Turkish football offers Erdogan headaches instead of voters in walk-up to election

James Dorsey
9 Min Read
James M Dorsey

Turkish football gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more headaches than likely votes as he battles to ensure that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will secure a majority in snap parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Polls on the eve of the election predict that AKP will increase its vote by 6% compared to the June election, enough to form a single-party government.

Erdogan, a former football player, called for Sunday’s, elections after AKP failed to secure the necessary majority in elections in June, to form a government on its own for a fourth time. The failure delayed Erdogan’s plans to make his presidency executive rather than ceremonial, as it is currently envisioned in the Turkish constitution.

The rise of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) that won 13% of the vote in June deprived Erdogan and his AKP of a majority win. A breakdown in peace talks with Kurdish guerrillas in southeast Turkey caused an eruption of renewed hostilities. Various towns who declared themselves autonomous may win Erdogan nationalists votes on Sunday but is likely to cost him in predominantly Kurdish towns and cities like Diyarbakir.

Turkey’s deep-seated political and ethnic fault lines were being drawn in advance of the election on the football pitch with clubs believed to be close to the president, doing him few favours.

In Diyarbakir, the rise of HDP prompted the city’s football club, Diyarbakır Büyükşehir Belediyespor (Diyarbakir Metropolitan Sport), to defy the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) earlier this year and replace its Turkish name with a Kurdish one, Amedspor. The club also adopted the yellow, red, and green Kurdish nationalist colours.

Kurdish’s nationalist feeling was fuelled by Turkey’s reluctance to help Syrian Kurds when in 2014 were besieged in the Syrian town of Kobani by fighters of the Islamic State (IS), the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq. Many Kurds believe that Turkey turned a blind eye to IS for a long time because it saw it as a buffer that could prevent the rise of a Kurdish entity in parts of Syria.

Kurdish nationalism on the pitch is being offset by major football clubs seeking to drum up Turkish patriotism by starting competition matches with military salutes. Istanbul’s club Besiktas JK recently wore shirts proclaiming that “martyrs don’t die,” a reference to scores of Turkish soldiers that died in attacks by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The divide is as much nationalist as it is social. Many of the soldiers are lower class young men who hail from poorer parts of Turkey and were unable to pay a $6,000 fee that would have allowed them to avoid military service. “In this war, the rich are not dying,” said Mehmet Guner, president of the Association of Martyrs’ Families.

The recent disruption of a moment of silence at the beginning of a European championship match in honour of 102 victims of the bombing earlier this month of a peace march in Ankara highlighted yet another Turkish fault line. Fans whistled, jeered, and chanted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) as the Turkish and Icelandic national teams observed the silence.

If all of these problems were not enough, Erdogan is also getting grief from those clubs he is close to. Trabzonspor AS president Ibrahim Hacıosmanoglu, angry over his team’s draw with Gaziantep SK as a result of a controversial penalty, ordered the referee to be detained overnight in the stadium until Haciosmanoglu visited him in the morning.

As if that were not sufficient reason for controversy, Haciosmanoglu caused uproar with remarks that appeared to degrade women.

Haciosmanoglu’s outburst highlighted the close ties between Turkish football and politics as well as widespread misogyny in the sport.

It took a 3am phone call by Erdogan himself to set the referee free.

“I told my managers ‘Show Trabzonspor’s hospitality, order his tea, coffee, and food until the morning, until I come, that referee will not leave that stadium,’” Haciosmanoglu said, initially refusing to take calls from government officials seeking to defuse the situation.

When the referee was finally set free at half past three in the morning, he was forced to run a gauntlet of hundreds of Trabzonspor fans who shouted abuse at him.

Referring to Erdogan, Haciosmanoglu said after the president’s call: “I do not have to say his name; everybody understands to whom I am referring to. Turkey has a leader who serves this nation, a leader who will leave a strong country to my children in the future. I am ready to die for him.”

While Haciosmanoglu’s praise was what Erdogan wanted to hear, the Black Sea club leader’s subsequent warning of the fall-out of the match sparked protest from women activists and members of parliament. “The Turkish Republic will see what’s going to happen from now on. If we will die, we will die like men; we will not live like women. Nobody has the power to make us live like women,” Haciosmanoglu said.

Sexism was also evident a week earlier when supporters of Fenerbahce, the political crown jewel in Turkish football with some 25m fans, burnt a blow-up doll dressed in rival team Galatasaray’s colours after holding a mock engagement party for it.

“Female students and academics said the incident reflects the pornographic face of violence and the hegemonic male mindset, which puts women and the enemy on par,” journalist Sibel Yukler reported for news agency Jinha.

Referee Deniz Coban mocked Erdogan’s successful battle to ensure leniency for match fixers but days before his retirement tearfully apologised on national television for calls he made during a match between Kasimpasa SK and Caykur Rize SK, both teams close to the president, that ended in a draw. Erdogan’s family is from the Black Sea town of Rize and he used to play for Kasimpasa.

The acquittal in early October of scores of football officials of charges of match fixing, including Fenerbahce chairman Aziz Yildirim, may earn Erdogan some votes but more importantly further highlights the incestuous relationship between Turkish politics and football that often corrupts the sport.

The scandal, involving the arrest of 93 football executives in 2011, served as a precursor for a corruption scandal that rocked then Prime Minister Erdogan’s government two years later.

It was not immediately clear whether the acquittal would persuade the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) to lift its two-year ban of Fenerbahce and one-year prohibition on rival Besiktas JK from playing in European competitions.

Yildirim was initially sentenced in 2012 to six years in prison and a $560,000 fine for forming a criminal, match-fixing gang. He served a year before being released pending retrial. Yildirim has long asserted that the case was politically motivated.

Irrespective of whether the match-fixing case was politically driven or not, it is symptomatic of the degree to which Erdogan has further politicised a sport that has been tied into Turkish politics from its inception over the past decade. It is a legacy that could come to haunt Erdogan, whose hunger for power appears to have trumped his love for the game.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

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James M Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg.
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