center of global attention, but its time in the spotlight is more of a case of “be careful what you wish for because it might come true.” The second runoff of the presidential elections in Northern Cyprus resulted in the somewhat-hairbreadth victory of Ersin Tatar, the right-wing nationalist candidate strongly supported by Turkey’s government. Tatar received 51% of the votes while his rival, the outgoing President Mustafa Akıncı, got 48%. Akıncı announced his departure from the political scene for good after being one of the foremost names in Cyprus’ politics for 45 years. Some critical voices from the island were saying the race was between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Akıncı, and that Tatar was, in a way, a puppet candidate. 

Ankara is always keen to assert its will in Northern Cypriot politics, and “there is no there there” when it comes to their intervention. But, in the words of veteran Cypriot journalist Sami Özuslu, these elections were indeed the ones that Turkey interfered with the most since the 1990s.

Reportedly, AK Party and Nationalist Action Party (MHP) parliamentarians jetted off to Northern Cyprus to campaign on behalf of Tatar, touring the island and showering the electorate with lavish promises in exchange for their votes. Akıncı argued that he was directly threatened to back off by Turkey’s national intelligence circles.

There are also Northern Cypriot analysts claiming that Ankara’s rather excessive interference led Akıncı to garner more support than he normally would have. As a progressive left-winger, Akıncı lost the “center,” they argue. 

Would a more “Joe Biden” type of mainstream center figure have won the elections and overcome polarization? That is doubtful, in my view. 

President Erdoğan played to win and invested heavily in Tatar; the more interesting question is why he did that. 

In my view, the Northern Cyprus presidential elections acted as if like early elections in Turkey. 

From 2010 to 2019, Turkey’s electorate had a ballot box before them almost annually. In this that period, there were nine nationwide elections, and a tenth local-level election that affected the whole country: the Istanbul Municipality repeat election. 

In 2010, there was a referendum; in 2011, general elections; in 2014, two sets of local elections; in 2015, two consecutive general elections; in 2017, a referendum; in 2018, twin elections for the presidency and general elections; in 2019, local elections that were also repeated in Istanbul — the “golden apple.”

All of these elections cemented the AK Party’s hegemony and Erdoğan’s power. Under normal circumstances, Turkey would find a ballot box looming on the horizon, but the economic crisis and AK Party’s simultaneously declining votes are making early elections less likely. Moreover, for the first time in the past 20 years, there are new popular names in politics: since last summer, the most popular politicians in Turkey have turned out to be Ankara’s Mayor Mansur Yavaş and İstanbul’s Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu.

As the AK Party slides down in popularity alongside its electoral ally, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the need for cementing ruling hegemonic power is driven increasingly from “intrastate coalition building”: be it from the power circles of the old state elite, the security forces, or the bureaucracy. 

And in Turkey’s history, the Cyprus question has acted as the “kingmaker” for state power since its inception (in its current form) since 1974. Cyprus is regarded of utmost importance for Turkey’s strategic clout by the Turkish Armed Forces’ elite, and all hardline nationalist circles, for that matter. 

That’s why Erdoğan cemented the nationalist bloc in Turkey by “winning over” Cyprus: it was an “electoral invasion” of the island, akin to then-Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit’s transformation into the “Conqueror of Cyprus” (Kıbrıs Fatihi) back in 1974. That certainly renewed his mandate over the Turkish Armed Forces. 

Moreover, Erdoğan also acquired a “full house hand” in his poker game against the European Union. He might use Northern Cyprus as a bargaining chip in the forthcoming peace talks sponsored by the United Nations and as part of a “transactional bargain” with the EU. In other words, the “Cyprus Question” is the new “Refugee Question” card for Turkey vis-à-vis the EU. 

Erdoğan may toy with annexation of Northern Cyprus fully into Turkey, turning it into the “82nd city”; however, its population of 326,000 would hardly make a city. As far-fetched this idea may seem, it is possible. Not now, perhaps, not in the very short term, but this may be a project that Ankara toys with in the future.

In the end, Cyprus is a part of the EU; what happens on the northern side of the island will not remain within that part. Furthermore, what happens in Cyprus does not stay in Cyprus: it affects the entirety of the EU. 

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey