Electorate taken for a ride

  Jun 22, 2020 9:39 am İpek Özerim 1373
Last weekend, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper featured an excellent interview with Prime Minister Ersin Tatar.The header alone “Northern Cyprus’ prime minister plans to airlift citizens out of UK’ was a great PR coup for Turkish Cypriots.

Electorate taken for a ride

The article was similarly positive. Mr Tatar pointed to the success of his government’s policies in containing the coronavirus pandemic, using the huge disparity between the number of Covid-19 deaths in the TRNC (just four) versus over 100 Turkish Cypriots dying of coronavirus in the UK, claiming “the precautions that they took in England were too late.”

The TRNC prime minister is absolutely right. Boris Johnson’s government has been woeful in its handling of the pandemic. While North Cyprus went into lockdown on 12 March, four days after its first reported case, the UK waited nearly two months to do the same: its first Covid-19 case was on 31 January and the first death on 5 March, yet Britain only went into lockdown on 23 March. 

The delayed action has cost the country thousands more lives than it should have. By Thursday of this week, the UK had officially recorded 42,288 Covid-19 deaths, the third highest toll in the world – only the United States and Brazil have had more.

The TRNC prime minister should have spent the week basking in the glory of appearing in one of the UK’s most influential papers, and using it as a launch pad to generate similar coverage around the world. Instead, Mr Tatar and his government have been bogged down in a scandal entirely of their own making.

On Sunday, the TRNC woke up to an astonishing front page from Yenidüzen,“Biz özel izinliyiz”, about a group of people arriving on a private jet from Turkey on Friday night. The party told TRNC border control staff theywere not obliged to follow the country’s strict quarantine rules because they had “special permission.” 

The story was verified by the Tourism Minister Ünal Üstel, causing nationwide uproar. Opposition leaders and the public demanded to know who these people were and why the lockdown measures had been bypassed for them. 

In the days prior to the jet’s arrival, Turkish Cypriots had been protesting for workers to return to work in South Cyprus and be allowed to cross back home to North Cyprus in the evening. The TRNC government stood firm, refusing to bend, claiming the borders would remain closed for the foreseeable future because the South hadn’t brought the virus under control and it would be too risky.Newspaper front covers showed workers waving goodbye to loved ones at the Green Line as they crossed for work taking their bedding with them, knowing it could be a month before they could return.

Over in the UK, the Turkish Cypriot diaspora was trying to digest the news that they would have to pay for quarantine costs if they travelled to North Cyprus in the summer. A Council of Ministers announcement on 11 June confirmed what many had suspected would happen, that the UK was the on highest risk category of countries, obliging all visitors from July 1 to undertake a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a designated centre, charged to the individual. At £510 per person, this was no small fee. 

Those returning to North Cyprus on repatriation flights have evidenced the strict conditions of quarantine, with no one allowed to leave their room for the entire two week period. The quarantine centres have varied from Malpas Hotel in Girne, to student digs in Güzelyurt. You’re served three meals a dayin polystyrene foam food boxes, making the entire experience more like a prison sentence. 

So when the story of the private jet exploded onto screens in the UK, with rumours (gossiping being the number one Turkish Cypriot national pastime) that this was no “business delegation”, but ‘tourists here to gamble’, the anger across the community was palpable. 

Even without the rumours, the anger was justified and Mr Üstel’s efforts did little to quell them. The details given by the veteran politician, who belongs to the main coalition partner UBP (National Unity Party) headed by Mr Tatar, has been challenged by others, forcing the prime pinister to order a police investigation.

Initially, Mr Üstel’s ministry posted a statement on its Facebook page on Sunday morning (since removed) that said, “The delegation in question has come to our island to complete the technical studies necessary for the realisation of the Lapta Marina project.”

It further added the visit was permitted “after consultation with the Council of Ministers,” and that “There is no prospect of them interacting with our general public,” as they were staying at a “quarantine hotel”.

A series of counter-narratives quickly emerged: the firm in question had not won the tender, but was second, the Lapta Belediye leader had no news about the delegation or visit. None of the approved quarantine centres had a record of these people, and they were alleged sightings of them shopping in Famagusta.

The rumours went into overdrive when the delegation left a day earlier than scheduled (Sunday instead of Monday), with the transport minister Tolga Atakan, from the junior coalition partner HP (People’s Party) pouring fuel on the fire when he posted on Facebook on Sunday evening (also since deleted) that the Council of Ministers had been “misled” about the “real purpose” of the visit.

Even if the delegation were genuine business people, telling your own citizens and diaspora they must stick to the rules with no exceptions for, while waiving them for some rich folk from Turkey absolutely stinks.

This sorry saga bears a remarkable similarity to the Dominic Cummings scandal in Britain last month. One man rides roughshod over public health considerations for no good reason, and by standing by their man, the government destroys its standing and trust, which takes so long to cultivate. This flagrant disregard for public health has also led to several senior advisors on the Covid-19 Co-ordinating Council, including former PM Dr Sibel Siber, to resign.

“Torpil” (nepotism) – the country’s cancer – rears its ugly head again, but this could cost Mr Tatar dear in the upcoming presidential election. Reputations matter and taking your electorate for a ride has never been a vote winner!