Turkey casts shadow over Turkish Cypriots' vote

Turkey casts shadow over Turkish Cypriots' vote

Corruption, structural problems and Ankara’s grip on pseudo-state dominate campaigns while Cyprus dispute is sidelined.

    The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) will head to the polls on Sunday, in a parliamentary election that has failed to stir enthusiasm among a largely disillusioned electorate.

    Elections in the internationally unrecognised entity are typically dominated by the long-running dispute of Cyprus, a Mediterranean island split between Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south.

    With a solution to the problem, however, not in sight, campaign discussions this time have largely centred around TRNC’s enduring issues: corruption, nepotism, citizenships distributed to Turkish nationals and Ankara’s grip on the pseudo-state.  

    The TRNC, which has a functioning parliament and state institutions, is recognised only by Turkey since it unilaterally declared independence in 1983, breaking away from the Republic of Cyprus.

    Cyprus had been practically divided since 1974, when Turkey militarily intervened on the island in response to a brief Greek-inspired coup. Ankara said it acted in line with a treaty of guarantee signed in 1960 when the Republic of Cyprus was founded. 

    Since the establishment of the de facto TRNC, the north has been described as “occupied part of Cyprus” by the UN Security Council.

    Repeated diplomatic efforts to end the partition have failed, as did the latest round of talks to reunify the island in Switzerland in July despite efforts by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

    As a result, the Cyprus dispute is not high on the agenda of the TRNC parties contesting Sunday’s race – a highly unusual development for the politics of the north, where political forces typically shape their platforms in accordance to their position over the deadlocked problem.

    The possibility of future unification talks will also be determined by the results of a presidential election in the Republic of Cyprus in late January.

    The TRNC survives on financial aid coming from Turkey as the unrecognised entity has extremely limited options of direct foreign trade.

    The situation is also compounded by the fact that there are no direct sea or air links to any other country from the north of the island, with the exception of Turkey, leading TRNC leaders to impose austerity measures to shore up finances.

    “The north of Cyprus is practically and psychologically a sub-government of Turkey,” Ulas Baris, a Turkish Cypriot analyst, told Al Jazeera.  

    “Therefore, although some parties try and campaign for certain policies with a good will, it is Turkey that economically controls the north of the island and intervenes in the politics here either directly or indirectly.”

    ‘Puppet parliament’

    Amid this climate, people in the north of Cyprus are generally sceptical about change.

    The widespread view appears to be that the TRNC’s political parties do not have the capacity to tackle the entity’s persisting structural issues.

    “I don’t believe in the TRNC parliament,” said Ercay Onac, echoing a wider view that wants local politicians having little or no influence when it comes to important policy decisions.

    Onac, a 33-year-old municipality employee from the coastal town of Girne, told Al Jazeera that he would boycott the parliamentary poll.

    “It is not a real parliament, it’s just a puppet parliament of Turkey,” he added.

    “Turkey threatens politicians here with cutting financial aid or other ways, so politicians do whatever government in Ankara wants,” he said.

    Citing the building of large mosques and religious schools in various part of the TRNC, Onac pointed out to the growing influence of conservative voices in Ankara on Turkish Cypriots, a largely secular and liberal society.

    Emrah Karayaprak, a 34-year-old who works in the tourism sector, says the TRNC is becoming a smaller version of Turkey.

    “This is a process to transform the society. There are some new restaurants that do not serve alcohol in the country,” he said.

    “This is not normal here. Things are changing.”

    Parties in the race

    There are eight parties taking part in Sunday’s contest, with five of them seen as likely to pass the five percent threshold needed to enter the 50-member parliament.

    Among them is the National Unity Party (UBP), the largest partner of the current right-wing coalition. In power for 27 years, since the establishment of the TRNC, UBP has been accused by critics for building today’s problematic structure in the self-declared state, in which, they say, nepotism and bribery are the norm.

    Along with its coalition government partner – the right-wing Democrat Party (DP), which set up by ex-UBP members – it gave hundreds of TRNC citizenships to Turkey national through weeks before the poll, in a move seen as a bid to increase its voter share.

    The UBP is traditionally advocating for keeping good relations with Turkey and maintaining the island’s status quo, rather than settling the long-standing dispute to reunify Greek and Turkish Cypriot parts. 

    The centre-left pro-unification Republican Turkish Party (CTP) traditionally has defined its platform through the Cyprus dispute, with promises to reunite the island.

    Ahead of Sunday’s election, the party turned its attention to internal matters, running an anti-corruption campaign with a pledge to closely monitor corruption allegations – even if they target its own members.

    Last month, it announced a reform programme, vowing to establish an efficient public administration, increase productivity and oversee a fairer distribution of income.

    The CTP also seeks to pursue the alleged corruption cases against the government. Yet, it has also been  accused of widespread corruption and nepotism during the periods it was in power in the 2000s and 2010s.

    In contrast to the UBP and DP, the CTP has traditionally been against the inflow of Turkish citizens into the island, and the practice of granting them a TRNC citizenship. Passports are not needed for people travelling between northern Cyprus and Turkey.

    The newly-formed right-wing People’s Voice Party run on a campaign to fight for an open, corruption-free society.

    The left-wing Communal Democracy Party is President Mustafa Akinci’s former party. It has seen its popularity rise after he took office in 2015.

    Sunday’s election is the first where there is a mandatory 30 percent women’s quota.

    According to Baris, the Turkish Cypriot analyst, a combination of corruption, bribery and shifting political alliances means that many voters have little faith in the  promises made in the run-up to the elections.

    “People do not take politicians seriously,” he said, predicting that voter turnout would drop significantly.

    “Impossible promises such as free education, a salary for every household and free housing make the politics here see new lows,” he said.

    Burcin Aybars, a 34-year-old photographer from the capital, Nicosia, agreed: “People in northern Cyprus do not believe in the political system anymore.”

    Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras

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