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Though a small island, Cyprus’ problems radiate far beyond its shores. An independent nation since 1960, after years of British colonial rule, Cyprus has been divided by a "green line" separating the Turkish Cypriot north and the Greek Cypriot south since 1974. The parliamentary elections being held on the part of the island controlled by ethnic Greek Cypriots on May 21 are the first since the failed 2004 referendum on the Annan plan for reunification, and also the first since Cyprus’ accession to the European Union that same year. Notable this time around is the fact that Turkish Cypriots have registered to vote, and a Turkish Cypriot is running for office. The numbers are small but symbolic.
What is Cyprus’ current status?
Despite the fact that the Cyprus conflict has yet to be resolved, Cyprus became a member of the European Union in 2004. The island remains divided between the Greek Cypriot majority in the south and the Turkish Cypriot minority in the north; a 2004 referendum on Kofi Annan’s proposal to reunify the territory was voted down. A UN peacekeeping force, first deployed in 1964, remains stationed there. The Republic of Cyprus refers de facto to the southern part of the island, though it was meant to encompass all of it. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is not recognized by any country except Turkey.
Of the eighty seats in the Cypriot House of Representatives, 30 percent are reserved for Turkish Cypriots. But these seats-along with the vice president’s office, which is also reserved for a Turkish Cypriot-have been vacant since the Turkish Cypriot began a boycott of the government in 1963.
What is the significance of these elections?
The registration of 270 Turkish Cypriot voters is notable, as is the candidacy of a Turkish Cypriot, the poet and activist Neshe Yashin. Their participation, however, has nothing to do with the vacated seats; Yashin is running for one of the fifty-six seats supposedly reserved for Greek Cypriots. Joseph doubts that she’ll win, since she’s running with a small party, the United Democrats (EDI).
Precedent-setting aside, the elections to fill the fifty-six seats, plus the eight observer seats reserved for the Armenian, Maronite, and Latin-meaning Roman Catholic-religious minorities, are not necessarily going to result in major changes. Elias Hazou, a journalist for the Cyprus Mail, writes bluntly, "At the end of the day, these are parliamentary elections and, as we all know, the House in Cyprus does not power things, it’s just there to endorse (or not) government policy."
Some experts say these elections are more a vote of a poll on President Tassos Papadopoulos-who won a five year term by a narrow margin in 2003-and his views on reunification. Papadopoulos has stated that these elections will prove that Cypriots support his opposition to the Annan plan and his hard-line stance on Turkey.
What are the main issues?
These are the first elections since the 2004 referendum on the Annan plan for reunification, which Greek Cypriots voted down and Turkish Cypriots voted for. Robert I. Rotberg, director of the Belfer Center’s Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard, says reunification may not be the main issue in these elections, but it is a constant one in Cyprus.
Joseph Joseph, associate professor in the department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cyprus, says reunification, and Papadopoulos’ opposition to the Annan plan, is not the central issue in these elections. The true determining factors, Joseph says, are strong party loyalties and personalities. On such a small island, where "everybody knows everybody," people often vote according to personal connections.
Other issues might play a smaller role. Even though the economy is doing well, Joseph says in any election, "the economic aspect is always on the agenda." There may not be many controversial issues at stake, but voter turn out is likely to be high: Voting is mandatory in the country, though not strictly enforced.
Why have some Turkish Cypriots registered to vote in this election?
This year 270 Turkish Cypriots living in the southern, Greek-Cypriot dominated part of the island have registered to vote for the fifty-six House seats. The government recently passed a law allowing them to vote after the European Court of Human Rights ruling on the matter. Previously, Turkish Cypriots were only allowed to vote for the seats reserved for them. Since the Turkish Cypriot seats have been vacant for years, Turkish Cypriots have not been voting. Those living in the north are still not allowed to vote, but a case challenging this is pending.
Rotberg suggests that Greek Cypriots would prefer that all Turkish Cypriots vote, since the Republic of Cyprus would then be seen as being in control of the entire island. The 270 Turkish Cypriots likely registered, Rotberg says, because of the EU passports and accompanying travel documents such citizenship allows.
What are the main parties?
Over 480 candidates are running for the House seats. The communist Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL) and the rightist Democratic Rally (DISY) have the most support. The center-right Democratic Party (DIKO)—President Papadopoulos’ party—follows behind these, but it is expected to gain seats. Other parties include the socialist Movement of Social Democrats (EDEK) and the European Party (EvroKo). Some candidates are running as independents, including Costas Kyriacou, a farmer known as "Utopos," who wants to create a Platonic republic based on the principles of free love, matriarchy, and symmetry.
What are the Turkish and Greek positions regarding this election?
Both Turkey and Greece have clear interests in the island, but neither nation is directly involved in the elections. Since Turkey doesn’t recognize the Cypriot government-it only recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus-it has no official stance on the elections. As for Greece, Rotberg explains it doesn’t want to be perceived as a colonial power, so the country "tries not to play too big a role." Elaine Papoulias, director of the Harvard’s Kokkalis Program on Southeastern and East-Central Europe, says that Greek policy has undergone several changes recently, noting that the Greeks have developed a "much more hands-off approach" when it comes to Cyprus.
How will these elections affect Turkey’s chances with the EU?
The Cypriot elections do not directly affect Turkey’s potential membership in the EU, but Cyprus itself is an issue; reunification would clear a significant obstacle on Turkey’s path to join the organization. But if the party of Papadopoulos garners more support, as polls suggest it will, that may make reunification less likely. As Steven Cook, CFR’s Douglas Dillon Fellow, says, "Papadopoulos’ hard-line stance is creating a difficult situation for Turkey." Most experts don’t expect a strengthened Papadopoulos to make much progress on the issue of reunification, and the division of Cyprus will subsequently remain a problem for Turkey’s accession to the EU. Joseph says any progress on reunification is more likely to come from external forces than the Cypriot government itself.