Ahead Of Turkey's Local Election, The Campaign Rhetoric Has Been Harsh

Mar 29, 2019
Originally published on March 30, 2019 3:33 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Turkish voters go to the polls this Sunday. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not on the ballot for these local elections, but you wouldn't know it by the heavy schedule of campaign speeches he's been keeping up. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, the campaign rhetoric has been harsh, even by Turkey's standards.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Erdogan has been tireless in his campaigning on behalf of ruling party candidates. His stump speeches tend to emphasize attacks on the opposition. A common target is the pro-Kurdish HDP, or People's Democratic Party, which Erdogan frequently equates with Kurdish militants who have been fighting Turkish security forces for decades.

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PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Lately, the HDP has come up with some nonsense about me calling the voters terrorists. I never said anything like that. But HDP leaders - they are terrorists.

KENYON: At an Ankara rally, Erdogan told a cheering crowd that there is no such place as Kurdistan in Turkey, but the opposition leader sounded like he wished there was

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ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Oh, well. Do you want to go live in Kurdistan? There is Kurdistan in the north of Iraq. Why don't you get lost and go live there? If your supporters want to live there, take them, too; you can all go together.

KENYON: Some of the most prominent attacks have come in the capital Ankara, where the mayoral candidate for the main secular opposition party, the CHP, is facing what he calls a classic smear campaign. Mansur Yavas told Turkish media he had a comfortable lead in the race but says the ruling party launched what he called a false charge of misconduct against him. Yavas went on television to refute the allegation.

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MANSUR YAVAS: (Through interpreter) From the start of my campaign, they tried smears with unfounded statements to make me infamous, but none of them worked. This is the most immorally conducted campaign in our political history.

KENYON: After it emerged that the allegations against Yavas came from a man convicted of forgery and blackmail, ruling party politicians shifted to other attacks. Erdogan has also been wooing his base by airing video clips of the recent terrorist attack in New Zealand that left at least 50 Muslims dead. These elections are mainly being contested between two coalitions - the ruling AK party has joined with an ultra-nationalist party, while other opposition parties have formed a coalition of their own.

Fifty-two-year-old Istanbul resident Deniz Saracoglu is an opposition supporter. She says she prefers the old days, when presidents were impartial. She doesn't like to see Erdogan making partisan attacks, but her main objection is that he wields too much power.

DENIZ SARACOGLU: (Through interpreter) He's biased and taking sides. So he's not everyone's president. And it's not like in the U.S., where the states have some power. Here, this man is sultan of the whole country.

KENYON: Sitting next to Saracoglu, 53-year-old Zarif Yavuz says, even so, she'll be watching the results closely to see if the opposition can make some inroads.

ZARIF YAVUZ: (Through interpreter) If the big cities, like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, go to the opposition, then the presidency will be shaken.

KENYON: Erdogan's ruling party is pulling out all the stops to prevent that from happening. The interior minister is already warning that more than 200 opposition candidates are being investigated for possible links to Kurdish militants or other designated terrorist groups, and if any of them win their races, they could face detention. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.