Turkey’s ruling party uses New Zealand massacre as campaign fodder

When voters in the Turkish opposition stronghold of northwestern Thrace came to the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s election rally on Saturday in Tekirdağ, they were confronted with a scene that went far beyond the ruling party’s already belligerent campaign rhetoric.

The crowd faced a horrific spectacle as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan played video footage recorded by Australian gunman Brenton Tarrant as he killed 50 people and injured as many more in an attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Tarrant had uploaded what he said was a manifesto to his social media accounts before live streaming the attack on his Facebook account on Friday.

Immediately after the attack, New Zealand Police issued an emergency statement saying it was doing all it could to remove the footage and links to it from the internet.

But as the world’s largest social media sites worked overtime to counter Tarrant’s propaganda, deleting millions of links to the footage, Erdoğan showed that same footage on giant screens to his supporters at the rally, two weeks before Turkey heads to the polls in March 31 local elections.

The president was personally targeted in the gunman’s manifesto, as were Turkey’s European provinces, including Tekirdağ, and this affront to Turkey was the main focus of Erdoğan’s speech. The Turkish president tied the slaying of Muslims in New Zealand to what he said was a global threat to Turkey.

New Zealand police had led calls not to show or share footage of the attack, in order to deprive the attacker of the notoriety and publicity he sought. Erdoğan’s decision to show it at the rally, though, meant the gunman’s footage was streamed live to millions of viewers, including children, in homes, cafes and workplaces around Turkey by around 50 channels.

What is more, the Turkish president found a way to tie the massacre in New Zealand to Turkey’s opposition, showing clips of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu directly after the footage of the attack.

The edited footage included Kılıçdaroğlu condemning terrorist attacks, including “those originating in the Islamic world”, and Erdoğan presented this to the crowd as proof of the opposition leader’s “impertinence”.

“Someone who has lost control of himself to the point he says terrorism originates in the Islamic world is involved in our country’s politics,” Erdoğan said.

“Right now you’re standing with terrorists. You’re arm in arm with them,” said Turkey’s president, bringing the speech back around to accusations of opposition support for terrorism that have become a main fixture in the AKP’s local election campaign.

The CHP and its centre-right nationalist Good Party election alliance partners have come under heavy fire from Erdoğan and other leading AKP officials after accepting informal support in the local elections from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

The ruling party has all but formally criminalised the HDP for its place leading the Kurdish political movement in Turkey and its members’ alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdoğan has said the party is equal to a terrorist organisation. The AKP’s attacks on the CHP and Good Party alliance are rooted in this view of the HDP.

It seems the Christchurch attack has provided further material for Erdoğan’s campaign propaganda. The Turkish president continued to show footage at later rallies over the weekend, where he flung further accusations of terrorism at the opposition parties.

The opposition was not about to take this lying down. The CHP’s deputy leader and party spokesperson, Faik Öztrak, slammed Erdoğan for playing to the Christchurch gunman’s tune by showing the footage he shot, and went on to compare that to the ruling party’s record when it came to covering tragic events in Turkey.

Unlike Christchurch, the AKP has swiftly placed broadcast bans preventing coverage of almost every disaster or attack to hit the country, including last year of two train crashes and a collapsed viaduct.

Yet the AKP had chosen to broadcast the attack in New Zealand directly and uncensored to millions around the country. “Would you show images of this massacre to your own grandchildren,” Öztrak demanded of the AKP. “Was it worth it for the sake of a few more votes?”

Meanwhile, the main opposition party has warned that there may be what it called provocations at events planned on March 21 for Newroz, the spring festival celebrated by Kurds, Iranians and others in the Middle East.

The fear is that there could be a repeat of the run-up to the snap elections in November 2015, when the AKP won back a majority lost in parliamentary elections in June that year. In the months between the elections there were three major attacks: the bombing attack that killed Kurdish activists in Suruç near the Syrian border on July 20, the gunning down of two police officers in Ceylanpınar, southeast Turkey, and a bombing that struck an opposition march in Ankara on Oct. 10, killing 109 people, the deadliest such attack in Turkish history.

There have also been warnings that places of worship belonging to Turkey’s Jewish and Christian religious minorities could be the targets of attack amid the furore over events in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, that anger shows no signs of dying down as long as the ruling party continues showing footage of the attacks. Likewise, it seems the party’s accusation that opposition parties are terrorists will only increase as the local elections draw closer. Under these circumstances there is every reason to take the CHP’s warning of a provocation on March 21 seriously.