After backing Erdoğan rival, Turkish football fans face biometric ID, bans

The day after Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the crucial Istanbul mayoral election rerun on June 23, the party presented a draft law amendment to parliament that proposed implementing biometric identity systems for sports matches and could potentially count political slogans as a criminal act. 

The draft law said it aimed to prevent violence and disorder at sports matches, and its 20 articles broaden the powers of police and private security personnel to surveil, intervene on and detain sports fans at matches. 

But Turkish supporters’ groups are outraged, and the opposition has suggested it was spurred by fear of the vocal criticisms expressed during sports matches, sharpened by the victory of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Istanbul.

During his electoral campaign, the new CHP mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, visited matches played by some of the country’s leading teams, including Istanbul rivals Fenerbahçe, Beşiktaş and Galatasaray, and was greeted by enthusiastic chants from the fans.

News reports later emerged stating that Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu had called the chairmen of Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş and asked them not to host İmamoğlu at matches due to security concerns.

After the CHP mayor’s slim majority in the March 31 election was overturned due to an AKP appeal, he adopted the slogan “everything is going to be alright” for the June 23 rerun. 

The slogan proved to be hugely popular at football matches in Istanbul, where it was sung by fan groups from virtually every team that played.  

The resounding welcome for İmamoğlu around Istanbul’s stadiums echoed the popular sentiment on the city’s streets: the CHP man won the rerun by 9 percent, increasing his lead from around 14,000 votes to over 800,000.

But with the new draft law potentially prohibiting and declaring as criminal acts placards, slogans and other forms of political expression at matches, the ruling party appears to be making a pointed intervention into stadium politics. The definition of threats and insults – crimes under Turkish law – is being stretched to its limit.

A previous law passed in 2011 to prevent black market ticket sales made it necessary for football fans to purchase electronic tickets, for which they had to input personal data, including their Turkish identity number, photograph and address.

This data is stored on the Turkish Football Federation (TFF)’s database, which is open for use only by the finance and interior ministries.

However, the draft law includes an amendment that grants the authority to turn this data over to third parties and institutions for advertising, sponsorship and other commercial uses for clubs’ benefit.

Indeed, the TFF, under the pretext of seeking income for itself and football clubs, opened a tender for the electronic identity card used to by tickets in 2014 under the name “Passolig Card”. 

The tender included a handover for five years of the data fans were obliged to turn over to get tickets to matches. It was won with a 100 million lira bid – then worth around $47 million – by E-KENT, an electronics company owned by Ahmet Çalık, a businessman known for his close links to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

When it won the bid, E-KENT had only five branches across Turkey, and unable to cope with demand, subcontracted Turkey’s post office service to sell the cards. The TFF later extended the contract term to 10 years.

But Çalık Holding was already a major player with serious political connections. It had acquired Sabah newspaper and ATV, two of Turkey’s leading media outlets, from the state Savings Deposit Insurance Fund with a $750 million loan from two public banks in 2008. When it won the Passolig tender in 2014, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, was in charge of Çalık Holding’s Turkuvaz media group, which controlled these acquisitions.

Meanwhile, Çalık Holding’s Aktifbank, which offered a credit card combined with the Passolig card, suddenly had a way in to a pool of millions of new customers, and was guaranteed massive profits from the 53 percent of card and ticket sales it had been granted through the tender. A 40 percent share was set aside for clubs, and the remaining 7 percent for the football federation.

The company was ensured further income from compulsory renewal fees to cardholders.

The new law requiring another compulsory change of the Passolig card to make it a biometric ID has left many fans outraged.

The AKP’s draft law says this is necessary to address what it says is the ease of forging or changing the picture on the current card, a practice that has been allowing people who are not cardholders to buy e-tickets and enter stadiums. The fingerprints, retinal scans and other measures required for a biometric card would prevent this from happening, it said.

But the opposition says the plan will lead to the profiling of millions of fans whose details are recorded, and will lead to an additional financial burden on sports fans while their data is gathered and marketed to enrich figures in the business.

The personal data gathered on millions of fans could be misused in the future and, in certain circumstances, could leave fan groups treated as criminal organisations, said main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Erdoğan Toprak, a former minister of state responsible for sport.

“It’s a new form of profiling. They want to use sports to achieve their hidden aims”, he said. 

Moreover, while the e-card is currently only compulsory for football matches, the draft law aims to extend this to include basketball, volleyball and handball matches.

Opposition parties say the amendment’s true aim is to prevent political statements against the government at stadiums and on the streets while creating new sources of income from sports fans.

Even if the amendment does not specifically prohibit anti-government slogans, the ban on “chants including threats and insults” is open to very broad interpretation and aims to silence fans, opposition deputies say.     

“The apparently hastily prepared articles broadening the scope of crimes could leave football lovers in a difficult position,” said Toprak.

“It’s sad to see the government talking about an inclusive ‘Turkey Alliance’ (that Erdoğan proposed after March 31 polls to include opposition figures in governance) on the one hand while ignoring the views of supporters’ groups, sports law experts and sportspeople and putting together such a comprehensive amendment”, he said.

Toprak added that there would be no need for any amendment if the existing laws were properly implemented, and said he saw the new draft law as an attempt to suppress opposition slogans, such as the motto of İmamoğlu that proved so popular before the Istanbul rerun.

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