Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2006, pages 34-35

Talking Turkey

Cyprus’ May 21 Election: Low Voter Turnout, Rejection of Annan Plan Holds

By Jon Gorvett

Neshe Yashin, the first Turkish-Cypriot to run in Cypriot elections since 1963, casts her vote on May 21. Originally from Peristerona, a village in the Turkish-occupied north, the poet-activist now lives in the capital, Nicosia. Her United Democrats party, which strongly supported the Annan Plan, lost its only seat in parliament (AFP Photo/Hasan Mroue).

WITH GREEK and Turkish combat fighters colliding in mock dogfights over the Aegean, while their coast guards fought a war of loud hailers over territorial waters down below, this spring was a season of flashbacks in relations between these two long-standing antagonists.

It also was a time of heightened theater on the divided island of Cyprus, as Greek Cypriots went to the polls to elect a new parliament.

This was the first time Greek Cypriots had been asked to cast their votes since the April 2004 referendum on the ill-fated U.N. scheme to reunify the island. Known as the Annan Plan, it had been enthusiastically accepted by Turkish Cypriots, who voted in their own, simultaneous referendum. It was just as roundly condemned by the Greek Cypriots, however—effectively sinking the plan and leading to a long hiatus in efforts to reunite the two parts of the island.

The recent May 21 election therefore was closely watched off the island, both by international bodies such as the U.N. and European Union, and by the Turks. Some wondered if there would be any evidence of a change of heart by the Greek Cypriots, who have lost much of the world’s previous sympathy since rejecting the Annan Plan.

Yet when it was all over, there was precious little evidence of any change at all. Indeed, the Democratic Party (DIKO) of President Thasos Papadopolous, who had led the anti-Annan campaign, increased its vote. The other main parties in the coalition government that had backed the “No” campaign also maintained their positions in the coalition, even if the largest party, the formerly communist AKEL, lost a little ground.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Rally (DISY), which had urged acceptance of the Annan Plan, lost some 3 percentage points on its previous election result. Party workers privately confessed that DISY’s support of Annan had been a major liability in their campaign, and something their candidates had generally shied away from discussing.

As a result, the headlines in Turkey and Turkish Cyprus were decidedly desultory. Papadopolous’ hand undoubtedly had been strengthened, they said, while the statements of all party leaders seemed reminiscent of the worst days of stalemate, rather than heralding any likely new initiative.

“The one positive thing it’s possible to say about this election,” the International Crisis Group’s Nicholas Whyte commented, “is that now at least it is out of the way.”

Indeed, elections on Cyprus are known for a pre-ballot heightening of hysteria about the threat posed by the other side. This election was no exception, with stunts such as a Greek Cypriot politician unfurling a Cypriot flag at Istanbul’s airport grabbing media attention, as did a culinary war over that great local delicacy, baklava. The honey and pastry dessert is a Greek invention, thundered the Greek Cypriot papers, apparently out of nowhere, triggering a counter claim from the Turks, and even a demonstration in Istanbul by indignant baklava chefs.

Despite all the grandstanding, however, many party workers across the political spectrum bemoaned their inability to get Greek Cypriot voters interested. “It’s just not firing up,” said DIKO’s Agis Kleanthos. Mass rallies were decidedly thin, with even tub thumpers such as AKEL, its party faithful decked out in Che Guevara T-shirts and dancing to stalwart Cuban jazz classics, unable to divert most locals from the shops and cafes.

One of the more disturbing non-electoral indicators was that a pre-election opinion poll by VPRC Public Issue revealed that 61 percent of Greek Cypriots in the 18-24-year-old age group would be happy if the island were permanently divided.

The figure fell to 40 percent for all age groups, but even this is alarmingly high for a community that historically had always rejected any idea of partition—a policy always associated instead with the most nationalistic Turkish Cypriots.

Naturally, none of the parties contesting the election would claim any responsibility for this apparent complete flip in positions. Spokesmen blamed insufficient explanation of the issues, or denied that the poll was at all representative.

On the Turkish side of the island, however, where few now support partition and, instead, the traditional Greek Cypriot position of unification is most popular, this shift was largely seen as the natural consequence of overwhelming party, church and media support for the anti-Annan campaign. This, many argued, had simply been taken to its logical conclusion by the Greek Cypriot youth.

This young generation, of course, has grown up since Turkey’s 1974 invasion of the island. This led to a third of Cyprus coming under Turkish occupation, with the land and property of the Greek Cypriots living there often requisitioned by the Turkish Cypriot authorities, while the residents themselves fled.

The fact that getting back this lost land has long been a fundamental aim of Greek Cypriot policy underscores how disturbing the opinion poll result was for many political leaders, all of whom are of the older generation and with a clear stake in the occupied north.

At the same time, however, this stake has been increasingly watered down in recent years. In 2003 the Turkish Cypriots opened up their frontier to cross-border traffic, a step resulting in many hundreds of Cypriots crossing back and forth every day.

Moreover, after Cyprus joined the European Union in May 2004, the EU insisted that EU citizens should be able to go anywhere on the island, further eroding the border—which, in any case, the Greek Cypriots had never officially recognized.

The usually unspoken factor is that since this opening up, some Greek Cypriots have begun to settle their affairs in the occupied north, with quantities of land belonging to them in the area controlled by the Turkish Cypriots being sold to EU property funds, individuals and Turkish Cypriots in the last few years. The north has in consequence been going through something of a real estate boom.

The effect of this in the south is one of an increasing divergence between political rhetoric, based on traditional hostility, and economic “common sense.”

At the same time, there is also a prevalent view among many Greek Cypriot politicians that there is essentially no need for them to do anything to bring about a resolution of Cyprus’ division. Since the island now is a member of the European Union, the thinking goes, the EU will be obliged to do all that for them. DIKO, DISY and AKEL all agree that it now is up to the Turks and Turkish Cypriots to start making concessions.

Indeed, with Turkey still determined to join the EU itself, Ankara will have to shift on a number of key issues affecting Cyprus if it is ever to accede. The most pressing of these is the extension of the Ankara Agreement, required at the opening of EU accession talks with Turkey in October 2005.

This customs union agreement, which Turkey signed back in 1995, requires that it be updated to include all new EU members since. With Cyprus an EU member since 2004, Turkey will have to extend its agreement to the Greek Cypriots, opening its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot trade. This would be a de facto recognition of the Greek Cypriot government as the government of the whole island of Cyprus, something Turkey has always fiercely resisted.

With the EU due to deliver a progress report on Turkey in October, a crisis over this recognition is now brewing. Following the assassination of a top secular judge by a suspected Islamist militant—and an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan by former army officers also revealed at the time—the government in Ankara is currently embattled in a dispute with the secular establishment, and seems unlikely to take any steps toward recognition by then.

Given that Turkey’s accession already is unpopular in Europe, if EU leaders cannot be convinced Turkey will open its ports and airports soon, it may mean Turkey’s membership talks stall before they have even really started.

The fear, however, is that if Turkey is pushed too hard, it will simply walk away from the table, with major implications for regional stability and security if it does. Keeping Turkey in the process may not be popular with many EU governments, but its exit is unlikely to be in the interest of Greek Cypriots, let alone of Greece. 

Jon Gorvett is a free-lance writer based in Istanbul.

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