Opposition deputies may face legal action as Istanbul rerun approaches

The June 23 rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election was always destined to be a no-holds-barred affair for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is fighting both to justify the unpopular decision to cancel the initial result and to mobilise its base for a second time.

There’s no doubt that the party’s command of the vast majority of press outlets gives it a major advantage on both fronts. But the press campaign has so far been rather lacklustre.

On the first count, the AKP has responded to the very valid questions raised about the Supreme Election Council (YSK)’s decision to cancel only the mayoral election out of the four votes cast in the same envelope with the most basic rationale that could be mustered: “because they stole it”.

The accusation of electoral fraud was the big story in pro-government outlets last week, and it does give the AKP’s millions of faithful voters a cause to rally around before the rerun.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did his part to spread the word at an iftar meeting on Friday, where he asserted that, since the gap separating the AKP’s candidate from the victorious opposition candidate during recounts, there simply must have been electoral fraud.

The “theft” narrative is unlikely to appease any AKP voters who have objected to the YSK’s decision, and there has been talk over a fair amount of dissent at street level. The YSK has not said any theft took place – its decision to rerun the election appears to have been based on a technicality around regulations for polling officials, and no detailed justifications has been published.

As for mobilising its base, the press is continuing with more or less the same formula as before the original March 31 vote: sling mud at the opposition with accusations of links to terrorist groups.

The AKP government, with backing from other political parties, passed legislation in 2016 that has allowed it to all but criminalise the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), jailing the party’s former leaders and a number of deputies since then.

This week, the ruling party continued in this line with a new proposal to lift the parliamentary immunity of 21 deputies – the preliminary step before charging parliamentarians. Twenty of the deputies named in the dossiers were from HDP, including co-chairs Pervin Buldan and Sezai Temelli.

When it comes to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the ruling party had tended to level the gravest accusations of terrorist support at its rivals without taking legal action. But the inclusion of CHP deputy Saliha Sera Kadıgil on the list may be a sign that is changing.

If the government does begin frequently targeting CHP deputies, the front pages this week indicated that Mahmut Tanal could be a future target.

The Istanbul deputy started the week with his picture featured prominently under the headline “CHP thieves” on pro-government daily Milat’s front page, and ended up on Thursday accused on Sabah’s front page of being a “terrorist lover” in league with three separate outlawed organisations.

The Sabah headline came a day after a rather ill-conceived effort to enter parliament by two alleged members of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front, a terrorist-listed leftist group that has a habit of popping up at times the AKP is under political pressure.

The pair reportedly asked for Tanal by name before security discovered their long rap sheets and apprehended them, at which point they were discovered to be carrying a fake bomb and a blade fixed to the end of a pencil.

The gathering hysteria over terrorist threats is all too familiar to observers of the Turkish media, but the AKP’s electoral campaign is also likely to provoke déjà vu. Everything from the party’s campaign slogan (Istanbul will be better) down to its election promises appears to have been lifted from popular initiatives by the opposition.

In the end the AKP is bound to continue using the sledgehammer media tactics which have been its go-to in the past, relying on its mastery of television networks and front pages to drown out or sling mud at the opposition while amplifying its own message. We can expect those front pages to get far more heated as June 23 approaches.

A final note on the party’s domination of media, and its ability to smother opposition voices, this time from an article by left-wing daily Sözcü’s columnist Deniz Zeyrek. Apparently disturbed by the recognition İmamoğlu has secured for himself over a successful campaign the first time around, Erdoğan has commanded his coterie of friendly media outlets to refer to him from now on as “the CHP candidate” and not by his name.

 © Ahval English