Saturday, 13 January 2018

Political uncertainty as coalition negotiations continue

Esra Aygin

Political uncertainty continues in the northern part of Cyprus after elections last Sunday for the 50-seat assembly gave no party the majority to rule on its own.

Despite political scandals and corruption allegations, the outgoing major coalition partner right-wing National Unity Party UBP became the winner of the elections with 35.57 per cent of the votes. The party, which gained 21 seats in the assembly, will need to form a coalition.

This task is already proving challenging however, as centre-left Republican Turkish Party CTP, which gained 12 seats with 20.97 of the votes, and former Turkish Cypriot chief negotiator Kudret Ozersay’s People’s Party HP, which gained 9 seats with 17.10 per cent, have ruled out a coalition with UBP. So has Communal Democracy Party TDP, where Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci hails from, which gained 3 seats with 8.61 per cent of the votes. They accuse UBP with corruption, mismanagement of public funds, nepotism and bending over backwards to please Ankara.

CTP in intense negotiations

In an effort to leave UBP out of the administration, CTP is in intense informal negotiations to form a four-party coalition together with HP, TDP and Serdar Denktas’ Democracy Party DP, which gained 3 seats with 7.83 per cent of the votes.

If this effort fails, the only possible alternative would be a coalition between UBP, DP and the far-right Rebirth Party YDP by Turkish settles, which gained 2 seats with 6.96 per cent of the votes. 

In statements interpreted widely as a warning to parties that have refused a coalition with UBP, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier this week said: “I hope announcements like ‘we will not go into a coalition’ will be left aside and a government will be formed.”

The success of a scenario that excludes UBP now largely depends on Denktas and which coalition he will prefer to go with, according to analysts.

“Serdar is once again the key,” wrote political analyst and researcher Mete Hatay on social media. “What role will he play? Will he be influenced by the suggestions of some in Ankara, be the conservative Serdar, join UBP and YDP, and protect this corrupt status quo; or be the democratic, liberal Serdar, cooperate with CTP, HP and TDP, and help us start anew?”

Although the ruling coalition will not directly affect the position of Turkish Cypriot leader Akinci, its policies will be significant for the prospects of a solution in Cyprus and relations between the two communities. A CTP-HP-TDP-DP coalition would strengthen Akinci’s hand in his efforts to solve the Cyprus problem and put an end to decisions by the outgoing UBP-DP coalition that further complicated prospects of a solution.

Another right-wing coalition on the other hand, would mean continued demographic change through the arbitrary granting of Turkish Cypriot citizenships; continued physical change through the distribution of land that originally belongs to Greek Cypriots and unrestrained building permits; and faster integration with Turkey. Such a coalition could also challenge in the assembly Akinci’s powers to negotiate with the Greek Cypriot side.

What happened in the elections?

The traditional right-wing base remained unshaken despite large-scale corruption allegations and UBP increased its votes from 27.30 per cent in the previous general elections in 2013 to 35.57 per cent.

Political analysts agree that the disillusionment caused by the failure of Cyprus negotiations over the summer, the ensuing blame game and the harshening of discourse on both sides played a role in the rise of the right wing.

“If you don’t have talks to solve the Cyprus problem, if there is no hope, and moreover, if you put all the blame on the Greek Cypriot side, then the left-wing parties lose strength,” explained professor Niyazi Kizilyurek of political science in the daily Yeniduzen. “In times of desperation people turn towards the status quo.”

According to Hatay, UBP is the embodiment of the status quo. “UBP became the attractive choice for those, who benefit from the status quo and those, who want to benefit from the status quo,” says Hatay. “UBP itself has come to represent the status quo.”

CTP, which entered the elections with its young leader Tufan Erhurman, fell short of expectations and won only 20.97 per cent of the votes. This was a drastic fall compared to the previous elections in 2013 from which CTP came out victorious with 38.38 per cent. The party, which has traditionally based its discourse and campaign on the Cyprus solution, this time, focused on promises to correct the system and solve the daily problems. This however, made its discourse very similar to that of Ozersay’s HP, which is the pioneer of the “repairing the political system marred by corruption” discourse.

Political analysts agree that many, who supported CTP as a ‘hope’ in the past, and have been disappointed with the party’s failure to make a significant change, have turned to HP.

Also, the majority of the absentees were those, who traditionally vote left, but are demoralized due to the failure of the solution process and/or have no faith in the Turkish Cypriot political entity, explains Hatay.

Turnout dropped from 69.41 per cent in 2013 to 66.2 per cent in last Sunday’s elections. Out of a total of 190,553 registered voters, 126,196 cast their ballot.

According to Hatay, about 25 per cent of the 190,553 registered voters were born in Turkey. A further 8 per cent had their mother and/or father born in Turkey. This data suggests that 33 per cent of the total registered voters are of Turkish origin. 

Newcomers in the assembly

Ozersay’s HP, which ran in an election for the first time garnered 17.10 per cent of the votes, becoming a key actor in the coalition talks. HP won a broad support base on pledges of good governance, transparency, accountability, social justice and commitment to fight corruption.  appear to have gathered support among the electorate.

In an alarming development, the far-right Rebirth Party YDP of Turkish settlers, won 2 seats in the assembly with 6.96 per cent of the votes. The party’s leader Erhan Arikli was one of the suspects in the murder of Greek Cypriot Tassos Isaac, who was beaten to death on 11 August 1996 during a demonstration in the buffer zone village of Dherynia. Arikli is renown for his threatful articles in a daily newspaper against pro-solution Turkish Cypriots. 

The party’s deputy head Bertan Zaroglu was recently fined by a Turkish Cypriot court for defaming CTP deputy Dogus Derya on social media after she said the Turkish army committed rapes in Cyprus in 1974.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Elections amid fears of an uncertain future

 By Esra Aygin

Turkish Cypriots vote this Sunday 7 January to elect representatives to the 50-seat assembly in the northern part of the island. One major element of the campaign has been the absence of any meaningful discussion on the Cyprus issue, which dominated the agenda of previous elections. Instead, all the political parties focused on ‘amending the system’ in the north.

The elections do not affect directly the position of the Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci and the prospect to restart negotiations for a Cyprus settlement. Indirectly, though, a pro-solution administration would strengthen Akinci’s hand and put an end to decisions by the outgoing rightwing National Unity Party UBP-Democratic Party DP coalition that gave rise to tensions and mistrust across the divide. Such policies were the imposition of customs duties on humanitarian aid to Greek Cypriots and Maronites living in the north and the restrictions on religious services in the orthodox churches there. Another right-wing administration with vested interest in the continuation of the division would seriously complicate future solution attempts and encourage integration with Turkey.

Main issues

The economy and other internal issues have dominated the campaign leading to Sunday’s election. Other aspects linked to a Cyprus settlement were hardly discussed. Observers point out that the failed attempt to solve the political problem last July at the Swiss resort Crans Montana delivered a blow to people’s hopes for a solution. Also the lack of clear vision for a reunited island made the political parties avoid the issue.

“Even the Republican Turkish Party CTP, which, as a matter of principle, has always made the Cyprus problem a priority, has built is campaign on changing the current structure in the north,” said Mete Hatay, senior researcher of PRIO Cyprus.

Opinion polls show UBP and CTP leading the race, followed closely by former chief negotiator Kudret Ozersay’s People’s Party HP and left wing Social Democracy Party TDP. No one is expected to secure the absolute majority of more than 50 percent of the vote to form a single-party administration. As a result, a coalition is again the most likely outcome. Both CTP and HP have ruled out cooperating with UBP. They criticise the party of abusing power, mishandling public funds and serving Ankara’s agenda on northern Cyprus.

Angry voters

General elections were brought forward to 7 January as criticism and reaction against the ruling UBP- DP coalition mounted.

Mine Yucel, director of the Centre for Migration, Identity and Rights Studies (CMIRS), said people are angry at the political establishment. Their anger will be channeled in “cross-party voting”, whereby people will vote for candidates across party lines, instead of favouring candidates of one party, a dominant election behaviour in past polls.  Yucel expects the “cross-party voting to reach 20-30 per cent on election day, making it more difficult to predict the outcome.

The UBP-DP rule has been mired by corruption reports; granting arbitrary citizenships, public sector employment and land for political gains; also blindly complying with Ankara’s wishes.  Many political observers expect significant numbers of traditionally right-wing voters to switch, out of frustration, their allegiance to Ozersay’s HP, which is running for the first time. HP pioneered the “correcting the system” election agenda and is considered to have a broad supporter base although many of its candidates are right-wing. Ozersay run as an independent in the 2015 elections for the Turkish Cypriot leadership and had unexpectedly a strong showing, getting almost as much votes as the CTP’s candidate Sibel Siber. HP’s pledges of good governance, transparency, accountability, social justice and commitment to fight corruption appear to have gathered support among the electorate.

Election mapping

CTP is running under its new leader Tufan Erhurman. The party has not included legendary political leaders, such as Mehmet Ali Talat, Ferdi Sabit Soyer and Omer Kalyoncu, in its candidate list. The move has been broadly perceived as a positive effort towards self-criticism. The party’s election program focuses on economy and production. It also aims at appealing to a larger voter base by placing in its list candidates from professional unions and associations. Among these candidates is Fikri Toros, former president of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce, who had played a key role in persuading Mustafa Akinci and Nicos Anastasiades to overcome the “ENOSIS” crisis back in February 2017.

The Social Democracy Party TDP, where Akinci comes from, has put together a fresh team of popular young professionals from different walks of life, and is considered to be the party with the strongest candidate list.

Opinion polls suggest that Serdar Denktas’ Democracy Party DP may not pass the election threshold, which is 5 per cent. In a bid to gather support, Denktas has come up with a very liberal election program that includes open discussion about liberalizing marijuana and allowing same-sex marriage. PRIO’s senior researcher Mete Hatay said it is unclear whether the traditionally conservative voters of DP would support such a liberal programme that has also raised doubts about its feasibility. 

Another party running for the first time, is the far-right, Rebirth Party YDP, established by people of Turkish origin. Opinion polls suggest YDP will have a difficult time passing the threshold.

At a certain point in the campaign there was a growing temptation among the public to boycott the elections, as a protest to Ankara and its vast influence in the north. The tendency though, was not transformed to a proper movement and its appeal was restricted mainly to social media.  Yucel from CMIRS expects the turnout to be around 80 per cent, a good figure under the circumstances.

According to official numbers, 188,668 out of a total registered population of 230,747 Turkish Cypriot citizens will be eligible to vote - some 16,000 up from the latest general elections held in 2013. Almost half of these people were granted citizenship in recent years.