The widening rift in Turkish Cyprus

The widening rift in Turkish Cyprus

First postponed in April because of Covid-19, Turkish Cyprus’ presidential elections will now go ahead on Oct. 11, circumstances permitting. The wounds inflicted during the prolonged election campaign, however, may have long-term and rather dangerous consequences.

On one hand, we have the incumbent, Mustafa Akıncı, who has apparently built his entire campaign of defending Turkish Cypriot honor against the not-so-polite attitudes of Ankara and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the Cyprus issue in general and the Turkish Cypriot leadership in particular. The other leftist candidate, Tufan Erhürman of the Republican Turks’ Party (CTP), has been rather careful about his remarks about Turkey and Turkish leaders but hopes to benefit from the rift between Akıncı and Ankara.

On the center-right and conservative spectrum, presidential hopefuls Prime Minister Ersin Tatar, Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Kudret Özersay and New Birth Party (YDP) leader Erhan Arıklı, as well as the latecomer to the race, Serdar Denktaş, the son of the late Rauf Denktaş, have all been making efforts to portray themselves as politicians on good terms with Ankara. There are five other candidates in the race, but none of them have a chance of scoring even 1 percent of the vote.

Turkey, meanwhile, has not felt any need to hide its unhappiness with Akıncı and the prospect of his reelection, leading it to distribute alms for all center-right candidates. While at the beginning of the campaign there was an impression that Özersay was the candidate Ankara supported, Tatar has apparently become the “favorite,” while Arıklı, whose party is mostly supported by mainland settlers, might play a pivotal role in the runoff on Oct. 18, as none of the candidates is slated to win outright during the first round on Oct. 11.

Back in February 2011, Turkish leader Erdoğan made a statement referring to Turkish Cypriots as “foster children,” a remark that offended the Turks of Cyprus. In two large rallies, attended by leftists as well as nationalists, the remark was condemned. Since then, there have been incredible efforts on the island as well as in Turkey to leave that “foster crisis” behind. However, some people continued to exploit the issue, further entrenching the already strong misunderstandings that border on animosity. Over the past decade, many, including this writer, have continued to stress at closed-door meetings, conferences and private conversations that there is a need for public diplomacy to explain the Turkish Cypriots to Turkey and Turkey to the Turkish Cypriots, as neither side knows very much about the sentiments of the other, apart from lofty rhetoric and prejudiced opinions.

The “We saved you” or “These are the leftovers of the Greeks” and such arrogant statements from the Turkish sides, as well as the “Karasakal” (Blackbeard), “They were living in caves before they moved to Cyprus,” “If they do not like us, they better go back to their country” (the statement is altered to make it publishable) or “We do not want you, your money, your officers or your water” comments are very serious. But, during the election (and Covid-19), the officious statements and attitudes of some candidates to show that they, rather than their competitors, are the candidate of Ankara has made things even worse.

The secretary general of Arıklı’s YDP, Bertan Zaroğlu, also a settler, was infected and hospitalized. He claimed that because of his ethnic background, he suffered discrimination from doctors and nurses who tried to place him in an unclean bed in a war, rather than a special room, despite the health minister and his undersecretary’s personal intervention. Zaroğlu, accordingly, requested Turkey’s help, resulting in a special ambulance-plane picking him and taking him for hospitalization in Ankara. As dozens of people – all of mainland background – were repatriated by ambulance planes, there ought to have been no problem, but when all this happened in front of the public and Zaroğlu used social media to publicly accuse doctors and health personnel of “premeditated discrimination against Turks,” the issue turned into a hot potato. The prime minister, who has the habit of answering everything on social media, preferred to remain silent for a change.

The election will eventually come and go. But this problem has to be dealt with urgently as the gap between the two groups of people is widening very dangerously.