Funeral attack on opposition leader followed months-long lynch campaign

When main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu survived an attempted lynching at a soldier’s funeral in Ankara on April 21, the ordeal at least bought him a sliver of sympathy from unlikely quarters.

“This is not how to honour martyrs”, Akşam’s front page read the next day. Another pro-government daily, Türkiye, accurately described the mob attack on the Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader as a lynch attempt, going further than some of Kılıçdaroğlu’s colleagues in parliament who called it a “protest” against the CHP leader’s alleged links to Kurdish militants.

Even the outlets that held no sympathy for the CHP leader at least hid any sense of glee that he’d been mobbed and punched, bundled into a nearby house which the crowds surrounded and threatened to burn, and eventually forced to flee in an armoured vehicle.

That is, besides the small pro-government daily Yenisöz, which led on Monday with a headline that simply read “Provocation from Kılıçdaroğlu”. But as abhorrent as the newspaper’s victim blaming was, it at least showed consistency from a newspaper whose recent headlines included “Kemal (Kılıçdaroğlu), you’re a coup plotter” (Mar. 1), “You’re arm in arm with Qandil” (Mar. 4), “No democracy in the CHP’s DNA” (Mar. 20).

The remainder of the government-friendly press may have stopped short of endorsing the attack, but, if there were any sincerity to the whimper of condemnation that followed it, they would have printed mea culpas.

News reports from last Sunday’s funeral for Yener Kırıkçı, one of four soldiers killed during fighting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on April 14, relate how a crowd started chanting slogans at the CHP leader before physically assaulting him.

The slogans at the funeral mirrored rhetoric spouted by politicians and given blanket coverage from those news outlets in the run-up to the March 31 local elections. In other words, the lynch campaign that Akşam and Türkiye denounced on Monday had started on their very pages months prior.

Take five high-circulation national newspapers, all of which follow a conservative, government-friendly line: Yeni Şafak, Star, Türkiye, Yeni Akit and Akşam.

In the three months leading up to March 31, Kılıçdaroğlu or the CHP were linked to the PKK on the front page of at least one of those newspapers on 60 out of 90 days.

Over that period, a total of 128 front pages from the five newspapers included headlines or statements that directly linked the main opposition party to the PKK, its jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan, or “Qandil”, a byword in the Turkish press for the PKK’s leadership.

The figures do not include general references to “terrorism” or links to the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), except when that party was described as the PKK’s political wing.

There were eight front pages linking the CHP to Kurdish militants over six days in January, when the press more frequently accused the CHP of ties to another outlawed group on Turkey’s terror list, the Gülen movement.

That number leapt to 55 front pages over 24 days in February, as politicians from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its far-right alliance partners the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) embarked on an electoral campaign of fear, painting the opposition as an “alliance of contempt” that was in league with Turkey’s enemies. In March, 65 front pages linked the CHP and PKK over 30 days.

A few of the headlines during that period: “CHP is a subcontractor for terrorists” (Türkiye, Feb. 18), “HDP praised terror, CHP politicians gave them a standing ovation” (Türkiye, Feb. 26), “CHP has become a pawn of a terrorist organisation” (Star, Feb. 27), and “Qandil’s partisan Kemal (Kılıçdaroğlu)” (Türkiye, Mar. 4).

The majority of these referred to quotes from politicians, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, and MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli.

These figures will come as no shock to anyone familiar with an election campaign that Erdoğan and Bahçeli had painted as a “matter of survival”. But they do drive home how effective the government’s nationwide echo chamber can be at whipping up a mob mentality.

And, now that the tiger has been unleashed, it will be difficult to get it back in its cage. We’re talking about three months of mounting demonisation of the opposition. In comparison, Erdoğan’s conciliatory remarks since March 31 of forming a “Turkey alliance” have seemed utterly feeble.

What would a “Turkey alliance” with an opposition you’ve spent months painting as terrorists even look like? Bahçeli has refused to countenance it. In fact, his statements after the attack blamed the CHP leader for daring to show his face in a district which had voted overwhelmingly against his party.

The MHP leader is determined to continue the polarising, authoritarian strategy that lost the ruling alliance four of Turkey’s five largest cities on March 31, and has led the calls for the Istanbul election to be re-run.

On the other side, members of the ruling party are reportedly growing uneasy with the recent direction it has taken, which as well as the electoral defeats has left the economy teetering on the brink of full-blown crisis.

The ever-present rumours that AKP stalwarts are ready to launch a new party took wing again this week after Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former prime minister turfed out in 2016 after a reported power struggle with Erdoğan’s son-in-law, finance and treasury minister Berat Albayrak (then energy minister), published a critique of the AKP on his Facebook page.

But for all the speculation that Erdoğan has devised the “Turkey alliance” as an olive branch to disgruntled AKP circles, his condemnation of the attack was muted. Pro-government press soon reverted to type, with Türkiye accusing the CHP of “raising tensions” on Tuesday, and saying the party “continued to provoke the public” on Friday.

Likewise, the detention of the men photographed jostling and punching the main opposition leader proved remarkably short-lived, with all released by the end of the week.

For all the control the ruling party exerts over the message carried by the majority of the country’s press, it will prove difficult, if that is Erdoğan’s intention, to carry out a U-turn after such a prolonged period of vitriol.

Particularly since many of the conglomerates that own the country’s media outlets stand to lose the most if control of the tenders in Istanbul ultimately goes to the CHP.

The decision on whether to run that election again rests with the Supreme Election Council, which is said to be scheduling a ruling late next week. Eyes will be glued to the council for a concrete sign of which way the balance will tip.