(Corrects campaign start date)
By Humeyra Pamuk and Jonny Hogg
ISTANBUL Aug 4 Cheers erupted from the packed
stands when Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan scored his
third goal in a celebrity soccer match to mark the opening of an
His orange jersey bore the number 12, a reminder of
Erdogan's ambition to become the nation's 12th president in
Turkey's first popular vote for its head of state, on Aug. 10.
After dominating Turkish politics for more than a decade,
few doubt Erdogan will beat his main rival Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu,
a diplomat with little profile in domestic politics, or
Selahattin Demirtas, a young Kurdish hopeful.
But Erdogan's opponents say it has been an unfair contest, a
charge the prime minister dismisses. An Erdogan victory would
concentrate more power in the hands of a man who has divided
Turkish society along secular-religious lines and worried
Turkey's western allies.
While his rivals have funded their rallies mainly from
donations, Erdogan has turned his public appearances, some of
them state-financed, into a show of strength, from the
ground-breaking ceremony of Istanbul's third airport in June to
the launch of a high-speed train line in late July.
He criss-crossed the country in the prime ministerial jet to
address supporters, effectively beginning his campaign well
before the July 11 start date set by the election board.
Erdogan's spokesman said the prime minister had ceased using his
official plane and car since tighter restrictions on campaigning
came into effect on July 31.
The election board last month rejected an appeal from the
main opposition party CHP that Erdogan should resign as prime
minister in order to run his presidential campaign. Erdogan
points to the election campaigns run by Barack Obama and Angela
Merkel while they remained in office.
"In my opinion, Erdogan is like an athlete permitted to use
illegal steroids or drugs yet permitted to compete," said Cem
Toker, head of Turkey's opposition Liberal Democrat Party (LDP)
who has written extensively about Turkey's electoral system.
"His time in power, his popularity and his charismatic
appeal give him a fair advantage as an incumbent. However, his
use of state funds and resources without any discretion gives
him a very unfair advantage," said Toker, whose party is backing
Several European delegations that have visited Turkey to
observe the campaign echoed Toker's concern.
"The campaign activities of the prime minister are
large-scale events, often combined with official government
events," said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe, which monitors elections, in an interim report on July
"While other candidates actively campaign, the public
visibility of their campaigns is limited."
An OSCE delegation noted that children's toys and women's
scarves were distributed to the crowd following a speech by
Erdogan in the Black Sea coastal city of Ordu on July 19.
A spokesman for Erdogan's office said none of the premier's
campaigning activities were in breach of the law.
"The bottom line is what the law says and there is nothing
being done against the law here. He has stopped using his usual
vehicle and plane (since July 31)," the spokesman said.
MEDIA AS VOTE WINNER
A delegation from the Council of Europe, which aims to
promote human rights and democracy, told Turkey's broadcasting
regulator RTUK in July that there should be a clear distinction
between Erdogan's speeches as prime minister and those he
delivered as a presidential candidate.
A report compiled at the request of an opposition board
member at the regulator found that state broadcaster TRT devoted
533 minutes to Erdogan between July 4 and July 6. Over the same
period it covered Ihsanoglu for three minutes and 24 seconds and
allocated only 45 seconds to Demirtas, local media reported.
The Council of Europe pointed to possible worrying
consequences from last month's ruling by the election board that
Erdogan need not resign as prime minister while campaigning for
"The delegation ... noted that the prime minister is not
required by the law to resign but also that the use of
administrative resources is forbidden by the law," it said in a
statement following its visit in July.
"This position gives him disproportionate access to
resources and media coverage, in the absence of strict
regulations. The issue of misuse of administrative resources was
raised on several occasions during the meetings."
A spokesman for Erdogan's office said all election
activities were in accordance with the law.
Turkey's electoral laws prohibit speeches and opening
ceremonies for services and projects funded by the state and
municipalities during the campaign period. They also impose some
restrictions on using state vehicles during campaigning.
Erdogan's candidacy was announced some three weeks before
the tighter campaign restrictions came into effect on July 31.
During that period he frequently addressed rallies around the
country, criticising his opponents and trumpeting his successes.
"The taxes we as citizens pay are meant to be spent for the
public's benefit. The politician cannot spend it for his own
benefit," said Sami Selcuk, a law academic and former head of
Court of Appeals. "Using the prime minister's plane for
campaigning obviously is against certain ethical values."
Turkey is in uncharted waters in holding a popular vote for
the presidency for the first time. Heads of state have in the
past been chosen by parliament, meaning such questions of
campaign financing have not arisen in the same way before.
A typical election campaign would cost close to 50 million
lira ($24 million), much of it spent on TV and print advertising
as well as rallies, Gokhan Sen, head of campaign marketing firm
Proje Yapim, told the Hurriyet newspaper recently.
In more than a decade under Erdogan's rule, Turkey has seen
a period of growth and the emergence of a new business elite,
conservative and loyal to Erdogan.
This business network and its access to private funds have
added to Erdogan's head start, creating an imbalance of campaign
funding, his rivals say. Erdogan has declined to comment on the
funding of his campaign.
Demirtas, who is polling a distant third in the presidential
race, said he had collected some 600,000 lira in campaign
donations, while Ihsanoglu said he raised more than 2 million as
of last week. Erdogan's office did not provide a figure for the
prime minister's campaign war chest.
The rival candidates complained about Erdogan's domination
of the Turkish media, which is largely owned by conglomerates
with business ties to the prime minister's AK Party, and which
has fallen in global press freedom rankings in recent years.
Turkey fell to 154th out of 180 countries in the 2014 World
Press Freedom Index, compared with 116th in 2003 when the AK
Party first came to power.
Mainstream Turkish media came under fire from government
critics last summer for broadcasting Erdogan's speeches live and
failing, initially at least, to cover anti-government
demonstrations that were erupting around the country.
"In 12 years, the AK Party has got more and more expert
about how to censor the press, how to spread fear amongst the
media," said Esra Arsan, a journalism professor at Istanbul
Bilgi University. "Practice is making censorship perfect."
(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Nick
Tattersall and Janet McBride)