Spying on an opposition party during election campaigns?
In a surprising move ahead of the Turkish elections on June 24, the presidential candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Muharrem İnce, had a rally in the dominantly Kurdish-populated southeastern city of Diyarbakır on June 11. For decades, the CHP failed to attract crowds and votes from the southeast because of its centrist position regarding the Kurdish issue, whereas President Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) has managed to gain half of the overall votes against the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in elections.
The CHP was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, also the founder of the Turkish Republic, and has been supporting a unitary state approach in terms of acknowledging individual rights. The AK Parti had at least two attempts to find a solution through proxy talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the HDP. For this reason, the CHP has not been popular among nationalist or religiously conservative Kurdish voters for many years. But this time İnce has managed to address a remarkable crowd and delivered three important messages. He said:
1- “Let’s name it properly: This is the ‘Kurdish issue’ and the place to solve it is not behind closed doors but parliament,”
2- “Kurdish-origin people of this country need to be respected, and we show respect to them,”
3- “Everyone should have the right to learn his or her mother tongue. We will come up with a program to teach our children three languages: Turkish as the official language of Turkey; the mother tongue of the child if it is not Turkish, be it Kurdish, Arabic or Circassian; and English to prepare children for global competition.”
Together with Turkish and CHP flags, HDP flags were also seen in the rally area. Erdoğan on the very same night made his first remark on a TV program, where he asked: “Was the crowd formed of CHP supporters or HDP supporters?” he asked, addressing İnce. He said that while the government was leading a “heroic struggle against PKK terrorists,” İnce and the CHP were collaborating with them by encouraging the HDP.
The next day, on June 12, following a statement by Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, the Turkish military stepped up anti-terror operations against PKK positions in the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq.
Speaking to state-run Anadolu Agency, Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli denied the operations were being carried out to gain more votes in the elections, saying that they had been launched in January, far before the decision to go to early elections. He also accused the CHP and its candidate, İnce, of giving the green light to the HDP, thus, encouraging terrorism at a time when the government is trying to defeat it.
There is a delicate detail here: If the HDP manages to exceed the 10 percent national threshold, it may cost the AK Parti dearly by 60-65 seats, which could change the balance in parliament and risk domination by the AK Parti and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
That is why there are speculations and campaigns on social media, calling opposition voters to vote for İnce for presidency and the HDP for parliament; not out of sympathy for the HDP but in order for Erdoğan not to achieve the parliamentary majority if he is re-elected as president. Erdoğan is aware of those speculations, which make him upset.
A few hours after the defense minister spoke to Anadolu Agency on June 12, an important statement came from Erdoğan early in the afternoon in the Central Anatolian city of Eskişehir, before launching the ceremony for the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) to carry natural gas from Azerbaijan to the EU via Turkey. Erdoğan said according to the “reports” he received from “intelligence units,” the majority of the CHP’s Diyarbakır rally was not CHP supporters but supporters from the HDP.
There have been claims in the past that different governments have attempted to use intelligence services for domestic political purposes against the opposition of the day, but that was the first time a Turkish president said live that he had received intelligence reports about the participants at a rally for an opposition party.
İnce immediately responded to Erdoğan on his Twitter account. “He says he received information on the participants at my rally through intelligence,” İnce said.
“Is it the job of the intelligence to watch the opposition? Because you were using intelligence for political purposes, you learned about the coup attempt from your brother-in-law!” The last sentence is in reference to Erdoğan’s remarks that he had received the first information about the military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 through a phone call from his brother-in-law, not from the National Intelligence Organization (MİT).
The debate about receiving intelligence on the opposition party is likely to escalate political tensions before the June 24 early elections in Turkey.