ANKARA — Turkish authorities on Monday detained several people after a prominent opposition figure was pelted with stones over the weekend and was also later accused of provoking the attack, with tensions rising in the country and only days to go until critical elections.
Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said that several people were detained after the main opposition’s Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and his supporters were hit with stones during a rally in a nationalist and conservative stronghold on Sunday. Turkey’s private Demiroren News Agency (DHA) reported that more than 15 people were wounded in the attack. Citing police sources, DHA said 15 people were detained after the attack.
The attack on Imamoglu further elevated tensions in the country, which is in its final stretch ahead of the crucial May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections to determine whether Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will extend his authoritarian rule for another term.
Imamoglu was forced to cut his rally short when stones were thrown at him as he rallied his supporters in Turkey’s eastern province of Erzurum. Footage from the scene showed Imamoglu’s aides trying to shield the mayor from stones with umbrellas as police largely stood by.
Speaking on top of his campaign bus while under attack, Imamoglu lambasted local authorities for failing to stop the assailants. “Police officers: There are citizens who have been injured here, and you are watching,” he said.
He later returned to the inside of his bus, where a video showed the vehicle’s windows shattered by the stones.
Blaming the victim
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu blamed the attack on Imamoglu on Sunday, arguing that he provoked the disturbance by holding the rally without an official permit. “Nationalist vein in that city is at the highest level,” he told pro-government Ulke TV.
Tens of thousands of people gathered in a solidarity demonstration at an Istanbul airport on Sunday night to meet Imamoglu upon his return. The attack has drawn widespread condemnation from various segments of society, including celebrities who usually distance themselves from day-to-day politics.
Yet despite widespread outrage, Erdogan — speaking at an election rally on Monday — echoed a sentiment similar to his interior minister's. Without mentioning Imamoglu’s name, Erdogan accused the mayor of provocation and attempting to mar the election campaign.
His officials, meanwhile, struck a more moderate tone. Erdogan’s spokesperson and chief foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin on Monday described the attack as “unacceptable” and “saddening.”
Bozdag expressed his regret at the incident. “It is our desire for a democratic competition to continue,” he said. The Turkish Red Crescent also announced on Monday that two of its employees residing in Turkey's central Anatolian province of Konya were suspended over their provocative social media posts against Imamoglu’s rally in the city on Monday.
Doctored campaign ad
The attack coincided with Erdogan’s mega-rally in Istanbul on Sunday, during which he played a campaign ad that was doctored to look as if outlawed Kurdish leaders were singing the campaign song of the main opposition-led six party bloc. As the country enters the final stretch ahead of the crucial race, Erdogan ramped up his belligerent rhetoric against the opposition by accusing the main opposition-led six-party alliance of collaborating with outlawed groups and mysterious international power groups.
CHP leader and top Erdogan rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his officials, meanwhile, have been urging their supporters to remain calm in the face of provocations. Speaking on Sunday after the attack, Kilicdaroglu said, “They want to pit us against each other. We will avoid tensions.”
Imamoglu, for his part, rallied a vast crowd at his rally in Konya, a conservative stronghold. Warning his supporters against provocations, he told them, “There will be those who will try to provoke you. … Let them throw stones. We will counter with roses.”