By James M. Dorsey
Turkish soccer has offered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more headaches than likely votes as the Turkish leader 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 the AKP will increase its vote by six percent compared to the June election, enough to form a single-party government.
Mr. Erdogan, a former soccer player, called Sunday’s elections after his AKP failed to secure the necessary majority in elections last June to form a government of its own for a fourth time. The failure delayed Mr. 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 percent of the vote in June deprived Mr. Erdogan and his AKP of a majority. A breakdown in peace talks with Kurdish guerrillas in southeast Turkey, the eruption of renewed hostilities and various towns declaring themselves autonomous may win Mr. Erdogan nationalist votes in Sunday’s vote, 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 soccer pitch with even clubs believed to be close to the president doing Erdogan few favours.
In Diyarbakir, the rise of the HDP prompted the city’s soccer club, Diyarbakır Büyükşehir Belediyespor (Diyarbakir Metropolitan Sport), to earlier this year defy the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) and replace its Turkish name with a Kurdish one, Amedspor. The club also adopted the yellow, red and green Kurdish nationalist colours.
Kurdish nationalist feeling was fuelled by Turkey’s reluctance to help Syrian Kurds when they last year 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 for a long time turned a blind eye to IS because it saw it as a buffer that could prevent the rise of a Kurdish entity in a part of Syria.
Kurdish nationalism on the pitch is being offset by major soccer clubs seeking to drum up Turkish patriotism by starting competition matches with military salutes. Storied Istanbul club Besiktas JK recently wore shirts proclaiming that “martyrs don't die,” a reference to scores of Turkish soldiers that have died in attacks by and clashes with 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 those problems weren’t enough, Mr. 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 Mr. Haciosmanoglu visited him in the morning.
As if that were not sufficient reason for controversy, Mr. Haciosmanoglu caused an uproar with remarks that appeared to denigrate women.
Mr. Haciosmanoglu’s outburst spotlighted the close ties between Turkish soccer and politics as well as widespread misogyny in the sport.
It took a 3 AM phone call by Mr. Erdogan to get the referee freed.
“I told my managers – ‘Show Trabzonspor’s hospitality, order his tea and coffee and food, until the morning, until I come that referee will not leave that stadium,'” Mr. Haciosmanoglu said, initially refusing to take calls from government officials seeking to defuse the situation.
When the referee was finally set free at 3:30 AM, he was forced to run a gauntlet of hundreds of Trabzonspor fans who shouted abuse of him.
Referring to Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Haciosmanoglu declared after the president’s call: “I do not have to pronounce his name; everybody understands who I’m 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 Mr. Haciosmanoglu’s praise was what Mr. 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 a man, we will not live like a woman. Nobody has the power to make us live like a woman,” Mr. Haciosmanoglu said.
Sexism was also evident a week earlier when supporters of Fenerbahce, the political crown jewel in Turkish soccer with some 25 million fans, burnt a blow-up doll dressed in in rival team Galatasaray’s colours after holding a mock engagement party for it.
“Female students and academics…said the incident reflects on the one hand the pornographic face of the violence and on the other hand the hegemonic male mindset which puts women and the enemy on par,” journalist Sibel Yukler reported for news agency Jinha.
Finally, referee Deniz Coban, made a mockery of Mr. Erdogan’s successful battle to ensure leniency for match fixers when he days before his retirement tearfully apologized 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. Mr. Erdogan’s family is from the Black Sea town of Rize while he played for Kasimpasa.
The acquittal in early October of scores of soccer officials of charges of match fixing, including Fenerbahce chairman Aziz Yildirim, may earn Mr. Erdogan some votes, but more importantly further highlighted the incestuous relationship between Turkish politics and soccer that often corrupts the sport.
The scandal, involving the arrest of 93 soccer 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.
Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Mr. Erdogan over the last decade has further politicized a sport that has been tied into Turkish politics from its inception. It’s a legacy that could come to haunt Mr. 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.