Canan Kaftancioglu is a rising political star in Turkey. The popularity ratings of this 48-year-old doctor-turned-politician from the Black Sea region are among the highest in the country.
She had always stood out in the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) with her left-wing views, and at the beginning of 2018 she was elected Istanbul’s provincial president.
But Kaftancioglu real breakthrough came a good year later after she masterminded one of the most successful election campaigns in Turkish history. This was the campaign of Ekrem Imamoglu, a relatively unknown local, in Istanbul’s mayoral elections of March 2019. Few people expected this newcomer to win against the ruling AKP’s candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
But the CHP’s focus on reconciliation rather than polarization in an emotional election went down well with the voters. The party’s decision to condemn nepotism, mismanagement, and the misspending of public funds turned out to be a good strategy during an economic crisis, as many voters grew sick of pomp and arrogance on the part of certain politicians. However, after Imamoglu only won by a small margin, the AKP refused to concede and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly put pressure on the election board to call for a re-run. To little avail: The next time round, the CHP won by a much clearer margin.
Losing the city, Turkey’s economic and social center with a population of 16 million, was the president’s biggest electoral defeat so far. And Kaftancioglu’s biggest victory.
But she is now under growing legal pressure. In September 2019, she was sentenced to almost 10 years in jail after being charged with a series of crimes, including defamation, inciting public hatred and violence, spreading “terrorist propaganda,” as well as insulting the president and the Turkish state.
According to her supporters, the evidence against her came out of thin air, largely comprising a series of tweets she had posted between 2012 and 2017. CHP leaders said that her sentencing was an act of revenge for the election debacle in Istanbul. Kaftancioglu denied all the accusations and has appealed against the sentence. She cannot be jailed pending the appeals process.
Now the Anatolian Public Prosecutor’s Office has filed a complaint against another member of the CHP, Suat Özcagdas, for photographing the house of Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish president’s communications director, in the Istanbul district of Üsküdar. If found guilty, he faces five years in jail for “violation of privacy.” Özcagdas took the photo as part of efforts to document unauthorized construction on public land.
10-year sentence for a tweet
Kaftancioglu demonstrated her support for Özcagdas on social media. “They will soon drown in their immorality and lies,” she tweeted, “Özcagdas was only doing his duty. He carried out an inspection and followed party instructions because the construction is illegal. He will do it again. Those who have something to hide are creating panic. Keep calm guys.”
This rekindled the state prosecutor’s ire and she has now been accused of “incitement to commit a crime” and “glorification of a crime.” She faces up to 10 and a half years in jail if convicted.
It is not uncommon for Erdogan’s government and its allies to resort to legal means to exert pressure on opponents. Recently, President Erdogan sued CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu for the equivalent of €110,000 ($130,000) for “groundless allegations and accusations” after the latter referred to him as a “so-called president.”
Such arbitrary lawsuits can end up very badly for defendants, as shown by the case of Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, who spent four years in jail without indictment before being charged. State prosecutors have now once again charged him with new offenses and requested a life sentence. He is accused of several counts of murder as well as “destroying the unity of the state and the entirety of the country” in conjunction with the so-called Kobane protests of October 2014, in which official figures say 37 people died. These large-scale protests were organized to support Kurds in the Syrian city of Kobane after it was besieged by the so-called Islamic State, which Kurdish activists accused the Turkish government of supporting.
For her part, Kaftancioglu refuses to give in and has dismissed the threats of jail. She has also taken to fighting the government with its own weapons. She recently sued the president and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu for defamation after they branded her a “terrorist.” Erdogan had accused her of being a militant for a banned radical left group when she supported protests against the nomination of Istanbul’s Bogazici University’s new rector, a close ally of the ruling AKP appointed by presidential decree.
Kaftancioglu has said that the president should provide immediate evidence of what she calls “ridiculous allegations,” and has implied that he probably has not gotten over the defeat in the Istanbul mayoral elections.