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Turkish opposition accuses Russia of interfering in elections in aid of Erdogan

One of the four candidates for the presidential election withdraws after the publication of a fake sex video and the Turkish president shows manipulated images on the campaign trail to link his opponent to terrorism

Elecciones Turquía 2023
The candidate, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, who has accused Russia of meddling in Turkey's elections.Aysegül Uçar (EFE)

The main opposition candidate in the presidential elections to be held in Turkey this Sunday, the center-left Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, has accused Russia of interfering by manipulating videos in the electoral campaign in support of the Turkish President, the Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Polls indicate that Erdogan could lose power for the first time in 20 years, although his opponent’s lead is slim.

As a result, as the campaign - which began almost two months ago - has progressed, it has become increasingly harsh, with cross accusations, attacks and foul play. The president himself has broadcast on two occasions - at a rally and on a television program - a montage in which the leader of the Kurdish armed group PKK, Murat Karayilan, is shown participating in the opposition’s campaign video. “Kiliçdaroglu puts the man who is in command of the terrorist organization behind him. He says ‘Let’s go’ and the other one also answers ‘Let’s go,’” Erdogan denounced on the TV program, trying to convince his supporters that the video is real.

Despite the crude montage, this link between the opposition and the PKK - an organization considered terrorist by Turkey and the EU -, constantly repeated by the candidates of the pro-government alliance and its supporting media, has a strong impact on Erdogan’s supporters. The political polarization in the country has turned the media landscape into echo chambers and it is very difficult for voters on one side or the other to expose themselves to narratives that are different from what they think.

The president’s voters are convinced, as EL PAÍS was able to verify in various provinces, that if the opposition wins, PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, captured in 1999 and imprisoned for life, will be released. Two sources from different opposition parties have confirmed this fact: “On the street there are many who tell me: ‘You seem like a good guy, why are you allying with the terrorists’”, laments a member of the nationalist IYI party: “We are really having a hard time getting our message across to AKP voters”.

Sex, lies and deepfake videos

Kiliçdaroglu already warned last week that the AKP was preparing to use deepfake videos with the help of international hackers. This Thursday, he went further and in a tweet written in Turkish and Russian directly accused Moscow of being involved in the production of fake propaganda: “Dear Russian friends. You are behind the leaked montages in this country, the plots and the tapes containing deepfakes. If you want us to remain friends on May 15, get your hands off the Turkish state.”

The opposition candidate did not specify what exactly he was referring to with these words, but asked about it, his party’s deputy Tuncay Özkan, explained that he was referring to the one linking Kiliçdaroglu to the PKK. “We are seeing that this government is working together with Russian hackers and that Russia is clearly supporting Erdogan to ensure preferential treatment of its economic interests,” Özkan asserted. Over the past year, Moscow has transferred billions of euros to the Central Bank of Turkey for construction work on the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, but these have been essential for the Erdogan government to keep the value of the Turkish lira stable. In recent weeks, moreover, the Turkish Ministry of Energy has announced that it has reached an agreement to postpone the payment of gas imports worth more than 500 million euros until next year. With all this, Turkey has become a key country for Vladimir Putin in his search for ways to circumvent the Western sanctions decreed after his invasion of Ukraine.

Another fake video is also sowing controversy in the Turkish elections. It is a sex tape about Muharrem Ince, who was a CHP presidential candidate in 2018, but later left the center-left formation and had run as a presidential candidate for these elections despite opposition requests that he should not do so, so as not to split the anti-Erdogan vote.

Ince resigned from the electoral race this Thursday alleging to the campaign of “insults” and “false accusations” that he is suffering (it is also true that his voting intention had plummeted below 2% according to the polls). He also assured that the video circulating is false and linked the plot to the brotherhood of the Turkish preacher exiled in the United States Fethullah Gülen, formerly allied with Erdogan and later declared a terrorist organization.

This link is due to the fact that who is announcing the publication of this and other videos of sexual content (he has also promised one of the leader of the far-right MHP party with his driver and of several female talk show hosts close to Erdogan) is a Twitter account under the name of Ali Yesildag, brother of a close collaborator of the Turkish president who is now accused of allying himself with Gülen’s organization. Last week Yesildag had appeared in a YouTube video denouncing Erdogan’s corruption and promising more information.

The Erdogan government has accused Kiliçdaroglu of getting rid of his rivals by using sex videos and recalling that in 2010 he became president of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) following the resignation of his predecessor, Deniz Baykal, after a video - real, in this case - was leaked of him having extramarital affairs. Members of Gülen’s organization infiltrated into the state (then still Erdogan’s allies) were also accused of this illegal recording.

But the plot is even more convoluted, like almost everything in Turkish politics. Yesildag has claimed in his videos that he has no accounts on other social networks. An analysis of the Twitter account on which these videos are posted by Tugrulcan Elmas, a researcher on social media manipulation, alleges that it previously published under other names and attacked members of the opposition so he ventures that it could be a false flag operation of the AKP itself. “We don’t know where that video came from, whether from the FETÖ [Gülenists] or the Russians,” says Özkan, the CHP deputy.

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