EUROPE: European election is breaking taboos in Cyprus

6 mins read

European elections are often drab affairs with low turnout but in Cyprus, the EU vote is breaking taboos with a Turkish Cypriot MEP expected to be elected for the first time on the ethnically divided island.

On an island where the majority Greek Cypriot and minority Turkish Cypriot communities are divided by barbed wire and politics of the past, a UN-sponsored peace process has been deadlocked for two years.

For the first time, a Turkish Cypriot candidate could be voted into the European Parliament with the help of combined Turkish and Greek Cypriot votes.

University of Cyprus professor Niyazi Kizilyurek is being touted as a frontrunner to win a seat on the ticket of main Greek Cypriot opposition party communists Akel, when just being on the ballot is considered an achievement.

Ruling conservatives DISY have criticised the move as tokenism to win votes in the Turkish-held north of the island but others see this as a turning point in the divisive politics of Cyprus.

“A Greek Cypriot party Akel having a Turkish Cypriot running with it is unique in our history but I want to appeal to all Cypriots,” Kizilyurek told AFP.

“It is the first time that Greek and Turkish Cypriots can vote together as we have ethnically divided voting…we are also campaigning together which is also unique,” he added.

Kizilyurek is not the only Turkish Cypriot candidate running, there are an unprecedented nine in total – including publisher Sener Levent — celebrated for taking on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan –along with five other candidates in his Jasmine Movement.

Turkey has thousands of troops stationed in the northern third of the island since invading in 1974 in response to a Greek military junta-engineered coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece.

The northern part of the island was declared the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), is only recognised by Ankara. Turkey does not recognize EU member the Republic of Cyprus.

UN-brokered efforts to reunify the island failed at a summit in July 2017, there have been no peace talks since then.

With over 81,000 Turkish Cypriots registered to vote, most of them will have to cross over into the government-controlled south for the May 26 ballot.

Kizilyurek, a self-confessed European federalist, is campaigning – on both sides of the divide — on a pro-reunification platform during a time of rising tensions with Turkey in dispute with the Cyprus government over energy drilling rights.

“Akel is the only party representing Turkish Cypriots as equal and backs the federal solution in Cyprus and the communities living together…we need to get back to negotiations as soon as possible,” said Kizilyurek. 

Hubert Faustmann, professor of political science at the University of Nicosia said there has been a backlash from extreme nationalists Elam who may also be poised to win their first Euro seat.

“The candidacy of Niyazi and his good chances of being elected have triggered nasty attacks by Elam,” Faustmann told AFP.

“But for the first time since the breakdown of the constitutional order in 1963 a Turkish Cypriot could get elected to office in the Republic of Cyprus and give Turkish Cypriots a voice in public affairs,” he added.

Political analyst Mete Hatay, from the PRIO bicommunal research centre, said that the internationally isolated Turkish Cypriots are showing more interest in these elections because they want to be noticed and have their voices heard as EU citizens. 

“There is more interest because Turkish Cypriots want more visibility, they want to be seen or be noticed, they don’t want to be invisible anymore,” said Hatay.

He believes that around 10,000 Turkish Cypriot will turn up to vote.

Hatay said there is also debate in the north over whether Turkish Cypriots should vote, as some argue they could lose their rights (as the minority community) if decisions were based on one person, one vote.

“This is shaking up the status quo so it’s very healthy to have this debate, it is an interesting campaign in having to convince both sides rather than the mono-community elections we usually have,” said Hatay.

He added: “For the first time in Cyprus’ history someone could be elected by both communities, this breaks taboos in a country where each community votes for their own.”

After Greek Cypriots failed to back a UN reunification blueprint in a referendum, Cyprus entered the European Union as a divided island in 2004.