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Cyprus: Vote Dashes Hope Of Quick Reunification Deal

Hopes of a quick reunification deal in the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus were dashed yesterday after elections in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus ended in a deadlock, with EU-hopeful opposition parties and nationalist pro-government forces gaining an equal number of seats in parliament. Analysts believe the outcome comes as a reprieve to Turkey, where political forces remain divided over the Cyprus issue.

Prague, 15 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's legislative elections in the Turkish-held part of the divided eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus ended in a deadlock, with opposition and pro-government parties winning an equal number of seats in parliament.

The vote was largely seen as a referendum on Turkish Cypriot President Rauf Denktash's stance against a reunification plan promoted by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Partial returns available by midday showed that with 95 percent of the votes counted, the pro-European Union alliance of the Republican Turkish Party (CTP) and the Peace and Democracy Movement (BDH) won more than 48 percent of the vote.

The ruling National Unity Party (UBP) of Prime Minister Dervis Eroglu and the pro-government Democrat Party (DP) won only 46 percent. But a complicated vote-distribution system left both alliances with 25 parliamentary seats each.

CTP leader Mehmet Ali Talat, who had expressed confidence in a clear victory prior to the vote, sounded disappointed. "We certainly did not expect it to be 25 to 25," he told the CNN-Turk television channel last night.

Denktash did not seem particularly happy with yesterday's results either, although the outcome is not entirely negative for him. The Northern Cypriot leader earlier this year rejected a UN blueprint seeking a federation between the Turkish and Greek parts of the island that would give both ethnic communities broad autonomy. Instead, Denktash favors a Swiss-like confederation system he says would give both parts of the island equal international rights.

Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkey invaded the northernmost third of the island in response to an aborted coup supported by the military junta then in power in Greece.

Turkey is the only country that recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), created in 1983. The presence of an estimated 35,000 Turkish troops and more than 100,000 settlers on the northern part of the island threatens to create a quandary for the European Union when Cyprus enters the bloc in May 2004.

Menelaos Hadjicostis is a political analyst for the English-language "Cyprus Weekly" newspaper in the Greek part of Nicosia, the divided capital of the island. He told RFE/RL that yesterday's inconclusive polls leave controversy over the UN plan open.

"The issue [remains] confused. The fact that [reunification] negotiations are going to start, or restart, rather -- [I think] you can safely assume that they will. But on what? Is it going to be on the Annan plan? Or are the negotiations going to be based on this new-fangled scheme both Denktash and Ankara have been putting forward, a completely different plan -- 'new,' 'improved,' and 'revamped' -- which corrects all the 'faults' of the Annan plan, as they claim?" Hadjicostis asked.

Denktash and his supporters argue that with its provisions envisaging a limited transfer of territories and populations, the UN blueprint aims at destroying the TRNC and forcing Turkish Cypriots back into their pre-1983 status of an ethnic minority. Opposition parties in turn believe the prospect of joining the EU and ending decades of international isolation are worth some concessions.

James Ker-Lindsay, the executive director of the Nicosia-based Civilitas Research think tank, believes that by failing to secure a clear victory for the pro-EU opposition, yesterday's elections "have thrown the whole solution process rather into disarray." He told RFE/RL that, in his view, Denktash seems certain to remain head of the TRNC and chief negotiator at the reunification talks.

"These results have shown that for the meanwhile Denktash would appear to be safe. It does look that he cannot be dislodged from parliament. I actually spoke with [him] two or three weeks ago and put this to him directly. He said that it was irrelevant what took place in these parliamentary elections for his position because he had been elected directly by the Turkish Cypriot people in elections for the presidency, so he had a direct popular mandate. Now he said that if the opposition were able to win a 'sufficiently large majority' -- and he wouldn't specify what that was -- then he would feel that the voice of the people had been made clear and he would be prepared to step down -- not to be forced out, mind, [but] he would be prepared to step down. Certainly that [didn't] happen in his mind. So I think he will say, 'Look, I'm still negotiator, I'm still in place, I still oppose the Annan plan,'" Ker-Lindsay said.

Journalist Hadjicostis, however, believes Denktash's stature as negotiator suffered from the polls. "It's clear that most people in the Turkish-held north voted for a change," he said. "I mean in absolute numbers they voted for something different. They wanted the opposition to move ahead on its own agenda and proceed with negotiations on the Annan plan, so they won't be left off the EU train and pushed further into isolation. That's their greatest fear, isn't it? And of course, Mr. Denktash's, let's say, credibility as a negotiator has been deeply shaken by the results, [although] I think he is breathing a lot easier than if it had been an abject defeat, an outright, no-holds-barred destruction at the polls."

Whether the Turkish Cypriot president, who has been in power since the TRNC was created, realizes the tide is turning remains unclear. Addressing reporters at a press conference today in Lefkosa -- as the Turkish part of Nicosia is known -- Denktash said the election showed that his fellow countrymen support a reunification deal and entry into the EU, but "not at any cost."

Striking a more conciliatory note toward his pro-EU opponents, the veteran leader also advocated the creation of a government of national unity and urged political parties to hold a debate on the reunification issue, which is known in Lefkosa as the "national cause."

"In my view, the best thing would be that political parties come together in line with the message that was given by the people, discuss issues related with the 'national cause,' come to a conclusion and create a national [unity] government," Denktash said. The Turkish Cyprus leader later said that should the parties fail to agree on a common platform, new elections would be held "within two months."

As the party that garnered the most votes, the opposition CTP could legally enter the government. But Prime Minister Eroglu yesterday said he would not form a coalition with Talat, blaming the election setback of his party on the EU and the United States, which has been pushing for a solution to the island's partition.

In all likelihood, the key to the Cyprus standoff lies in Turkey's hands. European leaders have made it clear in the past few months that failure to reach a rapid solution to the Cyprus issue would place EU hopeful Turkey in a difficult position.

Ankara, which applied for EU membership in 1987, won candidate status only four years ago. But formal entry talks have not started yet -- a delay mainly due to European concerns over Turkey's long-standing poor human rights record. Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party hopes to open formal entry talks after Brussels reviews its progress toward democracy and market economy at the end in December 2004.

Both Hadjicostis and Ker-Lindsay believe Ankara has every reason to be satisfied with the outcome of yesterday's vote in Northern Cyprus since it allows the Turkish civilian leadership, which faces strong opposition from the military over concessions demanded by the EU, to buy time.

Ker-Lindsay said: "I think the danger was that if the opposition had won a clear victory yesterday then it would have thrown the ball into Turkey's court. Although [Turkish] Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan would like to see a solution, he would not have been able to come out immediately and say, 'Look, this is wonderful, we are going now to sign up the Annan plan.' That would have brought a showdown with the [Turkish] military without a proper discussion."

Asked to comment on the outcome of the polls today, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin remained evasive, saying it was up to the Turkish Cypriot sides to "enter into dialogue" in order to solve the reunification issue.