Ankara responds with its own crackdown on campaigners at home
ISTANBUL – As the Dutch government prevents Turkish politicians from campaigning in the Netherlands, Turkish authorities are cracking down on campaigners at home.
On Saturday night, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called the Netherlands the “capital of fascism” after Dutch officials barred him from flying there, and deported Turkish Minister of Family and Social Policies Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the Netherlands and Germany, where Turkish political rallies have also been restricted, of “Nazism.”
The politicians had planned on attending political campaigns in the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam in support of a constitutional referendum on April 16 that could expand President Erdoğan’s already formidable powers and transform Turkey into a highly centralized presidential system.
Dr. Alexander Clarkson, lecturer of German and European Studies at King’s College London, thinks Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is intentionally escalating the diplomatic tensions for political gains.
“The TV images that are broadcast back in Turkey provide this image of the AKP defending the rights of oppressed Turks in these European cities,” Clarkson tells The Media Line.
He says this shows the AKP is nervous about what will likely be a very close referendum on a constitutional change that’s been Erdoğan’s ultimate goal for years.
“If the Turkish government was really confident about getting a victory, they wouldn’t be doing this.”
Clarkson says the posturing is primarily aimed at the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whose leadership is working hand-in-hand with Erdoğan and the AKP, but whose ultranationalist supporters are split in their support for the president and the referendum. Fifty-nine per cent of MHP voters support “No,” while only 26 per cent support “Yes,” according to a February survey by Metropoll.
Clarkson says it’s long been common for Turkish political parties to campaign for the diaspora in Europe, but the AKP pushes it further than European governments are comfortable with, which is why many of them are now restricting the campaigning.
“There are sort of unwritten rules and conventions about how to go about it. There is no doubt that since around 2008 the AKP has been really pushing that envelope,” he says.
“If a German politician went waltzing around Turkey in this way, you can imagine what the reactions [from Ankara] would be.”
Meanwhile, No campaigners back in Turkey are harassed by the government and its supporters and likened to terrorists by Erdoğan and other top AKP politicians.
“They’re trying to intimidate and silence the No campaigners,” says Sera Kadıgil, a lawyer and member of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) who was recently detained for several days after coming into the spotlight when videos of her campaigning for No went viral.
“I have four different lawsuits against me at the moment, all related basically to my political views or duties,” Kadıgil tells The Media Line.
“On paper, I have been prosecuted for some tweets I wrote six – seven years ago. The obvious reality is that I am a party assembly member of CHP and I have recently received a lot of exposure in both mainstream and social media for effectively campaigning for No.”
She says the state pressure isn’t just against No campaigners.
“Anyone who doesn’t support the current government is under a lot of pressure.”
Since a failed military coup on July 15, and the ensuing State of Emergency, the government has embarked upon a massive crackdown against critical voices in the media, academia, civil society and politics, firing over 125,000 people and arresting 40,000.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 178 media outlets have been closed since then. The International Press Institute says 153 journalists and media workers are currently behind bars, 125 of whom were taken into custody since the failed coup. Thousands of media workers have also been fired and many hundreds of press cards revoked.
Police have drawn guns on, detained and fined No campaigners, media outlets have fired prominent journalists for coming out in support of No, and venues have been limited for campaigning.
Tuna Bekleviç, a former AKP advisor and parliamentary candidate, has faced difficulties in trying to set up a No Party to campaign against the presidential system, failing to get the party officially registered.
“Police accompany us at every step. They are constantly taking pictures and video recordings,” Bekleviç tells The Media Line. “We’ve had some cancellations of meeting halls in some cities.”
His team is mostly campaigning in the conservative Anatolian heartland, but was recently prevented from speaking in AKP stronghold Yozgat.
The opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), fiercely against the presidential system, has had its top leadership arrested on terrorism-related charges, and is thus hindered in its abilities to campaign.
However, the HDP’s No campaign launch on March 2nd was well-attended in Istanbul.
“Maybe we can’t hold big meetings, but we’re on the streets every day, visiting houses, shops, everywhere,” HDP deputy Garo Paylan told The Media Line at the launch.
“People had no hope that No could win a month ago, but now everybody thinks it can.”
Recent polls, though not always reliable in Turkey, have indicated a small lead for No over Yes. However, the mostly AKP-controlled media and public campaigning is dominated by Yes supporters, helped out by state resources.
“It can be seen that “No” is leading. However, the No side isn’t self confident because the media makes it look like Yes is leading,” said Yusuf Alp, a 26-year-old engineer and No supporter speaking at a gathering on a rented ferry on the Bosphorus in Istanbul.
“We’ve been looking for a place for nearly ten days. No place let us in,” one of the organizers, a 28-year-old woman who didn’t want to be named, told the Media Line. “As a last resort we found this ferry.”
Almost all of the No campaigners The Media Line spoke with expressed confidence that No would win, but fear that the government won’t accept, or will tamper with, the results.
Though international observers have long considered Turkish elections free of serious fraud, many groups have called them completely unfair in recent years. For instance, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) denounced the November 2015 general election as “unfair.”
Kadıgil says campaigning for the referendum is “absolutely not” fair, especially since it’s happening under the State of Emergency, with Erdoğan essentially ruling by decree.
“And it’s not just about the State of Emergency but also because AKP has been in charge for almost 15 years and already massively controls the great capabilities of the state that it hasn’t refrained from using for its own electoral campaigns.”