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  • How 'Turkish Gandhi' Kilicdaroglu could influence May's elections
    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing his biggest electoral challenge in the May elections by the man dubbed the Turkish Gandhi. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, in a rare move, has united much of the opposition, but critics warn he faces formidable obstacles to end Erdogan's more than 20-year rule. Backed by six political parties drawn from across the political spectrum, Kilicdaroglu, leader of the country's main opposition CHP party, announced his presidential candidacy on 6 March. He promises sweeping reform, an end to the executive presidency, and a return to parliamentary democracy. 'Rule with consensus' "Kilicdaroglu says 'I will not rule as one man; I will rule with consensus'. He's promising economic stability and a Turkey with human rights where everyone is represented equally," explains Halk TV News Editor in Chief Bengu Sap Babaeker "And we should remember that Kemal Kilicdaroglu has been in politics and in state bureaucracy for a very long time. Yet, despite this, there has been no accusation of corruption," added Babaeker. Seventy-four-year-old Kilicdaroglu brought his CHP party back from the dead. His 2017 400km "March for Justice" from Ankara to Istanbul over the jailing of government critics morphed into one of the first major mass movements against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule. Media dubbed Kilicdaroglu the Turkish Gandhi. Kilicdaroglu masterminded municipal election victories in four out of five of Turkey's largest cities, including Erdogan's political fortress Istanbul. But critics point out that the softly-spoken opposition leader, with his civil service background, lacks Erdogan's fiery charisma. As elections loom in Turkey, Erdogan pulls plug on opposition social media Kilicdaroglu has lost four general elections against Erdogan's AKP Party and his candidacy faced opposition within his coalition alliance. "He's not seen as the typical leader. He's not the strong yelling type," said political scientist Zeynep Alemdar of Istanbul's Okan University. "He doesn't demonstrate the qualities of that masculine leadership people are very much after. And it's not just in Turkey. Look at Russia, look at Trump! People like that type of leadership. He's very humble, soft-spoken. We don't really see him angry," added Alemdar. Earthquakes and politics However, February's deadly earthquakes are widely seen as a political game changer, with outrage over construction failings and allegations of a slow response by the state to the disaster. Kilicdaroglu was quickly on the scene, offering condolences to survivors, voicing widespread criticism over the government's slow response to the disaster, and pledging to bring those responsible for poorly constructed buildings that collapsed, killing so many. Kilicdaroglu, some analysts say, caught the mood of the country. Turkish President asks for forgiveness over earthquake rescue delays "Kilicdarolgu said that something is going wrong with this whole system, so we must start something new all together. We must change this country for the better once and for all," observed Sezin Oney, a columnist at the Politikyol news portal.  "He had a personal catharsis. When he visited the earthquake sites he was shaken, visibly moved. And I think he made the personal decision that this is going to be [his] legacy," added Oney. Religion as an obstacle Religion could be another obstacle for Kilicdaroglu. He comes from the liberal Alevi Islamic sect – considered by some conservative Muslims as heretic. Alevis have faced centuries of discrimination in Turkey. But analysts suggest after 20 years under Erdogan's rule, dominated by religious tension, the electorate is now more interested in economic concerns than identity politics. Turkish Constitutional Court decision boosts Erdogan's election chances Alemdar says the country, and young people in particular, has moved on and people are no longer looking at "what the other believes in". They have bigger concerns, such as rocketing inflation.  "The economy is in shambles, the currency crisis is there, debt is mounting," she added. With Kilicdaroglu's coalition of parties, including nationalists, Islamists, the left and right, he promises an end to political and ethnic polarisation in what is widely seen as the biggest challenge to Erdogan's rule.
  • Global rights groups say Turkish media under attack over quake coverage
    International rights groups say independent Turkish media is under attack, with journalists facing fines and arrests over critical reporting of Erdogan's handling of last month's earthquake. The crackdown comes as the battle over control of the disaster narrative could prove key to determining the outcome of the May presidential polls. Local media like Jin news were at the forefront of reporting on February's deadly earthquakes, highlighting what critics claim was the government's and emergency services' slow response.  Police attention The reporting drew unwanted attention from the police, "First, they prevented us from working; instead of reporting from the quake-hit area we were made to wait for two hours," explains Jin news reporter Sema Caglak.  "The police took our press cards and then they took us to the police precinct. We were kept there for 3-4 hours and were asked why we came to the quake zone." The New York-based Human Rights Watch released a video condemning the arrest of several journalists covering the quake, who also had their equipment confiscated and destroyed in some cases.  The government claim there is no systematic policy against the media, insisting that any actions by police against journalists were the result of individual officers working in a difficult situation.  But independent tv stations like Halk TV, critical of the government's handling of the quake, were also targeted by heavy fines and temporary broadcasting bans for inciting public hatred.  "In Turkey, more than 90% of the media is under government control," explains Halk TV News Editor in Chief Bengu Sap Babaeker. "So we knew that the fines would come because we were giving the voice of the people and the voice of the earthquake survivors." "But what we are really afraid of is being completely shut down," added Babaeker, "so there is self-censorship and extreme care in our reporting to try and avoid this." Latest tremor heaps misery on Turkish region reeling from earlier earthquake Turkey maintains cordial links with Russia on first anniversary of Ukraine war Turkish President asks for forgiveness over earthquake rescue delays Targeting TV stations International rights groups have condemned the penalites saying the fined tv stations were only engaged in critical reporting and that the penalties have more to do with looming elections.  "We should underline that these fines are targeting these main critical TV stations before the elections, before the upcoming elections, which are supposed to take place on 14 of May," claims Erol Onderoglu, Turkey representative for the Paris-based Reporters without Borders.  "So it is also a way to weaken financially weak critical media in Turkey. And, of course, by this, to control the discourse that the government tries to impose on public opinion," added Onderoglu. Prosecutors have started using newly introduced legislation criminalizing disinformation on social media, a crime that carries jail time. Reporters Without Borders reported that Turkish journalist Firat Bulut was arrested under the disinformation law while reporting on the earthquake. In a tweet, they are calling for his release.  With looming presidential elections, journalists predict pressure will grow. "There is the reality, and we tried to show it through our reporting," said Jin news journalist Sema Caglak. "The public who saw the reality no longer has faith in the state. From the first day of the quake until now, the question was, 'where is the government?'. "I don't think the pressure of the government on the press will decrease, and I think it will become more difficult with the election process." Control of the quake narrative could be key to deciding the May presidential elections, which is why Halk TV News Babaeker says independent media poses such a threat to the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dreams of re-election. "The government wants to go to the elections on the grounds that this earthquake is an unprecedentedly large earthquake and that no country could cope with it. Despite this, the government claims miracles have been achieved," explained Babaeker. "But the news we make telling the reality does not fit the atmosphere that the government wants to establish in Turkey on the way to the elections, which is very damaging to the narrative," Babaerker concluded. As the death toll passes, 50,000 dead, and millions more remain homeless; whether such terrible destruction was unavoidable or the result of government incompetence and corruption is a question that is likely to dominate the elections and their outcome. The battle for control of the quake narrative and the media's reporting will be key.
  • Turkish President asks for forgiveness over earthquake rescue delays
    In a bid to quell rising anger over the handling of last month's deadly earthquakes, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week paid a visit to the south-eastern city of Adiyaman. He apologised and pledged a massive housing reconstruction project for survivors. In the aftermath of the 6 February deadly quakes, images across social media show survivors calling out: "Where is the state?" and "Where is help?" Anger and criticism have been growing over what many say was a slow response by the government and emergency services. "It was mayhem," said Zeynep Alemdar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Okan University, describing the government's quake response. "We are trying to get our heads around the enormity of the calamity," Alemdar told RFI. "There are still places where they need tents. There are people who are still on the streets. All of us are just sad. We cannot believe that there are more than 40,000 dead and probably more will follow. Latest tremor heaps misery on Turkish region reeling from earlier earthquake "This is a calamity that is caused partly by the unaccountability, the corruption, the cronyism, and the way that these buildings are built," added Alemdar. With the government's response under fire in Istanbul, people mobilised to collect food, water, and urgently needed clothes, which were sent to the quake region within the first day.  The main opposition CHP party coordinated the operation through its mayors in Turkey's largest cities like Istanbul and sent search and rescue teams. Out of touch "The president seemed to me that he didn't quite grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe," claimed Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University, suggesting that the opposition's speedy reaction made Erdogan appear out of touch. "And the fact that everything emanates from the presidential palace meant that nobody could take initiatives, and saving face and rejecting blame seemed far more important than actually getting things done and saving lives. It also showed that the opposition is capable of getting things done contrary to claims by the government," added Ozel. During a visit to the quake region, Erdogan acknowledged initial shortcomings but hit out at criticism of the government and the Red Crescent, Turkey's equivalent to the Red Cross. "When one comes out and asks: 'Where is Red Crescent? We haven't seen tents or food from them' ... You are immoral. You are dishonorable and you are despicable," the Turkish leader said, earning fresh condemnation across social media. With presidential elections on the horizon, Erdogan recalibrated his language during a visit to the devastated city of Adiyaman, asking for forgiveness and for the people to move on in a united fashion. "Due to the devastating effect of the tremors and the bad weather, we were not able to work the way we wanted in Adiyaman for the first few days. I apologize for this," said Erdogan. Erdogan is also vowing to build more than 200,000 homes within a year for quake survivors. But the opposition claims the president is incapable of building safe homes, given so many buildings collapsed during the quakes, widely blamed on shoddy construction and lax regulations, most of which were built during his years in office.  Country at a crossroads With the upcoming elections set to be held in the shadow of the Turkish republic's worst humanitarian crisis, the country is at a crossroads like no other. "It's actually like a mirror where you see the hideous parts of your face," said Analyst Sezin Oney of the news portal Politikyol. "You understand that you cannot continue on like this anymore. "You either have to change it, or you're going to be going under the rubble yourself one way or the other," added Oney. As elections loom in Turkey, Erdogan pulls plug on opposition social media "I think these elections will also be a referendum, not just about changing the system, but about the whole psychology and whole makeup of the country, the whole character of the country, and which direction to go." Even before the disaster, the Turkish president was struggling in the polls with nearly 100 percent inflation. But Erodgan is now calling for unity, claiming only he and his centralised rule can meet the challenge.  As the opposition sees it, the magnitude of the disaster is a result of Erdogan's more than 20 years of mismanagement and corruption. Turkey is no stranger to acrimonious elections but analysts this year predict an unusually bitter one.
  • Far from Turkey's earthquake zone, volunteers seek ways to help
    In the aftermath of Turkey's killer quakes, there is desperation among survivors and increasing anger over the government's response. But many people across the country are mobilising to help. Throughout the night, people in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, bring supplies for earthquake survivors. Two wedding halls are now one of many distribution centres for aid donated from across the city.  "We opened the wedding cocktail halls this morning. There is incredible help coming from everywhere," beamed Elif Polat, the cocktail salon manager, who is now organising the sending of aid to quake survivors.   "The aid is mostly food, blankets and duvets, as well as hygiene goods, diapers and an incredible amount of things, all top quality," added Polat. "Yesterday, we had a crisis for 10 minutes or so about the number of cardboard boxes we had; we put out a message on social media, and heaps, heaps of boxes arrived immediately. It is awe-inspiring and beautiful." Hundreds of volunteers work through the night. For some, the motivation is personal. Ali Can Kocak said: "I am volunteering because my parents live in Adana, and my friends in Antakya, where the earthquakes hit the ground. "And I can't go to those places. So I want to help people, and the nearest donation place to my house is here. And I will come here, and my friends will come here." Opposition efforts  Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, from the opposition CHP party is coordinating the city's relief effort, providing trucks and the use of city buildings. During a visit to the disaster region to meet with search and rescue teams dispatched from Istanbul, he offered condolences to people irreconcilable with grief.  Ankara's mayor Mansur Yavas – also a member of the opposition – sent workers to rebuild one of the airports in the stricken region. The mayors' efforts are in stark contrast with growing criticism that the Turkish government was slow to respond to the quakes.  As desperation grows, survivors criticise Turkey's earthquake response  "They appeared to be competent, effective, and able to mobilise their resources much more rapidly," said political scientist Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "Which shows that if you take the issue of earthquakes seriously and you make your preparations in responding to earthquakes, you can actually move mountains. "It also shows that the opposition is capable of getting things done, contrary to claims on the part of the government and also to our own observations about the opposition that they can actually administer things, they can actually manage things. "And in that sense, it was truly a matter of taking the quake issue seriously, and evidently, our government did not," claimed Ozel. Memories of Izmit The government denies such criticism, arguing the disaster is a once-in-a-century event. But there was similar criticism in 1999 over the response to the Izmit earthquake just outside Istanbul, which claimed more than 18,000 lives. Memories of that disaster are still fresh in the minds of some survivors, and serve as motivation to help in this latest crisis.   "I experienced the 1999 Izmit earthquake. We lived through that disaster. It was extremely hard for us," remembers aid volunteer Yilmaz, who wanted to go by only his first name. "Now I saw this earthquake and I relived those moments. That's why I couldn't sit at home and drink tea and wanted to rush here and offer help."  'We need everything': Aid workers call for urgent help for Syrian quake victims UN aid enters Syria via new border crossing as quake toll nears 40,000 Diapers, antiseptic cologne and other sanitary products are priority items as Istanbul comes together to help. "From the oldest to the youngest, there is an incredible unity here," said aid organiser Polat.  "I can see in everyone's eyes there is huge sorrow, but they are getting strength and motivation from this sadness," he said. "I have been here for the last 25 years. I understood one more time in the last few days that we Turks are very strong." A truck filled to bursting point is off to the disaster region, bringing help and hope to some of the millions of people in need.
  • As desperation grows, survivors criticise Turkey's earthquake response
    Search and rescue operations continue across the south-east of Turkey, the region struck by a huge earthquake and large aftershocks earlier this week. With the area facing freezing conditions, frustrations are growing among survivors over claims the government is acting too slowly. Desperation is growing in southern Turkey after it was struck by multiple quakes. Deniz, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, is losing hope for family members buried in their collapsed home in the province of Hatay.   "They are talking, but nobody comes. We are finished. My God! They are speaking. There is nobody here. Nobody. What kind of state is this?" he said. Turkish authorities say as many as 17,000 buildings were destroyed, and many people were still trapped in them. Against the odds, rescue workers are meeting with some successes. In the city of Diyarbakir, rescue workers saved a 13-year-old buried in a collapsed apartment block for more than 36 hours. But criticism is growing over the response to emergency efforts. With temperatures falling below zero, hypothermia is a new danger facing the many people believed to be trapped in what is now becoming a race against time. Freezing temperatures are also posing a threat to the tens of thousands of people made homeless by the quake. Many survivors spent days on the streets in icy conditions. "Our houses have been damaged; we cannot go inside now. We haven't eaten anything since morning; our children are very hungry. May God protect all of us," said Orhan Sahin from the quake-hit city of Kahramanmaras.  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is dismissing such criticism. During a visit to the stricken region, the president acknowledged the response may have been initially slow, but said that thousands of search and rescue personnel were now deployed across the region. "This period is the period of unity... It is the time of solidarity," said Erdogan on Wednesday, addressing the media in Antakya province. "In such a period, I do not digest viciously negative campaigns conducted in the name of mere political interests. If I were not responsible for my position, I would not be speaking like that today, I would be speaking quite differently," he added. Erdogan earlier in the week said that prosecutors were monitoring social media for what he called "unscrupulous people" criticizing the government, and warned they would be held to account.  As elections loom in Turkey, Erdogan pulls plug on opposition social media Erdogan calls Turkish general election for 14 May, one month early'We need everything' With ten Turkish cities with populations of around 13 million badly damaged by the quake, the scale of the rescue operation is immense. But across the border in Syria, in the rebel-controlled enclave of Idlib, the deadly quakes have destroyed much of what little infrastructure remained from more than a decade of civil war. As a result, aid agencies say there is a desperate need for international support. "It's crazy. Buildings are on the ground. People are helpless. They don't know what to do. No aid yet. And this is very important," warned Yakzan Shishakly, co-founder of the Maram Foundation, an aid agency working in Syria.    "No aid has yet come to Idlib, and people don't know if they will receive aid or no aid. They're really devastated. We need everything, but medical supplies are so important, blankets, food, and that is what we really need right now," added Shishakly. While border crossings with Turkey are open, many of the roads to those borders have been severely damaged by the devastating quakes. However, on Thursday, the first aid convoys managed to enter Syria from Turkey.  On both sides of the border, rescue workers are now racing against time, with the threat of disease, cold and hunger hanging over the shattered area.

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