Defying the odds, the nationalist candidate Ersin Tatar, supported by Turkey, was elected Sunday “president” of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (RTNC), a success for Ankara in a context of strong tensions around its projects in the eastern Mediterranean.
With 51.74% of the vote, Mr. Tatar supplants Mustafa Akinci, an outgoing leader with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supporter of a reunification of the Mediterranean island in the form of a federal state, auguring a radical change relations with the southern part of the island.
The support of the candidate who came third in the first round on October 11 did not allow the Social Democrat to win. A request for recount of the ballots by the camp of Mr. Akinci, which has repeatedly denounced the interference of Turkey in the election, cannot be excluded.
Ankara very quickly greeted “warmly” the victory of its protege: “We will work together to ensure the prosperity, development and security of the Turkish Cypriots. We will together defend the rights and legitimate interests of Northern Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean”, tweeted the head of the Turkish diplomacy Mevlüt Cavusoglu.
Turnout rose to 67.30%, three points more than in 2015, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Some 199,000 people were called to vote out of more than 300,000 inhabitants.
The election took place in a context of strong tensions around the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean between Ankara and Athens, the main ally of the Republic of Cyprus – member of the European Union since 2004 – which exercises its authority over the southern two-thirds of the island.
After drilling off North Cyprus, the return this week of a Turkish exploration vessel in waters claimed by Greece has stirred up discord and led to condemnation by EU leaders of “provocations” from Turkey.
A 72-year-old Social Democrat, Akinci defends the reunification of Cyprus in the form of a federal state and has never hidden his intention to loosen ties with Ankara. Mr. Tatar, 60, advocates a two-state solution.
After voting, Akinci said he hoped the Turkish Cypriots would remember the election “as a celebration of the will of the people” while his rival stressed the importance of maintaining good relations with Turkey .
Considering the TRNC as a major piece in its strategy to defend its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, Ankara was closely following the election and had stepped up the nudges to Mr. Tatar.
The inauguration with great fanfare of an underwater aqueduct between North Cyprus and Turkey and the partial reopening of a famous former seaside resort, abandoned and sealed off by the Turkish army after the partition of the island, had sparked accusations of interference by Turkey and angered many Turkish Cypriots, Mr. Akinci in the lead.
“The Turkish Cypriots are not happy to be considered as dependent on another”, noted before the poll Umut Bozkurt, political scientist at the University of the Eastern Mediterranean, in Northern Cyprus.
“Use their brain”
But displaying an independent position from Ankara is difficult as the TRNC has been under Turkish economic influence since its creation in 1983. And in times of economic crisis, amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Akinci’s strategy has not paid.
Cyprus gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960 but Turkish troops invaded the north of the island in 1974 in reaction to a coup attempting to reattach the island to Greece.
With his election in 2015, Mr. Akinci had rekindled hopes for a peace agreement but the last official negotiations failed in 2017.
“We cannot do anything without Turkey, history has shown that the Greek Cypriots will never accept that we are equal in the Republic”, noted Dilek Ertug, a 60-year-old real estate agent, before the results.
Greek Cypriots had gathered near the buffer zone on Saturday to demand the return of the northern territories, saying Cyprus was “Greek”.
Condemning Turkey’s “interventions”, Ms. Ertug’s brother Asaf Senol, 64-year-old pensioner, said he was pro-federalism, illustrating the divisions even within Turkish-Cypriot families.