Turkish-Cypriot poised to make history in Cyprus EU vote

Nicosia (AFP) –


European elections are often drab, overlooked affairs, but in Cyprus a Turkish Cypriot professor is breaking taboos and is poised to be elected as an MEP in a first for the ethnically divided island.

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

But for the first time, a Turkish Cypriot candidate could be voted into the European Parliament on May 26 with the help of combined Turkish and Greek Cypriot votes.

University of Cyprus professor Niyazi Kizilyurek is running on the ticket of the main Greek Cypriot opposition party, communist Akel.

The 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 country's divisive politics.

"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.

- Tensions with Turkey -

Turkish Cypriots are considered EU citizens and have the right to run and vote in the European elections, even though under the current constitution they cannot participate in parliamentary ballots in the south.

There are an unprecedented nine Turkish Cypriots in the running to be MEPs including publisher Sener Levent -- well-known for challenging the policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- along with five other candidates in his Jasmine Movement.

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

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

UN-brokered efforts to reunify the island failed at a summit in July 2017, and all moves to restart the peace talks have faltered since then.

Most Turkish Cypriots who wish to vote 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.

The vote comes at a time of rising tensions with Turkey amid a dispute with the Cyprus government over energy drilling rights.

"Akel is the only party representing Turkish Cypriots as equals, and backs the federal solution in Cyprus and the communities living together ... we need to get back to negotiations as soon as possible," insisted Kizilyurek.

- Seeking 'EU voice' -

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 MEP 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 the internationally isolated Turkish Cypriots are showing more interest in these elections because they want their voices heard as EU citizens.

"There is more interest because Turkish Cypriots want more visibility, they want to be seen or noticed. They don't want to be invisible anymore," said Hatay.

He believes around 10,000 Turkish Cypriots could vote.

After Greek Cypriots failed to back a UN reunification blueprint in a referendum, Cyprus entered the European Union as a divided island in 2004. With EU law suspended in the north, Cyprus's six MEPs have always been Greek Cypriots.

"This is shaking up the status quo, so it's very healthy to have this debate... rather than the mono-community elections we usually have," said Hatay.

"For the first time in Cyprus's history someone could be elected by both communities. This breaks taboos in a country where each community votes for their own."