In Turkey, ahead of the country’s most important election in recent memory, being held today, Sunday May 14, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seems to be resorting to foul play and tricks to steer the votes in their favor. There are fake stickers, physical violence, dark web rumors, manipulated videos, accusations, misinformation, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments, and media oppression, to name a few. If this was a circus show, the magician on stage could certainly pull out a few surprises to keep its spectators entertained, but on Turkey’s political stage, incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğon and the AKP are running out of tricks.
Playing the terrorist card
On May 7, as Erdoğan stood on stage at a pre-election rally in Istanbul, a video played on a large screen beside him linking his main rival in this election, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, to the Kurdish nationalist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group. As the video started playing, Erdoğan addressed the crowd of supporters who gathered at the former international passenger Ataturk Airport, “[they] are walking shoulder [to] shoulder with the PKK. You, my national and local citizen, will you vote for them?”
But the video was fake. Fact-checkers debunked the video and proved its content had been manipulated.
The video combines the official campaign video released by the opposition alliance showing Kılıçdaroğlu calling on Turks, “come on, lets go to the ballot box together,” standing next to Kılıçdaroğlu in the video is the current mayor of Ankara and Istanbul. Behind the three men are a group of people. The manipulated video shows a close-up of Kılıçdaroğlu from the same video; only the original video ends with the call, while the edited version on screen, continues to show another man on screen, Murat Karayilan, the founder of the PKK.
Istanbul, opposition rally ahead of the general elections scheduled for May 14. Image by Arzu Geybullayeva. Used with permission.
Last week, Kılıçdaroğlu warned the country’s voters of possible manipulations similar to Cambridge Analytica interference — where a political consulting company used illegally obtained Facebook data to launch smear campaigns on opposition politicians and sway election results in the US.
There are two days left until the final ten days [before the election]. Let me give my final warning. Fahrettin Altun, Serhat and their teammates Çağatay and Evren; The dark web world you are trying to deal with will lead you into the hands of foreign intelligence. Playing Cambridge Analytica is beyond your capacity, boys. THIS IS MY FINAL WARNING!
Kılıçdaroğlu’s warning was based on intelligence received by his Republican People’s (CH) party, reported online media platform Medyascope. According to the intelligence, the ruling party planned “to use ‘deep fake’ style videos and sound recordings, as well as Cambridge Analytica-style techniques in the last 10 days leading up to the election, with the goal of tanking Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign just before voters go to the polls,” reported Medyascope. According to the same intelligence, the Directorate of Communications and its head, Fahrettin Altun, were the masterminds of the campaign.
In response to the accusations, Altun tweeted, “We trust our leader and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. We are working for the ideal of the Turkish Century. We fight against disinformation, which we see as one of the biggest enemies of democracy, and inform the national and international public in an accurate, fast, and transparent manner.”
But Kılıçdaroğlu also hinted that the Directorate of Communications had hired an international team, paid in bitcoin, and ordered his team to produce a series of deep fakes of the opposition presidential candidate days ahead of the election. Speaking to the host of a show on Fox Haber channel, the main opposition (CHP) Izmir deputy Tuncay Özkan elaborated further on the party head’s suspicions. “There are names, it’s all rather clear. [We know] who is doing it and what they plan to do. [We know the plan is] to manipulate visuals and audio of our esteemed leader,” explained Özkan.
Earlier, CHP was branded a PKK supporter through a sticker campaign that was orchestrated by the ruling party youth branch, according to internal party investigations. The stickers with the CHP logo read, “When we come to power, we are going to release Apo,” referring to Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK.
The terrorism accusations leveled against the opposition are not new. In December 2021, the Ministry of the Interior shared a tweet claiming it had identified over 500 municipality employees and related companies with connections to Kurdish militants, leftists, and other controversial groups. In what critics have described as a boost to systematic censorship and a threat to freedom of speech, with disastrous consequences ahead of Turkey’s 2023 election, in October 2022, Turkish lawmakers approved a law on disinformation. Among a number of concerning new restrictions in the bill, such as mandatory content removal, violations of user privacy, further platform regulation measures, and more. Then there is Article 29, which states that “anyone publicly distributing false information on Turkey’s domestic and external security, public order and welfare could face between one and three years in jail for instigating concern, fear and panic in society, faces imprisonment from one and up to three years.” The new restrictions went into effect on October 18, 2022.
On May 10, watchdogs ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch warned that the May 14 elections were taking place “in an environment of intensified centralized control and erosion of fundamental rights and the rule of law, with the Erdoğan government wielding its formidable powers to muzzle media and detain or sideline perceived critics and political opponents.” With thousands of journalists, political opponents, and others prosecuted “for criticizing the president and the government online or even just sharing or liking critical articles on social media,” in the course of the past nine years. They added, “as election day approaches there is concern the government will exert its considerable control over the digital ecosystem to shape the outcome of the election.”
According to reporting by local news agencies, the ruling government was planning to hang PKK banners with the CHP logo across 81 provinces. The CHP said they were taking all of the recent targeting campaigns to the Supreme Election Board (YSK).
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu recently claimed that the West was attempting to orchestrate a coup in Turkey via the upcoming elections. Speaking at the Istanbul Foundation for Science and Culture on April 27, Soylu said, “May 14 (the election date) is a political coup attempt by the West. It is a coup attempt that can be initiated by bringing together each of the preparations to purge Turkey on May 14.” The minister’s words worried many voters and pundits alike and prompted fears that the ruling government may not accept the election results if they are defeated.
Playing the LGBTQ+ card
If it isn’t terrorism, then it’s anti-LGBTQ+ narratives on full display. At the same rally where Erdoğan showed manipulated video of Kılıçdaroğlu, he accused the opposition coalition of being “pro-LGBT.” Adding, the “AK Party and other parties in our alliance would never be pro-LGBT, because family is sacred to us. We will bury those pro-LGBT in the ballot box.” Last week, he said in a tweet, “the LGBTQ community was the strongest current threatening the future of Western nations.”
Resorting to homophobic narratives in the election is an attempt to stir up and unite the conservative voter base, explained Damla Umut Uzun, a campaigner with the Turkish LGBTQ+ rights organization Kaos GL, in an interview with the Middle East Eye.
On May 1, Turkey’s Justice Minister, Bekir Bozdağ, claimed there were attempts to “legitimize and normalize LGBT and many perversions. It is the primary duty of states to protect every member of society against negativities, against deviant and perverted understandings.”
The jingoism is fueling an environment of violence in the meantime. On May 8, Istanbul’s mayor campaign bus was pelted with stones at a pre-election rally in Turkey’s Erzurum province. Police stood idly while people were getting injured as a result of the attack. After the incident, Istanbul’s Mayor told journalists that police were ordered not to intervene, calling the act a disgrace for the local provincial mayor and the governor. In an interview with KRT television on May 5, Kılıçdaroğlu warned the supporters of the opposition alliance to stay home on election night because “some people might stir trouble, some people may be provoked, armed elements may take the streets.” In March, the building of one of the political parties within the opposition coalition was targeted in an armed attack.
But despite the violent language and physical attacks, the opposition coalition continues to speak of unity. At an opposition rally in Istanbul, instead of divisive language, there were calls to avoid tension. Similarly, speaking to supporters in Turkey’s province of Konya, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said, “There will be those who will try to provoke you. … Let them throw stones. We will counter with roses.”
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