Erdoğan’s threat to jail opposition leader Akşener may cause backlash

Less than three weeks before March 31 local elections, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken his animosity towards the opposition to new levels, opening a court case against opposition nationalist Good Party leader Meral Akşener on charges of insulting the president.

Akşener, who faced Erdoğan as a rival in last year’s presidential race, can be directly tried since she does not have a seat in parliament or, consequently, parliamentary immunity.

Not that this did much to help Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who had his immunity stripped after being detained on terror charges in November 2016.

Demirtaş has remained in prison since then, despite the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling demanding his immediate release.

Instead, Turkish courts rejected his appeal and upheld his four-year and eight-month prison sentence on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda and also banned Demirtaş from politics. Since the sentence is less than five years, he cannot take his case to the Court of Cassation.

The treatment of the former HDP co-chair may be a sign of what is in store for Akşener.

Erdoğan has been on the campaign trail supporting his Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidates in a series of meetings since the beginning of February, and the president has used these occasions to launch fierce attacks on opposition parties, accusing them of working with terrorist organisations.

The Good Party and main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), he said, have entered a secret alliance with the HDP, which Erdoğan has called the equal of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey, the United States and the European Union all list the PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984, as a terrorist organisation

The president has said the opposition parties are taking orders from both the PKK and the Gülen movement, an Islamist former ally of the AKP that the government accuses of plotting the July 2016 coup attempt.

Akşener’s response to these accusations landed her in hot water. At a joint rally organised by the CHP-Good Party alliance in Denizli in southwest Turkey, the opposition leader greeted the crowd by asking them, “How are all the president’s terrorists from Denizli?”

“Are you well, all you terrorists, whose only wish is to bring bread to your table? Even as a joke, it hurts. The president of this country has called CHP and Good Party voters terrorists. A president who calls close to 18 million voters terrorists,” Akşener said.

Akşener’s words evidently struck a nerve. Erdoğan felt compelled to respond during a rally, denying that he had called opposition voters terrorists and explaining he had only meant party leaders. It was then that the president announced he had called in his lawyers to open a case against Akşener.

Even after this announcement, Akşener refused to back down. Instead, she repeated her greeting to voters at another rally, this time speaking to voters in Aydın in western Turkey.

In the criminal complaint against Akşener, Erdoğan’s lawyers attempted to clearly draw the line the president had indicated in his speech, explaining that he had been “emphasising the CHP-Good Party alliance’s relationship with the PKK and Gülen movement, and inviting voters to act sensitively according to that information.”

In a later speech, Erdoğan made references to imprisoned figures from the HDP and the Gülen movement, indicating that a jail term was a very real possibility for Akşener.

“(Akşener) doesn’t have anywhere to hide, because she is not a member of parliament, we’re going to call her to account immediately and she’ll pay a heavy price,” Erdoğan said at a rally on March 9.

None of this deterred Akşener, who has seen plenty of tough challenges over a long political career, including the Feb. 28 military memorandum that brought down the coalition government headed by Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in 1997. Akşener was serving as interior minister at the time.

“I didn’t run in fear of the generals’ tanks and guns on February 28, so why should I be afraid of the ones who did?” Akşener asked. It was a particularly stinging rebuke given that Erdoğan’s AKP, the successors of Erbakan’s brand of political Islam, has forged its myth around what it calls the injustices of Feb. 28.

Strong messages of support for Akşener came from her own party and the CHP, which condemned the president’s use of threats against a political rival.

AKP politicians only increased their attacks on the opposition, accusing rival local election candidates of supporting terrorism.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu called the opposition mayoral candidates for Turkey’s three largest cities, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, “Trojan horses of the HDP”, implying that they were prepared to grant outlawed Kurdish militant figures influence in their respective municipalities.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu echoed Erdoğan and Soylu, warning Turks that a vote for the opposition would empower the PKK and Gülen movement.

The increasingly frenetic pace of allegations hurled at opposition figures may well be a sign that the ruling party is panicking it will lose important municipalities to opposition candidates.

Without the protection of parliamentary immunity, Akşener will have to appear in court if called in to make a statement by the prosecution, and like many other opposition figures will face the threat of arrest pending trial when she does so.

If that happens before March 31, the leader of Turkey’s third largest opposition party would have to follow election results from a jail cell.

Even if that would be an unlikely turn of events, Akşener could still face a prison sentence of a year or more or a substantial fine, and in either case she could face a political ban.

This is quite a turnaround given the four months Erdoğan served in prison in 1999 for reading a poem that the secularist-dominated courts at the time deemed a violation of laws against incitement to violence or religious hatred.

The political ban that came with the prison sentence would have prevented Erdoğan even from serving as a deputy, but after the AKP won elections in 2002, the CHP supported the move to reverse the ban and he became prime minister.

Erdoğan may have forgotten this lesson from his past, but if his government makes a victim out of Akşener, it could easily trigger a flood of public sympathy for her.

If this were the case, the AKP’s legal attack on the Good Party would bounce back on them, turning many nationalist voters, who make up a significant portion of the ruling party’s base, towards Akşener’s cause.

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