Blows below the belt ahead of Turkey’s election

Blows below the belt ahead of Turkey’s election

There has been intense speculation for days about whether President Tayyip Erdoğan plans to announce the reopening of the Hagia Sophia to Islamic worship, ahead of Turkey’s critical parliamentary election on June 7.

The 1,500-year-old Byzantine cathedral was converted to a mosque when Istanbul (then Constantinople) was taken by Sultan Mehmet II “the Conqueror” on May 29, 1453. Islamic worship at Hagia Sophia (called “Ayasofya” in Turkish) then continued up until 1935, even after the Turkish regime shifted from a sultanate to a republic in 1923 to highlight the secular nature of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s “New Turkey.”

The “New Turkey” of Tayyip Erdoğan tends to highlight the Islamic nature of the republic. A recent study conducted by Kadir Has University in Istanbul showed that a majority of Turks define the country as a “Muslim” one more than anything else.

Erdoğan has raised the bar further not only by putting his full weight behind the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) - despite his non-partisan position according to the constitution - but also by using the Islamic factor, including brandishing the holy book of the Quran, during the election campaign.

Erdoğan is hosting a “Conquest Festival” in Istanbul on May 30 for the 562nd anniversary of the conquest of the city. The event will also neatly work as a public election rally for the AK Parti.

It is not clear whether reopening the Hagia Sophia to Islamic practice will lead to a boost in the AK Parti’s votes to secure 330 seats in the 550-seat parliament, (thus allowing Erdoğan to shape a new constitution based on a strong presidential model instead of the current parliamentary one), but he wants to try his chances to the last drop. That is why he did not want to leave Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu alone in the election campaigning.

Just two weeks ago Erdoğan and Davutoğlu together slammed the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD), the club of Turkey’s top company bosses, after their criticism of the current economic situation, accusing them of trying to “manipulate” politics. Then earlier this week, on May 25, Davutoğlu attended a dinner in the Bosphorus home of a top businessman, together with another 25 (all influential TÜSİAD members), requesting that they interfere in politics - but on the side of the government against the opposition.

During that meeting, Davutoğlu reportedly asked for help on two particular subjects: 1) The Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) should not exceed the 10 percent threshold to get into parliament (a key to Erdoğan’s presidency target). 2) The business community should speak out against the economic pledges of the opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), particularly on the rise of the minimum wage.

So far, however, none of the bosses have spoken out against the economic vows of the opposition.

There are other developments, such as the leaking of visual material published by daily Cumhuriyet on May 29, about the content of trucks owned by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and stopped by the gendarmerie on their way to Syria on Jan. 19, 2014. The footage showed that the trucks were loaded with heavy ammunition, not medicine to Syrian Turkomans, as the government had claimed at the time of the operation. The government also accused its former ally, the U.S.-based Islamic ideologue Fethullah Gülen of engaging in treason through the investigation.

A probe is now underway against Cumhuriyet over its publishing of the leaks, adding to the many court cases and other means of pressure against the media.

We have still a whole week to go until the election. Noone knows what new moves there will be - either above or below the belt.