Northern Cyprus becomes Erdoğan's backyard - Hasan Kahvecioğlu / Kıbrıs Halkın Sesi

Right-wing nationalist Ersin Tatar's victory over incumbent Mustafa Akıncı at presidential elections in Northern Cyprus amounts to a political coup masterminded by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to veteran journalist Hasan Kahvecioğlu.

“Northern Cyprus has now become Erdoğan's backyard," Cyprus-based Kahvecioğlu told Ahval in a podcast.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) held a close-fought second round of voting in the election on Sunday. The poll followed a heated summer in the eastern Mediterranean as political and military tensions intensified between Turkey and fellow NATO member Greece and Erdoğan’s government tussled with regional rivals over the future of Libya.

On Cyprus, a key political stomping ground for regional powers, the landscape was shaken by arguments between Turkey and the rest of the international community over the delimitation of national waters and the exploitation of undersea energy resources.

Tatar, who has served as the enclave’s prime minister, advocates fully aligning Turkish Cypriot polices with those of Turkey, such as pursuing a possible two-state deal as an alternative to the long-held federal model for the divided island. He also says an agreement with Greek Cypriots to share rights to potential offshore natural gas and oil deposits should precede peace negotiations.

Turkish Cypriots rely on security and financial guarantees provided by Turkey, which is the only state to formally recognise the TRNC. The traditionally secular indigenous population is wary of attempts by Erdoğan’s Islamist government to influence its culture and politics, Kahvecioğlu said. But they are being gradually outnumbered by immigrants from Turkey, he said.

"The number of mosques has risen significantly in recent years. Tatar visited an Islamic monastery and prayed there during his election campaign and its videos were shared widely on social media. This is the first such event in our history," he said.

Turkish Cypriot voters, many of whom are now recent settlers from Turkey, found themselves immersed in a highly charged political campaign during which they were asked to choose between two diametrically opposed visions for northern Cyprus: Akıncı’s embrace of reunification with Greek Cypriots and Tatar's call for partition and support for Turkey's policies in the region.

Almost 30,000 Turks were granted Turkish Cypriot citizenship in the past five years, with courts approving citizenship applications until a couple of days before the elections, Kahvecioğlu said. The turnout at the polls increased to 67.3 percent in the second round of voting from 58.2 percent in the first round, amounting to nearly 20,000 votes, he said.

Tatar won a majority in towns and cities where settlers from Turkey were the majority, while Akıncı garnered most of his support from native Turkish Cypriots, he said.

The population of Northern Cyprus was 326,000 in 2017, with 150,000 to 160,000 Turkish immigrants.

"Tatar's propaganda method was based on dividing the voters into supporters and detractors of Turkey. The supporters of Mustafa Akıncı were portrayed as allies of the European Union and Greeks. But Akıncı carried out an independent and impartial candidacy process," Kahvecioğlu said.

The Greek Cypriot-controlled southern part of Cyprus is considered the only legal representative of the island. The Greek Cypriot community voted against reunification at a referendum in 2004. Turkish Cypriots voted in favour in a decision backed by Turkey and Erdoğan, who was then prime minister.

On Oct. 4, Erdoğan summoned Tatar to Turkey’s capital of Ankara, which was a clear example of his direct intervention in the elections, Kahvecioğlu said. The two leaders celebrated the repair of the Turkey-Northern Cyprus water pipeline. Tatar announced that the TRNC government would reopen the coastal ghost town of Varosha in a move advocated by Erdoğan.

"Erdoğan used Varosha as an election trump card for Tatar, taking the risk of being disgraced to the world," he said.

The Cyprus question has been a near-constant fixture in international relations since the island was divided along ethnic lines by a Turkish invasion in 1974. Last month, it made the headlines again after the plans to reopen Varosha were first raised. The resort town’s primarily Greek Cypriot population fled during the invasion, which followed an Athens-sponsored coup attempt to unite the island with Greece.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 550, approved in 1984, ruled that any attempts to settle any part of Varosha by people other than its inhabitants was inadmissible. It also called for the transfer of the area to the administration of the United Nations. 

Akıncı said Tatar’s Varosha announcement amounted to “interference in our elections” and condemned it as a “disgrace for our democracy”. The town was re-opened to visitors on Oct. 8, three days before the first round of voting in the election.

In the months leading up to the polls, Akıncı received death threats, which increased dramatically after he criticised Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria and described the possibility of the north's annexation by Turkey as "horrible", Kahvecioğlu said.

"Akıncı gave a file of the death threats to the Turkish embassy for investigation. But the prosecutors in Turkey have not taken any step in this regard,” he said.

The presidential race ended up being a David and Goliath-type battle which, unlike the biblical story, was won by Goliath, according to Kahvecioğlu.

"When you look at all this, the autocratic party of an 80 million-strong country and a society of 100,000 people competed,” he said. “This was a greatly asymmetric race."