A general strike in Cyprus

A general strike in Cyprus

There was a half-day general strike on Monday in Northern Cyprus. It was aimed at serving as a warning to the center-right coalition government of Prime Minister Hüseyin Özgürgün, accused of mismanagement and incompetency. The strike came after three days of protests, mostly by high school students and civil servants, over the deaths of three people killed when a school bus crashed into a truck on the Five Finger Mountains (Pentadaktylos) last Tuesday. The truck, which killed two students and the driver of the school bus, was carrying tons of stones from a nearby quarry. Subsequent developments showed that besides the stone blocks, the truck was apparently also loaded with a political crisis. 

At a time when the Turkish Cypriot community is deeply divided between supporters and opponents of a federation deal yet to be concluded with the Greek Cypriot side, the anti-government but pro-settlement labor unions, political parties and other segments of the Turkish Cypriot community took the crash as an opportunity to force a government change.

Since the crash, every day between 8 to 9 a.m. schools and the Cyprus Turkish Teachers Association have gone on a one-hour strike to protest about the poor standards of roads and the government, which they accuse of being incompetent and a puppet of Ankara. At the root of the accusation lies the decision of the government to follow the Ankara government in not switching back last month from daylight saving time. At 7a.m. when the deadly crash took place while students were traveling to school, the sun had not yet risen. 

The crash site has always been problematic and there were already calls on the government for a major reroute of the road, as the curve and ragged terrain meant that it was difficult to see the approaching traffic even during daylight. The labor union also claims that an EU team examining the roads of Northern Cyprus advised the Public Works Ministry to take urgent measures to increase the standard of road in that particular area. There were also claims that for the past few years the money allocated from Turkey’s assistance for the maintenance of roads was not used and no projects had been submitted for financing.

Despite days of protests by students – who brought down the front door of the Prime Ministry – were not given audience by the prime minister, education minister or the public works minister. President Mustafa Akıncı, on the other hand, chaired a cabinet meeting last week and urged the government to switch back from daylight saving time.

By remaining on daylight saving time, the government wanted to harmonize with Turkey, after the Ankara government chose to not switch back to the GMT +2. The Greek Cypriot side, however, switched from daylight saving time and a one-hour time difference thus emerged between the northern and southern sides of the island. 

The general strike – which was widely observed throughout Northern Cyprus on Monday morning – demonstrated the strong popular backing not only for the demand to switch back from summer daylight saving time, but also for the accusation of incompetence in governance. The government’s moving of school and office hours by one hour has not solved the problem either. 

Using the general strike as a weapon against governance deficiencies and trying to achieve change through the collective power of the working population might appear alien to the people of Turkey. Nobody in Cyprus, for example, would buy the accusation that strikers are politically motivated or are terrorists, as everyone is aware that a strike is a politically motivated action anyhow.

In Turkey basically no labor movement is left in the country after 14 years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. Was it different before? Excluding the 1970s, when there was a very strong labor movement in the country, not really. Thanks to the 1980 military coup and the legislation that the country inherited from the coup period, the Turkish people have been made to forget the struggle for rights.

But will the current unrest, protests and the strike succeed in bringing down the government in Turkish Cyprus? Will it help consolidate the pro-settlement front? Will it help President Mustafa Akıncı isolate the conservative, nationalist segments opposing his defeatist negotiating style at the talks with Greek Cypriots?

At the end of the day, what will matter will be whether the Turkish Cypriots have equal political rights in the governance and sovereignty of Cyprus, whether there will be an effective and on the ground Turkish guarantee for Turkish Cypriot security, and what will happen in the property and territorial adjustments.

Still, it certainly has been great to see a community in Cyprus aware of its rights.