Turkey’s opposition candidates are being reminded who owns the playing field

With the hints of a currency crisis looming and polls suggesting the possibility of a transfer of power after 16 years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, measures are increasingly being put in place to intimidate serious opposition presidential candidates and limit their freedom of action.

Under ordinary circumstances, it would not be overdramatic to call President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s principal challenger Muharrem İnce cursed, for bad things have begun happening to those who holds a photo opportunity with him. 

Take the case of Dr. Alaattin Duran, the rector of Istanbul Cerrahpaşa University, who gave his blessing for İnce to come on campus on Thursday to meet with students protesting their new university’s recent split from Istanbul University proper on an Erdoğan whim. Not only did the university’s head of security report ominous threats in advance of İnce’s visit, but the president ordered Duran’s sacking later on that night.

Or that of the Turkish Air Force’s Solotürk F-16 acrobatics troupe, which carries out entertaining demonstrations using the high-powered American jets. They shook hands with İnce last Saturday, as they would likely have done with any politician who came to visit, and later found out that their future performance dates had subsequently been cancelled by the chief of staff’s office. The military, of course, denied any connection between the two incidents.

İnce’s Thursday night appearance on CNNTürk, a channel belonging to Doğan Media Group, which was recently taken over by an Erdoğan ally and has since been firing staff by the handful, began with a strongly critical tone taken by all three presenters, but he failed to crack and the journalists ended the interview stony-faced. Whether fearing for their jobs or not, they became the fare of derision on social media the next day.

The tacit being used against Meral Akşener, a strident nationalist leader and presidential candidate who formed a new opposition party after being expelled from Erdoğan’s nationalist coalition partners for challenging its leader for the post, is to deprive her of publicity as far as possible. 

State news channel TRT was able to find 36 hours over the first three weeks of the campaign to cover candidates from the AKP, as compared to 3 hours and 4 minutes for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), 40 minutes for Erdoğan’s coalition partners in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and a single 9-minute-and-30-second broadcast by Akşener, while the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party and Islamist opposition Felicity Party got no coverage at all. State news agency Anadolu has not yet chosen to cover a single one of Akşener’s rallies live, despite exhaustive live coverage of the speeches and actions of Erdoğan, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, government spokesman Bekir Bozdağ and presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın.

Private television networks, especially the majority that are now firmly in Erdoğan’s corner, have largely done their part to maintain the boycott. By Akşener’s account, one network once aired a few seconds of one of her rallies on its news coverage, and it resulted in the firing of both employees responsible.

The HDP’s presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, remains in prison on terror charges, despite an intensifying campaign for his release. Ten of the party’s other parliamentarians and thousands of party activists are in jail with him. Authorities are also playing games with access to the candidate from party officials: sometimes even the party’s leaders have been denied the right to see him. Some strong HDP candidates have already been disqualified by being convicted of terror offenses since they were announced this week, and others have had investigations opened up into them in the same time.

Shortly in advance of last year’s referendum on the presidential system, there were major waves of arrests of HDP activists, as well as frequent individual attacks on stalls and party offices belonging to parties that were part of the No campaign. In comparison, the atmosphere in Turkey so far appears to be less heated, though there is no telling what could happen as we enter the final weeks of the campaign.

After almost two years of pain under a state of emergency, Erdoğan is desperately lacking a new message about how he will solve the problems of ordinary Turks. The fervour of his supporters has been temporarily quelled by shock at the plight of the lira and the failure of the presidential system to become the sociopolitical cure-all it was marketed as. He has also made the mistake of jettisoning some of the goodwill his government has earned on a local level by forcing the resignation of local officials in provinces that voted against his presidential system.

His attempt to relaunch his party in the midst of this election campaign is hardly likely to create a new wave of energy either, least of all because the innovations in this AKP manifesto are largely cannibalised from the CHP manifesto of November 2015 and the battle cry “A New Turkey” has now been worn out from years of (ab)use. 

Unless he comes up with a line that can truly capture people’s imaginations over the next month, all the tax amnesties, distribution of state resources and tipping of the playing field he can muster do not now look like they would be enough to win a fair election.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.