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Whispers become tweets as Turkish artists speak out against AKP

Turkish artists, authors and entertainers have begun openly expressing their political views after years of silence, angered by the Istanbul election turmoil and encouraged by the winning opposition candidate to speak up.

“Because they are artists, apparently they cannot speak. They will speak. Because they are businesspeople, apparently they cannot speak. They will speak. It is now time to speak up,” Ekrem Imamoglu said May 6, shortly after his mayoral mandate was annulled.

Addressing crowds gathered in Istanbul’s Beylikduzu district, where he was the local mayor for five years, Imamoglu’s powerful response to the Supreme Election Council (YSK) went out not only to Istanbul but to the entire country, prompting long-silent public figures to speak out — and this time without whispering.

To the surprise of many, prominent comedian Sahan Gokbakar posted a video of himself mocking Ali Ihsan Yavuz, the election council member representing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), to mixed reactions. Dozens of other household names who had kept mute for years used Imamoglu’s slogan, “Everything Will Be Fine,” on social media — supporting the candidate who got 13,729 more votes than his opponent on March 31 and helping the topic trend worldwide.

Many were effectively blacklisted by the AKP government and a presidential aide tweeted the names of artists who supported Imamoglu, saying they had been “recorded.” He later removed it.

Popular comedian Cem Yilmaz also voiced support for Imamoglu and was publicly criticized by the AKP’s electoral ally, the leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party.

Singer Sibel Tuzun was also punished for her public support to the main opposition’s candidate. After posting messages of solidarity, her guest appearance on a show produced by the state broadcaster TRT was abruptly canceled. “I was notified that the program was canceled due to my post regarding [Imamoglu],” the singer wrote over social media after the incident. She declined to comment for this story.

Well-known musician Cahit Berkay was also penalized, prevented from accepting an award for movie soundtracks after his series of tweets supporting Imamoglu. Berkay told Al-Monitor that the YSK decision to renew the mayoral elections crossed a line with him and everyone else who has spent years self-censoring.

“To be honest, there were many instances when I inflicted censorship on myself. You can’t help but fear [the AKP government],” the musician said. “We have been through situations that have harmed our trust in the law, and we continue to experience such events.”

Turkey’s top election authority did not explain why only the mayoral race for Istanbul is to be redone in June while the rest of the votes in the district stand.

“However, after the YSK decision, I laid out my views without hesitation,” Berkay said. “The reasoning behind the decision has not been able to convince the public nor made sense legally.”

The artist said he doesn’t care if he is ostracized. “But I am upset. I am upset because of the intolerance for criticism. I am upset because of the polarization I see in the society. I am upset because of the language of anger and hatred that is becoming more and more dominant,” he said.

Adding he is fond of the language Imamoglu chooses to use, Berkay expressed his view that there is nothing as normal as citizens voicing their criticism of government decisions when they are not happy with them regardless of whether they are artists. “I am sure even those who did not support Imamoglu were among those who reacted to the YSK,” Berkay said. “This is not a matter of being brave, but just calling things by their names.”

Still, speaking out against the YSK could mean upsetting the country’s top authority and long-time ruler, who has his own plans for Istanbul, Turkey’s economic powerhouse. Two days before its controversial decision, the YSK was pressured by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is also the AKP's chairman, on live television.

“There is corruption and irregularities here. Their elimination will help clear the YSK’s name,” Erdogan said.

Meanwhile, on May 10, the AKP’s Istanbul candidate, Binali Yildirim, told reporters that he doesn’t think “it would help their careers” for Turkish artists to “cluster around ideologies.”

Atilla Tas, a well-known singer from the '90s, stands as an example to what could happen to public figures if they criticize policies or persons embraced by the AKP. Tas spent 14 months in jail after he took a critical stance against the AKP government and was charged with supporting a terrorist organization. He is on a strict conditional release that requires constant checking in with the authorities.

Fearful of sharing fates such as Tas’s imprisonment or actor Levent Uzumcu’s ban from the stage, many artists remain silent.

Responding to Al-Monitor’s questions, Imamoglu said he has done nothing extraordinary to help them break the fear barrier.

“What did I do? I said what I believe. I live as I believe. I did not say a bad word about anyone, and I only stated what I promise to do. I did not do these things out of a political agenda; this is my life philosophy,” Imamoglu said.

“On the night of May 6, I invited artists, businesspeople and workers to speak up. The artists responded to my call — actually, every part of the public responded to my call. But the ruling government’s spokespeople want to pressure and ostracize them,” he added.

He said, “Turkish democracy has taken a critical blow and from now on, no one can afford to stay silent.” He is running again in the June do-over election, and says he is positive he will win once more with the support of artists, entertainers and businesspeople.

“The people have a strong demand for democracy that has spread to masses and is embraced all around. At this point, no one can succeed by threatening the people,” Imamoglu said.

Even Turkey's top entertainers with the most to lose are speaking out. Pop star Murat Boz is an established juror for “The Voice” and a performer who for years found safety in silence.

On May 18, Imamoglu’s campaign announced that it had received 100,000 Turkish liras ($16,500) in donations from Boz.

For Imamoglu, raising their voices is a duty for the artists at this point, “because what we are facing is not a local elections process, but it is a fight for democracy. This is a fight for justice."

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