Turkish intelligence threatened Northern Cyprus presidential candidates, report says

While organised crime allegations have rocked Turkish politics, in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), long considered the ‘dirty’ backyard of the mainland, a new scandal is brewing.     

A report released on Thursday by a group of academics, politicians, activists, and lawyers calling themselves the “We Are Reporting Group” has detailed allegations of Ankara’s interference in last October’s TRNC presidential election, including threats by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MİT) against the incumbent candidate.  

On October 18, former Prime Minister Ersin Tatar was elected TRNC president following a second-round run-off against out-going President Mustafa Akıncı.

Having taken office in April 2015, Akıncı pursued a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation in line with the United Nations’ mandate to reunify the island and end the divisions in place since the 1974 Turkish military intervention. He also called for relations with Turkey on an equal basis.

Both stances put him at loggerheads with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Tatar, on the other hand, is united with Erdoğan in his support for a two-state solution and received public backing from Ankara throughout the election campaign. However, this assistance now appears to have gone much further than previously believed.

Based on interviews with figures involved in the campaign, the “We Are Reporting Group” say they have found “clear evidence” of Turkish meddling in the vote, calling into question “the legitimacy of the elected candidate”.

“Me and my family have received death threats and I have been the target of various smear campaigns and troll attacks,” Akıncı told the report. This included Turkish intelligence agents telling Akıncı to withdraw his candidacy “for the sake of his family”.

The former president first made the allegations during a broadcast interview ahead of the elections on October 11.

The Turkish Embassy subsequently denied the claims. “Akıncı's statements are completely insubstantial. The continuation of this attitude towards the Republic of Turkey is far from goodwill,” it said.

But speaking to the report’s authors, Akıncı’s Chief of Staff Cenk Gürçağ provided a more detailed account of his interaction with Turkey’s intelligence service.

Gürçağ says he was called by a MİT representative named Ahmet on September 17 and invited to a meeting at the Merit Park Hotel’s restaurant on the northern coast of the island.

The meeting consisted of three people from Ankara who introduced themselves as Kemal, the head of MIT’s foreign operations; Ali, the head of MIT’s Greece and Cyprus Department; and a specialist, Hakan.

“They asked me to tell Mr Akıncı to withdraw from the presidential race,” Gürçağ told the report.

“We do not want Akıncı in that office. He won't be able to win anyway. We will not let him win. Even if he wins, nothing will be the same. We know to the very breath of everyone who is close to him,” the MIT representatives said, according to Gürçağ.

“I kindly request you to convey this to Mustafa Akıncı. His withdrawal from the candidacy will be most beneficial for himself, his family and his close employees. Tell him to announce his withdrawal on Facebook tonight. We are coming from the top. Nobody and nothing is more important than the survival of Turkey.”

Another candidate, Serdar Denktaş, the son of TRNC founding President Rauf Denktaş, was similarly pressured, the researchers say.

Denktaş told the report that he was asked to withdraw his candidacy during a meeting with a MİT representative at a friend's house. In return, he says he was offered the prospect of better relations with Erdoğan.

“A team of 27 people have been sent to the island from Turkey and that nearly 400 people worked with this team in the field, for the elections,” Dektaş said.

He also alleges electronic payments were made to some citizens on the last Friday before the election to secure their votes.

Taken together, the report’s findings show not only political interference, but an attempt to seriously undermine the TRNC’s democratic institutions, according to its authors.

“The political life of Turkish Cypriots’ is full of examples of Turkey’s intervention on various levels,” the researchers said.

“The purpose of this report is to record these events in history and contribute to efforts to prevent new interferences against the political will of the Turkish Cypriots.”