Analysis |

Desperate to Reclaim Istanbul, Erdogan Does the Unthinkable

Erdogan, who is trying to stick a wedge between the Kurdish voters and the Republican People’s Party, is taking advantage of Kurdish anger over Ekrem Imamoglu’s neglect to demand the release of 'arch-terrorist' Abdullah Ocalan

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, early Monday, April 1, 2019
Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, early Monday, April 1, 2019Credit: Ali Unal,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Four TV cameramen for the Turkish TV network CNN-Turk were dismissed because of a serious professional “crime.”

During a live interview with the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, whose election was invalidated by the Central Election Committee earlier this month, the interviewee presented documents showing his predecessor’s corruption. The cameramen quickly zoomed in on the documents, giving pronounced attention to the evidence. The interview with Imamoglu was cut right away, about half an hour before the allotted time.

By Tormenting Bibi, Lieberman Could Save Israeli DemocracyCredit: Haaretz Weekly Ep. 28

Social media immediately roiled with criticism over the silencing, but it was clear that just three weeks before the redo of municipal elections, the government could not afford such public claims by the opposition candidate publicly, especially not on a TV network controlled by a close associate of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Demiroren Group, which owns the network, purchased it last year from the Dogan Group for about $1 billion, for which it received a loan from a government bank.

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The Istanbul municipal elections are going to be Erdogan’s supreme test against the opposition, and he is investing all his efforts in winning after the March defeat. His near total control of Turkish media outlets gives him a huge advantage, enabling him to dictate who appears in public, and who does or doesn’t receive airtime or space in the print media.

Erdogan’s control of the electoral process extends to the parliament as well. On Monday, the parliament was to have discussed a resolution proposed by the opposition Republican People’s Party to investigate whether the flow of public money to media outlets is impacting municipal election results. But the resolution will not be seriously debated, because of control of the Justice and Development Party and its partner the Nationalist Movement Party in parliament.

And publishing of data proving allegations of public money funding for newspapers will be no great surprise. Payments to media outlets close to Erdogan are nothing new, and it is unlikely that direct transfer of funds can be proven, because such affairs are usually pulled off via loans or grants to projects, or via building permits to media owners who usually keep subsidiaries handling other businesses.

Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition, Republican People's Party's (CHP) mayoral candidate in Istanbul, waves to supporters during a rally in Istanbul, Turkey, May 6, 2019. Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis,AP

It’s not only the media that bothers Erdogan. So does Wikipedia, which was blocked two years ago because according to the government, some pages “support terrorism.” Last week, Wikipedia’s heads filed a demand in the European Court of Human Rights to order Turkey to unblock the site due to infringement on free speech. Turkey is a member of the court, but even if the court rules in favor of Wikipedia, Erdogan is unlikely to immediately comply with the ruling.

Erdogan’s stranglehold on the Turkish media might not be enough to shield him from his political adversaries in the fateful Istanbul elections. The economic crisis is still at its height, the Turkish lira has plummeted once again, inflation is close to 20 percent and unemployment stands at 15 percent. Prices are sky high and the real estate market is in decline, so much so that the government is now offering 3,000 apartments with a payment plan of $50 a month. Erdogan has to enlist blocs of voters who previously gave their votes to Imamoglu, and at times of crisis, people may easily break with their guiding political principles.

The most important bloc for Erdogan are the Kurdish residents of Istanbul who prefer the opposition candidate and did not even present their own candidate from the pro-Kurdish party, so as not to hurt Imamoglu’s chances. But recently Erdogan took an unprecedented step and allowed the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, Abdullah Ocalan, who is in prison on the island of Imrali, to meet with his attorney for the first time since 2011.

FILE PHOTO: Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan, 1993.Credit: AFP

The justice minister said that it had no connection to the elections in Istanbul, but no other explanation can be given for the granting of permission and its timing.

Erdogan, who is trying to stick a wedge between the Kurdish voters and the Republican People’s Party, is taking advantage of Kurdish anger over Imamoglu’s neglect to demand Ocalan’s release, and some of them are no longer eager to support him in the repeat elections. Erdogan, who in the four years of his all—out war against the Kurds has banned their political leadership, destroyed their district capital Diyarbakir, branded the entire Kurdish population as supporters of terror and made them into outcasts, is suddenly ready to allow the “arch-terrorist” Ocalan meet with his lawyers and even to make public statements. The chance that such a gesture would have come about if new elections were not under way are the equivalent of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inviting Ayman Odeh to be the minister of public security.

Ocalan, by the way, discharged his debt. In a public statement, he called on the Syrian Kurds to “take Turkish security needs into consideration.” For Turkey, which took over large parts of the Kurdish region in Syria, where Ocalan is considered an ideological leader by the Kurds, this is a very important statement. If we’re in the business of comparisons, we might imagine the reaction of Israel’s Arabs if their leadership called on them to be understanding of Israel’s need to occupy Palestinian territories. All that’s left is to see whether Erdogan’s U—turn pays off on June 23.

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