Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded Tuesday that New Zealand reinstate the death penalty and apply it in the case of the gunman who killed 50 people in two Christchurch mosques. The demand is the latest escalation in rhetoric by Erdogan in the face of Wellington’s call for moderation.
“You heinously killed 50 of our siblings. You will pay for this. If New Zealand doesn’t make you,” Erdogan told supporters during a campaign rally ahead of local elections. Erdogan also said, “The necessary action needs to be taken” by the New Zealand parliament.
Erdogan has made the mosque killings a central part of his local election campaign. A grainy video of the gunman attacking the mosques has been repeatedly played at his campaign meetings.
Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins University, says the broadcast of the video plays into Erdogan’s hands.
“Showing footage of the Christchurch massacre, recorded by the shooter himself, is intended to incite fears of Islamophobia and bolster Erdogan’s image as protector of Muslims in a world hostile to them,” she said. Other analysts say many Erdogan supporters are drawn from nationalist and Islamist backgrounds.
The New Zealand government has called on Ankara to stop airing the video and to turn down the rhetoric, which Wellington warns could provoke attacks on New Zealand citizens. Wellington also points out that the suspect is an Australian citizen.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said Tuesday he is traveling to Turkey “to set the record straight.”
Erdogan again used the video of the mosque attacks, however, at two televised campaign rallies attended by thousands of people.
The Turkish president is seeking to build support for his religious conservative AKP ahead of local elections March 31. Analysts suggest that with the economy in recession, soaring unemployment, and double-digit inflation, Erdogan wants to change the political narrative.
“This anti-Western rhetoric pays off every time — it’s a fundamental part of Turkish politics,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar. “He is using it this time in the forthcoming elections to galvanize his supporters who are fundamentally anti-Western.”
Hintz offered a similar assessment.
“Erdogan’s close ties with media groups and influence over an estimated 90 percent of news production allowed him to shield many Turks from the country’s debt and lira crises, but long lines and rotting vegetables make Turkey’s economic turmoil starkly apparent,” Hintz said. “Absent a narrative of growth, Erdogan resorts to stoking anti-Western sentiments in the hopes that nationalist emotions rather than pocketbook concerns will prevail at the polls.”
During a televised meeting Monday, Erdogan accused the Western media and European leaders of an “insidious” silence over the mosque attacks, accusing the European Union of being an “enemy of Islam.”
“Erdogan still plays the foreign conspiracy angle at his election rallies,” said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. Ankara has for decades been seeking to join the EU, blaming the delay on prejudice on the grounds that Turkey is a Muslim country. Brussels maintains the delay is due to Ankara’s failure to comply with membership requirements, in particular over human rights.
‘Reviving the battlefield memories’
Erdogan’s escalating rhetoric threatens to cast a shadow over commemorations marking the Gallipoli Campaign during World War I. The ill-fated British-led invasion of the then-Ottoman empire sought to create a bridgehead opening the way to capture Istanbul. The campaign ended in defeat with large numbers of Australians and New Zealanders, along with Turks, killed. The March remembrance ceremonies at the battle sites traditionally draw large numbers of Australians and New Zealanders.
At a Gallipoli memorial Monday, Erdogan highlighted a manifesto posted online by the gunman, in which the suspect called for Turks to be driven out of Istanbul.
“You will not turn Istanbul into Constantinople,” Erdogan said, referring to the city’s name under its Christian Byzantine rulers before Muslim Ottomans conquered it in 1453.
“Your grandparents came here … and they returned in caskets,” he said. “Have no doubt we will send you back like your grandfathers,” he added.
The Gallipoli commemorations are traditionally a symbol of goodwill among Turkey, New Zealand and Australia, with the World War I campaign widely seen as a defining moment in the formation of all three countries.
“Erdogan has managed to overturn this peaceful rhetoric of never again [a conflict],” Aktar said. “He is reviving the battlefield memories, for more antagonism against the Western world.”
Social media pushback
On social media, there is a strong pushback against the Turkish president’s rhetoric. Many Turks posted a well-known quote of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, speaking after the Gallipoli Campaign.
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives. … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies [a reference to enemy soldiers] and the Mehmets [Turkish soldiers] to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.”
Ataturk was at the forefront of leading the defense of Gallipoli, a success that propelled him to found the secular republic.
Analysts say Erdogan likely is calculating that the current controversy can only serve as a useful distraction from the country’s economic woes.
“Whatever the potential electoral benefit, we are seeing across the globe that the societal cost of drawing on fear and hatred continues to take its polarizing toll long after polls close,” Hintz said.
The reopening of the traditional deep political divide between Erdogan supporters and critics usually consolidates the president’s voting base, which opinion polls indicate is starting to weaken over dissatisfaction from rising prices and unemployment.
VOA’s Ezel Sahinkaya contributed to this report.