Skip to main content

Fear and fatigue: Turkey's election weighed down by silence

While leaders rally across the country, many in Turkey are afraid to talk politics ahead of election
Turkish voters are preparing for the latest of several elections in recent years (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Slipping his hand into his back pocket for a moment, Adel Ates withdrew it with an open palm, displaying, with muted pride, his set of brass knuckles.

Carrying them could mean a prison sentence – he knew that – but the menacing accessory has become as essential to him as the suit he wears when campaigning by the busy ferry terminal in Istanbul's Kadikoy district, where Turkey's rival political parties jostle for attention ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections to be held on 24 June.

"There's zero security around this election. Campaign stands like this have been attacked, so even though I know it's a crime, I have to defend myself. That's why I walk around with this," said Ates, a local youth leader for the Felicity Party, the most recent iteration of the religious conservative movement that produced President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but now opposes his government.

More people share his concerns about the strange atmosphere surrounding the coming vote than his choice of response. In an election characterised by the bluster of its fiery presidential candidates, there is also a heavy weight of silence. An entrenched state of emergency provides the backdrop, the media's freedom is under scrutiny and even friends fear speaking politics among themselves.

That silence has become increasingly apparent over the years, according to Murat Gezici, owner of one of the country's most prominent polling companies, who find far fewer people are willing to talk about how they want to vote.

This hostile political atmosphere turns friends against each other

- Ibrahim Mermer, AKP supporter

Gezici said his employees are expected to get 18 interviews a day, but while they previously had to knock on 40 doors to reach that target, they now have to visit more than 120 homes. He speculated that many are concerned about showing support for candidates other than Erdogan or his nationalist allies - especially if they previously supported Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

"The reason they're afraid to say any other name is [that they could be] put on some kind of list made by the government or intelligence. People have these kinds of fears," said Gezici.

Amnesty International has put that down to a "climate of fear" it said has developed in Turkey in recent years, especially under a state of emergency that has been in place since a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

In its aftermath more than 100,000 public workers were removed from their jobs and many arrested for alleged ties to Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric whose supporters are accused of orchestrating the coup plot, while more than 10,000 members and supporters of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) have been arrested since the Kurdish peace process fell apart in 2015.

"Speaking out on anything, however mundane, on whatever issue, can give you big problems," said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey researcher, pointing out that the consequences can involve arrests and harassment. "It's virtually impossible to predict what sort of critical comments could lead you to get into trouble.

"The threats are multiple, and this has produced a situation in which there is no exaggeration to call it a climate of fear. People aren't prepared to take the risk to speak out on any issue in public."

Campaigners in Istanbul have struggled to engage the public (MEE/Kaamil Ahmed)

A hostile atmosphere

Sitting on a bench, reading his pro-Erdogan newspaper outside a mosque in Istanbul's Gungoren suburb, Ibrahim Mermer has plenty to say about Turkish politics. Like many of the ruling AKP's supporters, he blames Turkey's problems on "foreign agents," but whether his friends feel the same he has no idea.

"I don't know because I don't talk to people as much as I used to. Whenever we start to talk about politics, in the first five minutes things get more and more aggressive," said Mermer, 80, lamenting how far Turkey's social polarisation has gone, even in a country that has long struggled to reconcile its various ethnicities and a secular-religious divide.

"The old days weren't a paradise, but it wasn't like this," said Mermer. "I don't like it any more. This hostile political atmosphere turns friends against each other."  

But while many blame the divisions on the president, accusing him of clamping down on the opposition and stifling the media, Mermer felt the fault lies with the opposition.

He felt that the barbs directed against Erdogan, accusing him of cheating, authoritarianism and corruption, are unfounded insults. Many of the opposition feel the same about how Erdogan himself chooses to put down his opponents.

Though there is little indication that Turkey's traditionally high voter turnout will drop, the tensions of the election have had a visible impact. Information stalls dot every neighbourhood but are manned by visibly bored volunteers and attract few passers-by.

"You don't see much election atmosphere," said Galip Dalay, Turkey research director for the Al-Sharq Forum think-tank.

"Turkey to some extent has election fatigue. In the last three or four years, Turkey went from one election to another one," he said.

"Despite the importance of the election, it's the first after the constitutional referendum. No parties are advancing a powerful narrative that galvanises the people."

A cutout of HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, who is campaigning from his prison cell (MEE/Kaamil Ahmed)

'Empire of fear'

The HDP's role in the election could be crucial - whether it passes the 10 percent vote threshold to enter parliament could be key to the ruling AKP losing or retaining its majority in parliament.

But that urgency is not immediately apparent at their subdued Istanbul headquarters, where the desks lie empty. Most of the staff are in prison, accused of supporting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist group.

One of the few remaining is Veysel Seyitvan, himself only recently released on parole, watching, through his computer screen, HDP presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas deliver a surreal address.

The charismatic Kurdish leader speaks to his supporters during the 10-minute phone calls he is allowed as a prisoner. They watch on Facebook, where live-streams intersperse images of grinning HDP officials hanging onto his every word with Demirtas's family portraits as he accuses Erdogan of building an "empire of fear".

"Every day one of our information stands is attacked," said Seyitvan, skipping through the examples of how the party has struggled to campaign freely.

He pulls up a video on social media of Turkish nationalists burning HDP flags then recounts how his mother, a local HDP leader, was arrested when a party meeting was raided by police.

The day before, Kurdish high school students were arrested for graffiti they had put up in an Istanbul suburb. They were stencils of a kettle - an icon now associated with Demirtas after he mocked prison guards searching his cell for a mobile phone by suggesting he was tweeting from his kettle, the only electric device in his cell.

The party tries to navigate the handicap through social media, screens playing videos of Demirtas at key campaigning points and with the support of left-wing student activists. But like other parties, it has complained about the wider role of the media.

Press-freedom groups have consistently accused Turkey's government of destroying the role of the media in the country and Erdogan's presidential opponents have voiced their concerns.

His main rival, Muharrem Ince of the Republican People's Party (CHP publicly demanded more coverage in May, accusing Erdogan of telling the media to limit coverage of the opposition.

He threatened to hold rallies outside TV stations. Supporters of the newly formed centre-right Iyi Party made good on similar threats, lighting flares as they protested outside two major channels.

"If you come from outside and you turn on the TV, you'd probably be of the impression that there's only one party contesting the elections," said Amnesty researcher Gardner. "It's clear that there isn't a level playing field in Turkey, in general, but it's at these acute times like election that it just becomes even more obvious."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.