Turkey threatened Turkish Cypriot presidential candidates, interfered in 2020 election: report

Outgoing Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci (R) and the newly elected leader Ersin Tatar, arrive at a handover ceremony in the northern part of Nicosia, the capital of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), on October 23, 2020. Photo: AFP

Turkey interfered in the 2020 presidential election in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), a breakaway state recognized only by Turkey, with Turkish government operatives threatening candidates running against then-Prime Minister Ersin Tatar, Turkish Minute reported, citing a study by the Raporluyoruz Group, a team of civil society representatives, lawyers and researchers.

Tatar, a nationalist backed by Ankara, supports closer ties with Turkey and advocates a two-state solution on the island. He won the election with 51.69 percent of the vote, ousting the incumbent Mustafa Akıncı, a left-wing politician who wanted to resume peace talks with Cyprus’s internationally recognized Greek government.

The KKTC was founded after Turkish intervention in the island in 1974, which followed a coup by Greek nationalists who sought unification with Greece amid a civil war between Greeks and Turks living on the island.

The report, prepared by Raporluyoruz Group members Mine Yücel, Abdullah Korkmazhan, Orhan Erönen, Mine Atlı and Derya Beyatlı, includes revelations by Akıncı, his aide Cenk Gürçağ, politician Serdar Denktaş and a number of journalists. 

Akıncı told the observers that a team from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) directed the election campaign on behalf of Tatar. His aide said he was invited to meet with high-ranking MİT officials. 

“I urge you to convey to Akıncı that it will be best for him, his family, and his close colleagues to withdraw his candidacy,” Gürçağ claims to have been told by the MİT agents.

In the run-up to the election, the Turkish ambassador to the KKTC invited a number of deputies to his residence to garner support for Tatar. Tatar also paid two unexpected visits to Ankara in the week before the election, where he was promised cash injections to the Turkish Cypriot economy. 

Akıncı and Ankara have been at odds over the solution of the Cyprus problem since reunification talks collapsed in July 2017. Their relationship deteriorated further in 2020 when Akıncı, in response to a question by British newspaper The Guardian on the possibility of Turkey’s annexation of the north of the island, said, “It’s a horrible scenario.” 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described Akinci’s comments as “very unfortunate,” while Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Akıncı is “unreliable” and accused him of “supporting terrorism.” 

Akıncı had traded barbs with President Erdoğan in October 2019, when he spoke out against Turkey’s military offensive into predominantly Kurdish northern Syria.

“He should know his place. He is in office thanks to the Republic of Turkey,” Erdoğan said at the time.

“There is only one authority that decides how to get to this office: the Turkish Cypriot people,” Akıncı said in response.

‘He will have terrible things happen to him’

According to the report, Ali Kişmir, head of the Turkish Cypriot Journalists’ Union, said he was invited to meet with individuals from Turkey, who introduced themselves as “the envoys of the Republic of Turkey.” 

According to Kişmir, the so-called envoys told him, “We are here to make sure Akıncı is not elected. He will not be elected. This man is a US agent. This man is an enemy of Turkey. This man is cooperating with the Greek Cypriots.” 

Kişmir says he was told to convey to Akıncı, “If Akıncı is elected, he will have terrible things happen to him. So he should withdraw, buy his ticket and f*** off to the United States. We know he has a Greek son-in-law. We know what his daughter is after. For the sake of the future of Turkey and the KKTC, Akıncı should not be elected. If he gets elected, terrible things will happen. Something will happen to him. We don’t know what that might be. He is only symbolically sitting there, anyway. His mandate is over.”

‘Enemies of Turkey’

Kişmir was also told that he was on a list of “enemies of Turkey.”

“Whether he [Akinci] is elected or not, we have a list for after the elections. We know all the enemies of Turkey. We know all the agents. We will take all of them to Turkey,” Kişmir said he was told by the Turkish team. He was also told his name would be deleted from the list of ‘the enemies of Turkey’ if he withdrew his support for Akinci, according to the report. Kişmir was told some 50 journalists have been persuaded to withdraw their support and that he was the only holdout.

The observers also interviewed another presidential contender, Serdar Denktaş, who claimed that Turkish government operatives pressured him to withdraw from the race.

Denktaş, the son of the founding president of northern Cyprus, Rauf Denktaş, also alleged that his phone was tapped and that he was followed by cars with official plates during the campaign.

Using its guarantor rights to intervene, Turkey occupied northern Cyprus in 1974 in response to a brief Greek-initiated coup attempting to seize control of the island in a bid to unite it with Greece, a move that divided the island. 

According to observers, dozens of civilians lost their lives during Turkey’s incursion, while nearly 300,000 people were displaced due to airstrikes and clashes as Greek Cypriots fled south while Turkish Cypriots living in southern Cyprus fled north.

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