Last Friday marked the official beginning of the campaigns for next month’s presidential elections, with candidates making their customary walks to the Supreme Court in Surlariçi to register their candidacy and be applauded outside by socially distanced well-wishers. After a coronavirus-induced six month delay in proceedings you could be forgiven for feeling like the campaign has been running for ever, but at long last we are entering the final furlong, and the part that really matters.
There are six serious candidates for northern Cyprus’ top job, and today I’m going to give you the lowdown on all six, their chances of winning, and their opinions on the island’s pressing issues.
The current incumbent who swept past his predecessor Derviş Eroğlu five and a half years ago on a promise to reunite the island, Akıncı is seeking a second term in office. His quest for Cypriot reunification has thus far born no fruit, although the blame for that cannot fairly be laid at Akıncı’s feet.
In that sense, Akıncı’s term has been very much one of two halves: the wave of optimism that elected him was carried through increasingly positive negotiations with the Greek Cypriot side, and a solution to the Cyprus Problem seemed to be becoming a real possibility. That was the case until midway through 2017 when Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades collapsed the negotiations in order to boost his own reelection chances.
Since then we’ve seen little to no progress on Akıncı’s (and the island’s) central issue, and he has cut an increasingly isolated figure since the collapse of the four-party coalition last year and the formation of the current UBP-HP government, who have shown no hesitation in going over Akıncı’s head on a multitude of issues.
Reelection next month would be a clear doubling down by the Turkish Cypriot people on their endorsement of Akıncı’s vision for a reunified Cyprus, but a second term would be an uphill struggle with few allies in power at home or abroad. A second term as things stand would be a real test of Akıncı’s political acumen, which some are already calling into question after he allowed himself to be torpedoed by Anastasiades in 2017, and after the UBP-HP combination of Ersin Tatar and Kudret Özersay cut him almost completely adrift or frontline politics last year.
As a disclaimer, polling data is often unreliable in northern Cyprus, but at the moment Akıncı seems to be nailed on to make it into the second round. That second round, however, appears to me at the moment to be an each way bet depending on who he is up against. Akıncı is still the most likely candidate to win this election and, for what it’s worth, is seemingly the most popular candidate outside of northern Cyprus, albeit helped by name recognition.
The current Prime Minister and leader of the conservative UBP, Tatar was the narrow front runner in pre-coronavirus polling. The circumstances seemed to be brewing a perfect storm for him, too – Cyprus Problem negotiations going absolutely nowhere and a Greek Cypriot administration that was at best indifferent and at worse actively making things worse, and allies in all the right places in Ankara.
However, the six months since then have been full of blunder and scandal. Whether it was the private jet with “special permission” to land at Ercan during lockdown, he himself ignoring social distancing rules that his own government made, or telling Tufan Erhürman “don’t get mad at me” while the latter was asking him a question in parliament, Tatar seems prone to episodes which make him seem incompetent and out of his depth.
Furthermore, Tatar seems to be close to falling into what I like to call the “Jeremy Corbyn trap” – fighting diminishing popularity by playing to his own base. The footage of him praying with a derviş last week, for example, isn’t going to win him much favour among the largely secular general population of northern Cyprus. The argument could be made that he is trying to make a play to Erhan Arıklı’s supporters, but the trouble in that is that they already have a candidate of choice: Erhan Arıklı (who I’ll talk about a bit later).
As things stand at the moment, Tatar seems locked in a battle with Tufan Erhürman for a place in the second round, and at the moment I would guess that he has the slight upper hand. In the circumstances, however, that must be a bitter disappointment for him and his party.
Tufan Erhürman is the leader of CTP, the largest opposition party in parliament, and served as Prime Minister for a year and a half in 2018 and 2019.
In terms of policy, Erhürman and Akıncı are not a million miles apart – both are social democrats and both are in favour of a reunited Cyprus, but where Akıncı is a visionary, Erhürman is a pragmatist. His supporters will tell you he’s not the type to allow a government to make moves with Turkey or the Greek Cypriot administration behind his back as Akıncı has of late. In addition, he is less likely to incur the wrath of Tayyip Erdoğan in the same way that Akıncı has at certain times during his term.
2020 has been a good year for Erhürman. Government scandals have been falling into his lap all year, and he’s often found himself in the right place at the right time, whether that be at the buffer zone protests in February or being told “don’t get mad at me” by the Prime Minister.
He also has the most energised, and in all probability the youngest core voting base of any of the six candidates, which could be a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, the collective noise of that base may make it seem like he’s more popular than he is, but on the other they may carry his message further and convince more people than other candidates have the chance to.
It’s for that reason that Erhürman has an outside shot, but a realistic one, at winning this election. Overhauling Ersin Tatar into second place would in itself be a respectable outcome, but were he to make it to the second round he may find himself more able to hoover up the votes of defeated candidates than Akıncı.
Kudret Özersay is leader of the centre-right HP, the little spoon in the coalition government, and both Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. He rose to political stardom after winning a surprisingly high 21% of the vote in the 2015 presidential election as an “anti-corruption” candidate, and backed that up at the 2018 parliamentary elections when the party he created won 18% of the vote.
He was part of the four-party coalition that was created, and got into bed with UBP when that government collapsed last year. That is where it began to go wrong for Özersay. You see, a billing as an “anti-corruption” candidate doesn’t carry you very far when you’re propping up a government that stinks of it, and when you’re in the picture going over the President’s head in Ankara, meeting in secret with Nicos Anastasiades to discuss who knows what, and allowing private jets to land at Ercan Airport during lockdown, your credibility is going to take a beating.
There is a parallel universe where Özersay collapsed the government following the private jet scandal, got a wave of support and is now seriously in the conversation to make it to the second round. Unfortunately for him, however, unless I’m seriously mistaken he’s got no chance.
The son of Rauf Denktaş, Serdar has the blessing and curse of the most famous surname in Cyprus. He was last in government in the four-party coalition, and propped up UBP before the 2018 elections.
We’re well into the realm of candidates who have no chance of winning now, and while Serdar has pitched himself as a happy medium between Tatar and Akıncı, and that surname is definitely more a help than a hindrance, he’s got no traction at all thus far among public opinion and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had the fortune to meet Serdar on occasion and he’s a really nice man, and I genuinely feel bad for having a go, but he doesn’t really have much political influence at this moment in time.
Being realistic, the absolute best he can hope for is fourth place if Özersay’s popularity crumbles further. The famous last name and the “middle of the road” approach to the Cyprus Problem will both help more than they’ll hinder, but this time they won’t be enough for him to get close to winning this election.
Arıklı is leader of YDP, the party popular with Turkish immigrants to the island, and brings a flavour of real Turkish politics to Cyprus, being much more conservative, much more pious, and much more nationalist than any other party here. Arıklı himself was born in Turkey and moved over when he was a child.
My research for this article unearthed an international arrest warrant for allegedly playing a part in the violent death of Greek Cypriot Tasos Isaac in 1996. That, of course, is a bit alarming to read, but in the interests of fairness (and not getting Cyprium News sued into the ground) a warrant does not equal a conviction.
Arıklı has a very committed base, but given his politics, struggles to widen his appeal past that group. He will likely be similar in popularity Serdar Denktaş and possibly Kudret Özersay and I would predict him to finish sixth in the election.
The Second Round
The second round, too, could be a fascinating election. Should Akıncı and Erhürman be the final two candidates, the thought of UBP and YDP supporters choosing between two left of centre and pro-reunification candidates is an interesting one. Serdar Denktaş and Kudret Özersay’s supporters would be in a similar quandry, though they are both much less right wing than the other two.
At this moment in time, I think an Akıncı/Tatar second round produces an Akıncı victory. Assuming that the vast majority of Erhürman’s voters would choose Akıncı in such a scenario, the path to victory for Tatar would be very narrow indeed. However, right now I couldn’t call an Akıncı/Erhürman second round. I guess we will just have to wait and see.