ATHENS – SYRIZA leadership election front-runner Stefanos Kasselakis, a newcomer to politics, said he misspoke in Greece when calling the Turkish-Cypriot occupied side of the island a “statelet” of Turkey.
That played into the hands of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who said at his United Nations General Assembly address that the world should recognize the occupied territory that’s a self-declared republic.
Kasselakis, who surprisingly got first place in the Leftist party’s first round, was immediately assailed by Effi Achtsioglou, his rival to head the major opposition that’s been leadership since former head Alexis Tsipras quit after being routed in June elections by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ New Democracy rulers.
On the campaign trail in Athens, Kasselakis was criticizing Mitsotakis for not responding to Erdogan’s push for a separate state Cyprus where Turkey keeps 35,000 troops on the occupied side no other country other than Turkey accepts.
Erdogan said that the UN and international community should “recognize the TRNC’s (sic) sovereignty and establish diplomatic, political, and economic ties with this country,” using a term identifying it as a republic although it’s not.
“It is unacceptable that Mr. Mitsotakis did not respond to Erdogan’s invitation to recognize the second half, the northern part, of their statelet, the north, in Cyprus,” said Kasselakis, apparently unaware of his blunder.
When prompted by a journalist, he quickly corrected himself to describe the entity as a “pseudo-state,” but Achtsioglou quickly jumped on the mistake to try to show it was a rookie error by someone who hadn’t been active in the party.
Kasselakis, 35, spent most of his life in the United States and has a background that includes being a ship owner and Capitalist – at odds with the Leftists alleged principles – and wasn’t a candidate for Parliament in June elections.
Achtsioglou, 38, is a former labor minister who had been the perceived front-runner to replace Tsipras and try to resurrect a party that has fallen to only 47 seats in the 300-member Parliament and seen its popularity halved.
She said his characterization of the occupied part of Cyprus as belonging to Turkey – which Erdogan wants recognized – was “a very serious error; a mistake that reveals ignorance about one of the most critical issues of our foreign policy. And this should concern us.”
In a social media post later, Kasselakis tried to recoup and blamed the use of the word “statelet” to “fatigue and sleeplessness of the campaign trail” and that he only recently moved back to Greece after living in the US for 21 years.
“There are times when I have to search to find a word in Greek,” he said, although his rival didn’t criticize him for that, although earlier lambasted him for refusing to debate her on issues as she said he was a social media candidate.
The two have taken to squabbling with so much at stake despite the party sliding into political irrelevance after winning elections in 2015 and taking 149 seats in Parliament before it disintegrated when Tsipras broke most of his vows.
As he came out of nowhere to eclipse party veterans – three others barely registered in the first round – Kasselakis has found himself under fire amidst internecine battles.
He had written an article previously praising Mitsotakis before saying he was the only one in SYRIZA who could defeat him in the next general election and some party stalwarts said he had worked for the New Democracy leader before.
His critics said he had undermined Tsipras, who is staying out of the fray without endorsing anyone although his former top aide, Nikos Pappas – convicted in a TV license sale scheme – was a leadership candidate and endorsed Kasselakis.
Achtsioglou said that Kasselakis has to answer questions about where his loyalties are about the accusations he had undercut Tsipras. “It would be a minimum sign of political culture to condemn these attacks so that we can move forward with a step that is political,” she said.
Kasselakis instead stirred the pot and said of the accusations: “How should I know? I have been on the front line for a month… ask people who have knowledge,” he said.
But he later backtracked a bite and said, “I completely believe her. I want to clarify again: In SYRIZA, I have competitors, not opponents,” in a bid to defuse the tension and show there shouldn’t be bickering.