How the New Zealand terror attack has become a key factor in Turkey's upcoming elections

President Erdogan raises eyebrows at home and abroad by airing killer’s video

Borzou Daragahi
Monday 18 March 2019 17:41 GMT
Recep Tayyip Erdogan shows snippets from New Zealand terrorist videos at campaign rallies

The deadly terrorist attack in New Zealand has rattled upcoming local elections in Turkey, becoming a campaign issue after Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to air, at a campaign rally, violent footage taken by the suspected killer during his alleged rampage.

“My brothers, I want to take you to New Zealand now,” President Erdogan said during a weekend rally in Istanbul’s Gaziosmanpasa district, before playing footage from Friday’s incident that was streamed online.

“There is a benefit in watching this on the screen,” he said. “Remnants of the Crusaders cannot prevent Turkey’s rise.”

The terror attack on two mosques in New Zealand’s Christchurch shook Turkey. At least three people of Turkish ethnicity were killed in the attacks, said Mr Erdogan.

The 28-year-old suspect Brenton Tarrant described Mr Erdogan in his rambling 74-page manifesto as “leader of one of the oldest enemies of our people, and the leader of the largest Islamic group within Europe”, threatening him with death. He said Turks were “ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe”.

Mr Tarrant, an Australian who appears to have been an adherent to far-right, white supremacist ideologies rooted in the Balkans and eastern Europe, urged Turks to move “east of the Bosphorus”, warning, “we are coming for Constantinople and we will destroy every mosque and minaret in the city”.

Mr Erdogan responded directly to the threat comments on Monday as he marked the 104th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War.

“We have been here for 1,000 years and God willing we will be until doomsday,” he said. “You will not be able to make Istanbul Constantinople. Your ancestors came and saw that we were here. Some of them returned on foot and some returned in coffins. If you come with the same intent, we will be waiting for you too.”

Turkish authorities are also investigating two 2016 trips Mr Tarrant took to Turkey, including one stay that lasted nearly six weeks. Turkish media reported that Mr Tarrant visited early Christian artefacts and sites in the country.

The New Zealand attacks have dominated news coverage over the past few days in Turkey, but with an especially virulent twist on pro-government outlets.

Turkiye noted that “fascism in western countries is spreading wave after wave. Everywhere is full of ‘terrorist Tarrants’.”

Mr Erdogan, with his Justice and Development Party facing tough challenges from several rivals in local elections, has shown the video at several rallies in Izmir and Antalya, blurring the images in some cases. He wondered aloud why western officials don’t call the suspect a “Christian terrorist”.

Political observers say Mr Erdogan is seeking to rally his largely traditional, Islamist-leaning electoral base – which has been hammered by bad economic news – ahead of the elections by invoking the images of peaceful Muslims at prayer being gunned down by an alleged western murderer.

In past elections, Mr Erdogan has seized on perceived European slights against Turkey to rile up his supporters. Experts say it might help him to win only a few more percentage points, but enough to push his party to victory in a close election.

“The idea is to consolidate his electorate by using an external scapegoat,” said Emre Erdogan, a political science professor at Istanbul Bilgi University with no relation to the president.

“He’s using terminology like ‘Crusaders are attacking us’. His message is that even though we are an important trading partner and a member of Nato, they’re still attacking us. It plays into a narrative of victimisation.”

The use of the alleged killer’s footage and rhetoric as a campaign prop has raised alarm bells in Wellington. New Zealand’s deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, told reporters that he discussed the videos with Turkish officials, including senior ministers.

“Anything of that nature that misrepresents this country – given that this was a non-New Zealand citizen – imperils the future and safety of the New Zealand people and our people abroad and it’s totally unfair,” he said.

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