A Challenger For Erdogan

The main opposition parties have chosen Edmeleddin Ihsanoglu to run against Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Aug. 10 presidential election. A summer campaign is about to heat up.

Erdogan and Ihsanoglu are ready to go head-to-head.
Erdogan and Ihsanoglu are ready to go head-to-head.
Suat Kiniklioglu

ISTANBUL — It had been Turkey's hot topic for the past six weeks: who would run as opposition candidate in the August presidential election.

Everyone had a very specific idea about what qualities any potential candidate should have. To face off against the presumed frontrunner, current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the candidate should be bilingual. He should have government experience. He should understand foreign affairs. He should be tall. He should have blue eyes. He should be from our party. No, he should not be from our party. He should be an academic. He should be a she.

Well, this week, the two major opposition parties, the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) agreed on a consensus candidate who meets many — but not all! — of those criteria: the respected academic and diplomat Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who stepped down in December as Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

A newcomer to Turkish electoral politics, let's consider what awaits Ihsanoglu in the coming two months. He should be prepared, physically, to speak at no fewer than two or three rallies each day (in the summer heat) between now and the first round of voting on Aug. 10. Second, he should be able to set up a team quickly that can prepare a campaign strategy that includes both running logistics and laying out a governing platform.

Across the spectrum

Moreover, Ihsanoglu, 70, will have to attract voters from different political parties and various points of the religious-secular spectrum. The former head of OIC has of course been to a mosque or two in his lifetime, but he will also have to reach out to the social democrat/leftist voters, as well as allaying any suspicions of nationalist voters.

For the first time, the people will directly elect the president, instead of the parliament. Though most of his career has been far from the rough-and-tumble arena of politics, Ihsanoglu will need be able to lead rallies in at least in 60 cities and have the political maneuverability and energy to enter debates with Erdogan, who will most certainly be the ruling AKP party's candidate.

The campaign season will also include the holy month of Ramadan. There is a very slim chance that somebody will win in round one.

Votes from the Kurdish BDP party votes will be very important, assuming the race continues to the second round. Of course, there are also Turkish citizens living abroad who will be able to vote in a Turkish presidential election for the first time.

In short, the period from Aug. 11 — when the results of the first round are announced — until Aug. 23 will be the most exciting period for Turkish politics in memory.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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