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The ‘Badass Chief of Workers’ of Turkey’s Opposition Faces Years in Jail After Difficult Erdogan’s Energy. She’s Not Backing Down

The ‘Badass Chief of Staff’ of Turkey’s Opposition Faces Years in Jail After Challenging Erdogan’s Power. She’s Not Backing Down


Snow brings again recollections for Dr. Canan Kaftancioglu. Of recess snowball fights within the Black Sea village the place she grew up, of warming her palms at her elementary college’s range earlier than class — and of discovering a poem by Turkish author Ataol Behramoglu, a favourite of a beloved uncle who would carry left-wing newspapers to her childhood house and talk about the articles inside. “It’s about how the snow brings equality between individuals,” Kaftancioglu says of the poem. “Within the snow, we construct a brand new, extra equal world.”

The Turkish politician is talking by an interpreter at her buddies’ house in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, seated in an armchair with a beige and brown-spotted canine curled up beside her. In a matter of days or perhaps weeks however probably not months, Kaftancioglu expects she might be taken to jail. For now, she’d moderately give attention to her work: the poverty charge is rising, and folks in her metropolis are struggling.

Kaftancioglu represents one thing unfamiliar and contemporary in Turkish politics; a secular girl of the left, unafraid to confront the outdated guard of the opposition Republican Folks’s Occasion (CHP), or to facet with the marginalized in her nation. Because the celebration chair of the province wherein Istanbul sits, she performed a central function in engineering President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s greatest electoral defeat in years. Now, the 49-year-old is within the president’s crosshairs.

That political upset noticed her center-left celebration’s candidate Ekrem Imamoglu elected mayor of Istanbul in June 2019. It was the primary time since Erdogan gained town’s mayorship in 1994 {that a} candidate from any celebration however his, the Justice and Improvement Occasion (AKP), had taken management of Turkey’s cultural and financial capital. So reluctant was the federal government to relinquish its grip, that Kaftancioglu’s marketing campaign workforce needed to win town twice, after Erdogan demanded the preliminary victory be annulled alleging marketing campaign irregularities.

Months later, Istanbul’s prosecutor sentenced Kaftancioglu to nearly ten years in jail for spreading “terrorist propaganda” and “insulting the Republic and President”—fees primarily based largely on eight-year-old tweets. Consultants name the prosecution but extra proof that Turkey’s judiciary has turn into Erdogan’s private instrument of energy.

STR/AFP/Getty PhotographsHundreds gathered to rejoice after the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, emerged as winner of the repeat mayoral election in Istanbul on June 23, 2019.

Since a 2016 tried coup threatened to take away him from energy, 1000’s of Turkish teachers, navy members, and journalists have been prosecuted beneath broad anti-terrorism legal guidelines. Some analysts peg Turkey’s tipping level from a flawed democracy to a “hybrid regime” or “aggressive autocracy” the identical 12 months, when standard pro-Kurdish Folks’s Democracy Occasion (HDP) co-leader Selahattin Dermirtas was arrested not lengthy after pledging to forestall Erdogan from remodeling Turkey’s parliamentary system into the presidential one it grew to become in 2018. However the imprisonment of a outstanding determine from Erdogan’s predominant opposition celebration would signify a brand new escalation, specialists say. “Kaftancioglu ran a marketing campaign that they misplaced to twice, and that is revenge,” says Nate Schenkkan, director of analysis technique and Turkey skilled at Freedom Home. “It’s all a part of this longer arc of competitors and reprisal: if we will’t win within the poll field, these are the instruments we’re going to make use of.”

Locking up political opponents is a key element of the strongman’s playbook. Like Alexei Navalny in Russia and Maria Kolesnikova in Belarus, Kaftancioglu is essential to the Turkish opposition’s attraction to youthful Millennials and Era Z, who’re much less sure than their mother and father to Turkey’s conventional id politics. There isn’t any direct equal to her in U.S. politics, however the Democratic campaigner Stacy Abrams in Georgia would possibly come shut. Kaftancioglu is a deft strategist, says Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey program director on the Washington-based Undertaking on Center East Democracy, “analogous to a very badass chief of employees; a powerful girl who’s making a whole lot of key choices.”

The crackdown comes at a second of acute vulnerability for Erdogan, whose sagging recognition forward of the 2023 elections means the AKP faces the prospect of defeat for the primary time it swept to energy in 2002. The president is going through criticism over his dealing with of the pandemic, and of adventurism that has dedicated Turkish troops on a number of fronts whereas the economic system is in shambles. In Dec. 2020, the U.S. sanctioned Turkey over its buy of a multi-billion greenback Russian missile protection system; additional monetary pressure might come ought to the European Union determine to impose sanctions over Turkey’s oil and fuel drilling in contested waters within the Jap Mediterranean.

In the meantime, President Biden has signaled he’ll take a far harder line with Turkey over human rights. Within the month that Biden has occupied the Oval Workplace, his administration has already a number of instances criticized Turkey, together with the State Division’s rebuke of Inside Minister Soleyman Soylu’s “unfounded and irresponsible” allegations that the U.S. was behind the 2016 coup try.

In contrast to former President Trump, and even former President Obama, the Biden Administration “appears to very a lot see Erdogan’s home repression and rising international coverage divergences with NATO and the U.S. as interlinked,” says Tahiroglu. “Even when they don’t make an announcement, they will be preserving a really shut eye on what occurs to Kaftancioglu.”

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Adem Altan— AFP/Getty PhotographsTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a gathering of election officers in entrance of portraits of himself and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of recent Turkey, in Ankara on Jan. 29, 2019.

‘Ataturk’s perfect Turkish girl’

The CHP’s provincial headquarters is nestled between shops promoting gentle fittings, automotive alarms and kitchen home equipment in a mercantile quarter of Istanbul. Solely blocks away is Kasimpasa, the neighborhood the place Erdogan was born. The bottom worth sq. on the Istanbul model of Monopoly, it was right here that Erdogan offered lemonade and simit bread as a youngster and developed the wide-legged gait recognized domestically because the “Kasimpasa strut.”

At present, Erdogan inhabits the 1,100 room “White Palace” he had custom-built on Ankara’s forested hilltops. One other summer time palace being constructed within the seaside metropolis of Marmaris is reported to value an extra $85 million. Kasimpasa, in the meantime, is virtually center class: an exemplar of the stellar financial progress his religious-nationalist AKP delivered over nearly 20 years in energy.

Or had delivered till lately. On the finish of 2018, Turkey slid into recession for the primary time in a decade. The state of affairs was compounded by a forex disaster: firstly of that 12 months, a greenback introduced 3.77 Turkish Lira, by Nov. 2020, it purchased 8.6. That month, Turkey’s finance minister Berat Albayrak—Erdogan’s son-in-law—resigned, and Erdogan sacked the top of the central financial institution. Though the Lira has rallied barely because the begin of 2021, meals costs elevated in January at nearly triple the speed of inflation in response to analysis by the Istanbul Economics Analysis. “The Turkish family has been struggling since August 2018,” says the assume tank’s common supervisor Can Selcuki. In a current survey, 75% of respondents stated that the rise in the price of fundamental items was considerably impacting their budgets, and an extra 64% stated they have been now struggling to make ends meet, Sulcuki says: “the Turkish family is struggling prefer it hasn’t been for the previous 20 years, most likely.”

Kaftancioglu says the cronyism and corruption of Erdogan’s AKP and the patrimonial working of the nation have contributed to the financial pressure Istanbul’s residents are actually going through. “Assets and taxes aren’t spent on society, the federal government spends large sums for their very own buddies,” she says.

Like Erdogan, Kaftancioglu comes from modest means. Within the Black Sea village in Turkey’s Ordu province the place she grew up within the 1980s, meat was a luxurious reserved for spiritual holidays and particular events and imported objects like bananas have been nonetheless scarcer. Had it not been for state establishments established by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, her major college trainer father and housewife mom wouldn’t have been in a position to ship her to school.

At present, Ataturk’s portrait hangs on the wall behind her desk, as does the flag of the celebration he based, the CHP. Its six-arrowed brand represents the tenets of “Kemalism”, the uncompromising doctrine of modernization that led to the creation of the secular Republic of Turkey in 1923 out of the stays of the Ottoman Empire, with a international coverage Ataturk summed up as “peace at house, peace on the earth.” Erdogan’s muscular model of non secular nationalism, or “neo–Ottomanism”, provides a unique imaginative and prescient for Turkey. It’s one critics say goals to re-establish the grandeur of Empire, with the president as its modern-day sultan.

Kaftancioglu steers her personal path. As a younger girl, she had a ardour for legislation. Her mother and father hoped she would turn into a physician. Forensic medication was the compromise that allowed her to pursue a burgeoning curiosity in social justice knowledgeable by conversations together with her late uncle. At medical college, Kaftancioglu protested in opposition to the federal government’s ban on headscarves in Turkey’s universities. She wrote her resident’s thesis on political disappearances and torture instances archived by the Human Rights Basis of Turkey. She married a physician she met whereas working at a public hospital, whose journalist father had been murdered by suspected ultra-nationalists.

She additionally rode a motorbike, in what she says was “maybe a unconscious response to the cliché that girls shouldn’t.” Kaftancioglu gave up her final bike, a Suzuki GSX R600, when she entered politics. However that hasn’t stopped supporters calling her Trinity, a reference to the leather-clad hacker from the 1999 movie The Matrix to whom she bears a slight bodily resemblance. The nickname additionally alludes to her perceived function as a feminist defender of the marginalized.

Her critics use much less admiring epithets. AKP lawmakers have fixated on Kaftancioglu’s retweet of {a photograph} exhibiting her husband consuming pork—a taboo even amongst many secular Turks. Different criticisms are extra overtly gender-based: a extensively circulated candid reveals Kaftancioglu slumped in her seat at a bus station ready room smoking a cigarette in a t-shirt that exposes her midriff. Younger individuals on Twitter discovered the pose relatable. However conservatives derided her for it. “Their thought of what a lady ought to be and the way she ought to act contradicts with my very own concepts,” Kaftancioglu says. “difficult the male hegemony, being a free girl working for CHP: that makes me a goal.”

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Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty PhotographsDr. Canan Kaftancioglu, middle, leaves the Caglayan courthouse in Istanbul on Sept. 6, 2019.

Her overtly secular way of life has led her AKP opponents to try to solid her as “Ataturk’s perfect Turkish girl; the right consultant of the elitist secularists’ celebration,” the Washington-based Center East Institute’s Turkey program chief Gonul Tol tells TIME.

In actuality, she is hardly a celebration acolyte. It was the CHP that put in the headband ban Kafancioglu protested in opposition to as a scholar. She has spoken previously concerning the Armenian genocide of 1915, which Turkey formally denies occurred and is a 3rd rail in Turkish politics and tradition. And in a 2018 interview with CNN Turk, Kaftanioglu described herself as a “companion” however not a “soldier” of Ataturk—recasting a conventional celebration slogan in an obvious rejection of its militant implications. “In a rustic dominated by one man, with one thought and one voice for 18 years,” she tells TIME, variations of opinion inside the CHP might be perceived by the general public as disunity. However these variations of opinion are “truly a mirrored image of the richness of our celebration.”

Enraging Turkey’s new sultan

Apart from the portraits of Ataturk and the CHP chairman, Kaftanioglu’s workplace partitions maintain footage of civil resistance actions throughout Turkey. One reveals a younger girl in a purple gown with a white tote bag being pepper-sprayed by a gas-masked police officer throughout the 2013 anti-government protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. One other reveals a procession of middle-aged ladies—some in headscarves, others uncovered—elevating their fists at a funeral for a sufferer of the Oct. 10 2015 bombings that killed 109 civilians shortly earlier than a Labor, Peace, and Democracy rally was scheduled to happen in Turkey’s capital Ankara.

Consultants say Kaftancioglu’s willingness to confront her celebration’s outdated guard is what makes her such an efficient strategist. She put ahead Imamoglu, a mild-mannered centrist, to contest Istanbul’s mayoral race. His down-to-earth method and embrace of his spiritual upbringing, mixed together with her grassroots outreach proved a successful mixture for the CHP—a celebration that for years had struggled with a repute for being aloof from the issues of the city poor, and hostile to ethnic minorities and religiously minded Turks.

Centered on corruption and patronage moderately than divisive id politics, Kaftancioglu’s marketing campaign engaged a cross-section of Istanbullus pissed off with the state of the economic system, together with Kurdish voters who had lengthy mistrusted the CHP. The coalition was wide-ranging; ultimately, Imamoglu counted on assist from the left-wing pro-Kurdish HDP, the right-wing nationalist Good Occasion, and even the Islamist Felicity Occasion.

Kaftancioglu made positive the victory caught. When metropolis residents awakened after the March 31 municipal election to banners of their squares proclaiming an AKP victory, her marketing campaign volunteers have been in a position to forestall that narrative from taking maintain. They’d been current at poll counting stations, used their smartphones to take footage of vote tallies, and supplied stay updates on social media after the AKP’s victory appeared unsure and government-controlled state shops stopped reporting the depend. Turkey’s election board ultimately annulled the consequence, citing marketing campaign irregularities, however the public wasn’t swayed. Imamoglu gained a June re-run by a landslide.

By then the persecution of Kaftancioglu was gathering tempo. She already was the topic of a terrorism investigation related to social media posts from years prior. In Could 2019, town’s chief prosecutor filed fees carrying a most jail time period of 17 years. And in Sept. 2019—after Imamoglu’s second, decisive victory—an Istanbul court docket sentenced Kaftancioglu to 9 years and eight months in jail, pending an attraction.

The time period size was warranted, the court docket, stated partially as a result of she had publicly learn a poem by leftist Turkish author Nazim Hikmet exterior the courthouse, demonstrating a scarcity of regret. Turkey’s Byzantine authorized system makes it troublesome to know precisely when she might be jailed, however with a choose anticipated to rule inside weeks on a June 2020 petition of attraction, her aides say they anticipate her imprisonment may very well be imminent.

Erdogan’s personal imprisonment, which ended his tenure as Istanbul mayor, additionally hinged on a poem. “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the devoted our troopers,” he recited within the metropolis of Siirt in 1997, as an expression of his pro-Islamist values. It earned him a ten-month jail time period for “inciting spiritual hatred,” 4 of which he served. The AKP swept to election victory quickly after. Erdogan’s therapy by the hands of Turkey’s secular courts immediately contributed to his rise, says Soner Cagaptay, writer of Erdogan’s Empire, “Folks noticed him because the man from the opposite facet of the tracks who the system had unjustly punished.”

Now Erdogan is the system, “the primary Sultan of Turkey’s second Republic,” Cagaptay says. And Kaftancioglu is being persecuted by it. Few analysts anticipate Kaftancioglu to mount a problem in opposition to Erodgan’s presidency herself. However If imprisonment does for her what it did for Erdogan, she would possibly emerge with new attraction, a logo that divided and fractured opposition can rally round.

‘I’ll come out stronger.’

She approaches imprisonment dedicated to her trigger. Kaftancioglu celebrated her 49th birthday on Feb. Three exterior Istanbul’s Caglayan Courthouse. It was 4:30 am and inside, the final of the protesters detained the night earlier than have been being processed and launched. Like her volunteers had performed the evening the ballots in Istanbul’s mayoral race have been counted, Kaftancioglu was broadcasting the court docket’s choices stay on social media, guaranteeing justice was performed.

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Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty PhotographsTurkish cops detain individuals over protests in Istanbul in opposition to President Tayyip Erdogan’s appointment of a brand new rector at Bogazici College on Feb. 4, 2021.

The protests had began nearly a month earlier than, when Erdogan assigned a brand new rector to Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici College by presidential decree. In a 12 months that has seen scores of HDP mayors arrested or in any other case stripped of their workplace, the reinstatement to Turkey’s parliament of one other CHP lawmaker imprisoned for a number of years after a retrial, lots of of individuals arrested over what the federal government deemed “provocative” social media posts on Turkey’s coronavirus outbreak, and at the least 13 journalists taken into custody, many noticed the set up of Melih Bulu—a political ally of Erdogan—at one of many nation’s most extremely regarded educational establishments as a remaining straw.

Virtually daily since his appointment, teachers have gathered on the campus at 6 pm, turning their backs in the direction of the rectory in silent protest—in an image revealed by Cumhuriyet newspaper on Feb 16, they stand in socially distanced rows on the college’s snow-covered quadrangle, solemn beneath the pine timber. Off-campus, protests grew into the most important anti-government demonstrations because the notorious 2013 occupation of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, throughout which interval 11 individuals have been killed and 1000’s injured in clashes with police.

“Bogazici is the final place that college students can freely categorical their emotions. They are often collectively in peace from totally different elements of society,” stated 25-year-old senior Bogazici College scholar Servan Bozkurt at a Feb. 2 protest in Istanbul’s secular liberal Kadikoy neighborhood. Minutes earlier, riot police had shot a number of of his buddies with plastic bullets and Bozkurt had seen at the least 15 individuals arrested, he stated. Though he anticipated to graduate from his worldwide commerce program in a few weeks, he stated he had determined to take part within the protests “as a result of this represents one thing a lot larger than the college.”

Erdogan greeted the protests with attribute hostility. “Are you college students, or are you terrorists?” he mused, throughout per week wherein police had arrested lots of of demonstrators throughout Istanbul and Ankara. He solid the protests when it comes to a tradition conflict, describing protesters—a few of whom had displayed art work that combined pleasure flags with a picture of the Kaaba—as “LGBT youth” working in opposition to Turkey’s “nationwide and religious values.” His inside minister in the meantime, known as demonstrators “LGBT perverts” in rhetoric condemned by the U.S. State Division, which additionally stated authorities ought to launch detained protesters.

Kaftancioglu was amongst their first defenders. She confirmed up on the campus on Jan. Four after which tweeted in assist of scores of scholars arrested on the college. Erdogan and Inside Minister Soylu responded the following day, the latter tagging her as a member of the banned Revolutionary Folks’s Liberation Occasion/Entrance, a militant group listed as a terrorist group by Turkey and the U.S.

Undeterred, Kaftancioglu went to the courthouse on the evening of Feb. Three to observe the instances of greater than 100 extra college students detained that day, and doc any violations of their rights. She is now suing Erdogan and Soylu every for 1 million Lira ($134,000) over their branding her a terrorist.

If she goes to jail within the subsequent few weeks, she tells TIME at her buddy’s home in Beyoglu, she’ll use the time to study a brand new language, or maybe examine for an extra college diploma. Both method, “I’ll come out stronger,” she says, stubbing her cigarette in a glass ashtray. Within the meantime, she has religion within the marginalized, and particularly in Turkish ladies, to proceed the wrestle for equality: I do know that the strongest antidote to a single man is the group of many ladies.” Outdoors the window behind her, the mosque’s afternoon name to prayer ends. Then, the silent progress of snow.

With reporting by Engin Bas / Istanbul