October 14, 2020 | Policy Brief

Erdogan Meddles in Northern Cyprus Elections

October 14, 2020 | Policy Brief

Erdogan Meddles in Northern Cyprus Elections

Northern Cyprus will head to a runoff presidential vote next Sunday in a race that pits the proreunification incumbent of the breakaway region against a nationalist hawk backed by Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If Ankara’s heavy-handed meddling succeeds in tilting the balance toward Erdogan’s favored candidate, Cyprus may become the next hotspot for the Turkish president’s policy of escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when the Turkish military seized the northern third of the island in response to a coup attempt organized by the military junta in Athens with the aim of uniting Cyprus with Greece. Turkey maintains nearly 40,000 troops in the northern third of the island, which Ankara alone recognizes as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

Although reunification talks between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus and the breakaway TRNC have been stalled for decades, the 2015 victory of Mustafa Akinci over hawkish incumbent Dervis Eroglu prompted renewed hopes for a negotiated settlement. However, under President Akinci’s leadership, the latest round of UN-mediated talks, which sought to reunify the island as a bizonal and bicommunal federation, failed in 2017.

In the first round of this year’s presidential election, held on October 11, 32 percent of voters chose Prime Minister Ersin Tatar, who supports closer ties with Ankara and advocates for a two-state solution in Cyprus, while just under 30 percent voted for the incumbent. Although Turkey historically has a pattern of weighing in on behalf of pro-Ankara candidates, Erdogan’s meddling reached unprecedented levels this time around.

In early August, the Turkish government arranged meetings between Turkish officials and three Turkish Cypriot parties, trying to persuade them to field Tatar as a joint candidate against Akinci. On August 29, Tatar chose to skip a televised debate featuring presidential candidates and instead travelled to Ankara to meet with Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay, after which the two announced a new Turkish financial support package for the TRNC.

Tatar then joined Erdogan four days before the first round of the election to re-inaugurate a water pipeline between Turkey and Cyprus, breaching the TRNC election board’s ban on holding official ceremonies. The two leaders then announced the reopening of a public beachfront in the ghost town of Varosha, closed to the public since 1974 – a political stunt likely to derail the restart of reunification talks.

The Turkish government’s most blatant meddling attempt, however, entailed threats directed against Akinci. Two days before the first round of voting, Akinci announced on television that Turkish officials threatened him and his family members to prevent his candidacy. Akinci also alleged that lawmakers from Turkey’s ruling Islamist-ultranationalist coalition were campaigning against him in Cyprus, and that the Turkish Embassy in Nicosia was functioning as the “election headquarters” for his opponents. Ankara not only denied the accusations, but the Turkish embassy went as far as to threaten legal action against claims of election meddling, prompting the president of the Turkish Cypriot journalists’ association to warn that the embassy’s statement was a “threat to the freedom of media in the north.”

The Erdogan government’s meddling in Turkish Cypriot elections succeeded in discouraging voters from going to the polls, leading to the lowest voter turnout, 55 percent, in the history of the northern region. Ankara’s anti-Akinci campaign, however, failed to undermine the incumbent president, whose 30 percent tally was three points higher than in the first round of the 2015 election. Although it is certain that Erdogan will continue to pressure other candidates to unite behind Tatar, Akinci appears on track to build the kind of alliances with other pro-reunification parties and moderate candidates that allowed him to secure 60 percent of the runoff vote in 2015.

If Erdogan succeeds in bullying Turkish Cypriots into voting for his favored candidate, Cyprus is likely to become the next hotspot for Erdogan’s military and diplomatic stunts in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Aykan, the Turkey Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power Turkey