• World
  • Turkey

The ‘Badass Chief of Staff’ of Turkey’s Opposition Faces Years in Jail After Challenging Erdogan’s Power. She’s Not Backing Down

17 minute read

Snow brings back memories for Dr. Canan Kaftancioglu. Of recess snowball fights in the Black Sea village where she grew up, of warming her hands at her elementary school’s stove before class — and of discovering a poem by Turkish writer Ataol Behramoglu, a favorite of a beloved uncle who would bring left-wing newspapers to her childhood home and discuss the articles inside. “It is about how the snow brings equality between people,” Kaftancioglu says of the poem. “In the snow, we build a new, more equal world.”

The Turkish politician is speaking through an interpreter at her friends’ apartment in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, seated in an armchair with a beige and brown-spotted dog curled up beside her. In a matter of days or weeks but likely not months, Kaftancioglu expects she will be taken to jail. For now, she’d rather focus on her work: the poverty rate is increasing, and people in her city are suffering.

Kaftancioglu represents something unfamiliar and fresh in Turkish politics; a secular woman of the left, unafraid to confront the old guard of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), or to side with the marginalized in her country. As the party chair of the province in which Istanbul sits, she played a central role in engineering President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s biggest electoral defeat in years. Now, the 49-year-old is in the president’s crosshairs.

That political upset saw her center-left party’s candidate Ekrem Imamoglu elected mayor of Istanbul in June 2019. It was the first time since Erdogan won the city’s mayorship in 1994 that a candidate from any party but his, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), had taken control of Turkey’s cultural and economic capital. So reluctant was the government to relinquish its grip, that Kaftancioglu’s campaign team had to win the city twice, after Erdogan demanded the initial victory be annulled alleging campaign irregularities.

Months later, Istanbul’s prosecutor sentenced Kaftancioglu to almost ten years in prison for spreading “terrorist propaganda” and “insulting the Republic and President”—charges based largely on eight-year-old tweets. Experts call the prosecution yet more evidence that Turkey’s judiciary has become Erdogan’s personal instrument of power.

Thousands gathered to celebrate after the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, emerged as winner of the repeat mayoral election in Istanbul on June 23, 2019.STR/AFP/Getty Images

Since a 2016 attempted coup threatened to remove him from power, thousands of Turkish academics, military members, and journalists have been prosecuted under broad anti-terrorism laws. Some analysts peg Turkey’s tipping point from a flawed democracy to a “hybrid regime” or “competitive autocracy” the same year, when popular pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) co-leader Selahattin Dermirtas was arrested not long after pledging to prevent Erdogan from transforming Turkey’s parliamentary system into the presidential one it became in 2018. But the imprisonment of a prominent figure from Erdogan’s main opposition party would represent a new escalation, experts say. “Kaftancioglu ran a campaign that they lost to twice, and this is revenge,” says Nate Schenkkan, director of research strategy and Turkey expert at Freedom House. “It’s all part of this longer arc of competition and reprisal: if we can’t win in the ballot box, these are the tools we’re going to use.”

Locking up political opponents is a key component of the strongman’s playbook. Like Alexei Navalny in Russia and Maria Kolesnikova in Belarus, Kaftancioglu is key to the Turkish opposition’s appeal to younger Millennials and Generation Z, who are less bound than their parents to Turkey’s traditional identity politics. There is no direct equivalent to her in U.S. politics, but the Democratic campaigner Stacy Abrams in Georgia might come close. Kaftancioglu is a deft strategist, says Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey program director at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, “analogous to a really badass chief of staff; a strong woman who is making a lot of key decisions.”

The crackdown comes at a moment of acute vulnerability for Erdogan, whose sagging popularity ahead of the 2023 elections means the AKP faces the prospect of defeat for the first time it swept to power in 2002. The president is facing criticism over his handling of the pandemic, and of adventurism that has committed Turkish troops on several fronts while the economy is in shambles. In Dec. 2020, the U.S. sanctioned Turkey over its purchase of a multi-billion dollar Russian missile defense system; further financial strain could come should the European Union decide to impose sanctions over Turkey’s oil and gas drilling in contested waters in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, President Biden has signaled he will take a far tougher line with Turkey over human rights. In the month that Biden has occupied the Oval Office, his administration has already several times criticized Turkey, including the State Department’s rebuke of Interior Minister Soleyman Soylu’s “unfounded and irresponsible” allegations that the U.S. was behind the 2016 coup attempt.

Unlike former President Trump, or even former President Obama, the Biden Administration “seems to very much see Erdogan’s domestic repression and growing foreign policy divergences with NATO and the U.S. as interlinked,” says Tahiroglu. “Even if they don’t make a statement, they are going to be keeping a very close eye on what happens to Kaftancioglu.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of election officials in front of portraits of himself and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, in Ankara on Jan. 29, 2019.Adem Altan— AFP/Getty Images

‘Ataturk’s ideal Turkish woman’

The CHP’s provincial headquarters is nestled between stores selling light fittings, car alarms and kitchen appliances in a mercantile quarter of Istanbul. Only blocks away is Kasimpasa, the neighborhood where Erdogan was born. The lowest value square on the Istanbul version of Monopoly, it was here that Erdogan sold lemonade and simit bread as a teenager and developed the wide-legged gait known locally as the “Kasimpasa strut.”

Today, Erdogan inhabits the 1,100 room “White Palace” he had custom-built on Ankara’s forested hilltops. Another summer palace being constructed in the seaside city of Marmaris is reported to cost an additional $85 million. Kasimpasa, meanwhile, is practically middle class: an exemplar of the stellar economic growth his religious-nationalist AKP delivered over almost two decades in power.

Or had delivered until recently. At the end of 2018, Turkey slid into recession for the first time in a decade. The situation was compounded by a currency crisis: at the beginning of that year, a dollar brought 3.77 Turkish Lira, by Nov. 2020, it bought 8.6. That month, Turkey’s finance minister Berat Albayrak—Erdogan’s son-in-law—resigned, and Erdogan sacked the head of the central bank. Although the Lira has rallied slightly since the start of 2021, food prices increased in January at almost triple the rate of inflation according to research by the Istanbul Economics Research. “The Turkish household has been suffering since August 2018,” says the think tank’s general manager Can Selcuki. In a recent survey, 75% of respondents said that the rise in the cost of basic goods was significantly impacting their budgets, and a further 64% said they were now struggling to make ends meet, Sulcuki says: “the Turkish household is struggling like it hasn’t been for the past 20 years, probably.”

Kaftancioglu says the cronyism and corruption of Erdogan’s AKP and the patrimonial running of the country have contributed to the economic strain Istanbul’s citizens are now facing. “Resources and taxes aren’t spent on society, the government spends huge sums for their own friends,” she says.

Like Erdogan, Kaftancioglu comes from modest means. In the Black Sea village in Turkey’s Ordu province where she grew up in the 1980s, meat was a luxury reserved for religious holidays and special occasions and imported items like bananas were still scarcer. Had it not been for state institutions established by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, her primary school teacher father and housewife mother would not have been able to send her to university.

Today, Ataturk’s portrait hangs on the wall behind her desk, as does the flag of the party he founded, the CHP. Its six-arrowed logo represents the tenets of “Kemalism”, the uncompromising doctrine of modernization that led to the creation of the secular Republic of Turkey in 1923 out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire, with a foreign policy Ataturk summed up as “peace at home, peace in the world.” Erdogan’s muscular brand of religious nationalism, or “neo–Ottomanism”, offers a different vision for Turkey. It is one critics say aims to re-establish the grandeur of Empire, with the president as its modern-day sultan.

Kaftancioglu steers her own path. As a young woman, she had a passion for law. Her parents hoped she would become a doctor. Forensic medicine was the compromise that allowed her to pursue a burgeoning interest in social justice informed by conversations with her late uncle. At medical school, Kaftancioglu protested against the government’s ban on headscarves in Turkey’s universities. She wrote her resident’s thesis on political disappearances and torture cases archived by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. She married a doctor she met while working at a public hospital, whose journalist father had been murdered by suspected ultra-nationalists.

She also rode a motorcycle, in what she says was “perhaps a subconscious reaction to the cliché that women shouldn’t.” Kaftancioglu gave up her last bike, a Suzuki GSX R600, when she entered politics. But that hasn’t stopped supporters calling her Trinity, a reference to the leather-clad hacker from the 1999 film The Matrix to whom she bears a slight physical resemblance. The nickname also alludes to her perceived role as a feminist defender of the marginalized.

Her critics use less admiring epithets. AKP lawmakers have fixated on Kaftancioglu’s retweet of a photograph showing her husband eating pork—a taboo even among many secular Turks. Other criticisms are more overtly gender-based: a widely circulated candid shows Kaftancioglu slumped in her seat at a bus station waiting room smoking a cigarette in a t-shirt that exposes her midriff. Young people on Twitter found the pose relatable. But conservatives derided her for it. “Their idea of what a woman should be and how she should act contradicts with my own ideas,” Kaftancioglu says. “challenging the male hegemony, being a free woman working for CHP: that makes me a target.”

Dr. Canan Kaftancioglu, center, leaves the Caglayan courthouse in Istanbul on Sept. 6, 2019.Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

Her openly secular lifestyle has led her AKP opponents to attempt to cast her as “Ataturk’s ideal Turkish woman; the perfect representative of the elitist secularists’ party,” the Washington-based Middle East Institute’s Turkey program leader Gonul Tol tells TIME.

In reality, she is hardly a party acolyte. It was the CHP that installed the headscarf ban Kafancioglu protested against as a student. She has spoken in the past about the Armenian genocide of 1915, which Turkey officially denies took place and is a third rail in Turkish politics and culture. And in a 2018 interview with CNN Turk, Kaftanioglu described herself as a “companion” but not a “soldier” of Ataturk—recasting a traditional party slogan in an apparent rejection of its militant implications. “In a country ruled by one man, with one thought and one voice for 18 years,” she tells TIME, differences of opinion within the CHP can be perceived by the public as disunity. But those differences of opinion are “actually a reflection of the richness of our party.”

Enraging Turkey’s new sultan

Besides the portraits of Ataturk and the CHP chairman, Kaftanioglu’s office walls hold pictures of civil resistance movements across Turkey. One shows a young woman in a red dress with a white tote bag being pepper-sprayed by a gas-masked police officer during the 2013 anti-government protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Another shows a procession of middle-aged women—some in headscarves, others uncovered—raising their fists at a funeral for a victim of the Oct. 10 2015 bombings that killed 109 civilians shortly before a Labor, Peace, and Democracy rally was scheduled to take place in Turkey’s capital Ankara.

Experts say Kaftancioglu’s willingness to confront her party’s old guard is what makes her such an effective strategist. She put forward Imamoglu, a mild-mannered centrist, to contest Istanbul’s mayoral race. His down-to-earth approach and embrace of his religious upbringing, combined with her grassroots outreach proved a winning combination for the CHP—a party that for years had struggled with a reputation for being aloof from the concerns of the urban poor, and hostile to ethnic minorities and religiously minded Turks.

Focused on corruption and patronage rather than divisive identity politics, Kaftancioglu’s campaign engaged a cross-section of Istanbullus frustrated with the state of the economy, including Kurdish voters who had long mistrusted the CHP. The coalition was wide-ranging; in the end, Imamoglu counted on support from the left-wing pro-Kurdish HDP, the right-wing nationalist Good Party, and even the Islamist Felicity Party.

Kaftancioglu made sure the victory stuck. When city residents woke up after the March 31 municipal election to banners in their squares proclaiming an AKP victory, her campaign volunteers were able to prevent that narrative from taking hold. They had been present at ballot counting stations, used their smartphones to take pictures of vote tallies, and provided live updates on social media after the AKP’s victory seemed in doubt and government-controlled state outlets stopped reporting the count. Turkey’s election board eventually annulled the result, citing campaign irregularities, but the public wasn’t swayed. Imamoglu won a June re-run by a landslide.

By then the persecution of Kaftancioglu was gathering pace. She already was the subject of a terrorism investigation connected to social media posts from years prior. In May 2019, the city’s chief prosecutor filed charges carrying a maximum jail term of 17 years. And in Sept. 2019—after Imamoglu’s second, decisive victory—an Istanbul court sentenced Kaftancioglu to 9 years and 8 months in jail, pending an appeal.

The term length was warranted, the court, said in part because she had publicly read a poem by leftist Turkish writer Nazim Hikmet outside the courthouse, demonstrating a lack of remorse. Turkey’s Byzantine legal system makes it difficult to know exactly when she will be jailed, but with a judge expected to rule within weeks on a June 2020 petition of appeal, her aides say they expect her imprisonment could be imminent.

Erdogan’s own imprisonment, which ended his tenure as Istanbul mayor, also hinged on a poem. “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers,” he recited in the city of Siirt in 1997, as an expression of his pro-Islamist values. It earned him a ten-month jail term for “inciting religious hatred,” four of which he served. The AKP swept to election victory soon after. Erdogan’s treatment at the hands of Turkey’s secular courts directly contributed to his rise, says Soner Cagaptay, author of Erdogan’s Empire, “People saw him as the guy from the other side of the tracks who the system had unjustly punished.”

Now Erdogan is the system, “the first Sultan of Turkey’s second Republic,” Cagaptay says. And Kaftancioglu is being persecuted by it. Few analysts expect Kaftancioglu to mount a challenge against Erodgan’s presidency herself. But If imprisonment does for her what it did for Erdogan, she might emerge with new appeal, a symbol that divided and fractured opposition can rally around.

‘I will come out stronger.’

She approaches imprisonment committed to her cause. Kaftancioglu celebrated her 49th birthday on Feb. 3 outside Istanbul’s Caglayan Courthouse. It was 4:30 am and inside, the last of the protesters detained the evening before were being processed and released. Like her volunteers had done the night the ballots in Istanbul’s mayoral race were counted, Kaftancioglu was broadcasting the court’s decisions live on social media, ensuring justice was done.

Turkish police officers detain people over protests in Istanbul against President Tayyip Erdogan's appointment of a new rector at Bogazici University on Feb. 4, 2021.Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

The protests had started almost a month before, when Erdogan assigned a new rector to Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici University by presidential decree. In a year that has seen scores of HDP mayors arrested or otherwise stripped of their office, the reinstatement to Turkey’s parliament of another CHP lawmaker imprisoned for several years after a retrial, hundreds of people arrested over what the government deemed “provocative” social media posts on Turkey’s coronavirus outbreak, and at least 13 journalists taken into custody according to Reporters Without Borders, many saw the installation of Melih Bulu—a political ally of Erdogan—at one of the country’s most highly regarded academic institutions as a final straw.

Almost every day since his appointment, academics have gathered on the campus at 6 pm, turning their backs towards the rectory in silent protest—in a picture published by Cumhuriyet newspaper on Feb 16, they stand in socially distanced rows on the university’s snow-covered quadrangle, solemn beneath the pine trees. Off-campus, protests grew into the largest anti-government demonstrations since the infamous 2013 occupation of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, during which period 11 people were killed and thousands injured in clashes with police.

“Bogazici is the last place that students can freely express their feelings. They can be together in peace from different parts of society,” said 25-year-old senior Bogazici University student Servan Bozkurt at a Feb. 2 protest in Istanbul’s secular liberal Kadikoy neighborhood. Minutes earlier, riot police had shot several of his friends with plastic bullets and Bozkurt had seen at least 15 people arrested, he said. Although he expected to graduate from his international trade program in a couple of weeks, he said he had decided to participate in the protests “because this represents something much bigger than the university.”

Erdogan greeted the protests with characteristic hostility. “Are you students, or are you terrorists?” he mused, during a week in which police had arrested hundreds of demonstrators across Istanbul and Ankara. He cast the protests in terms of a culture war, describing protesters—some of whom had displayed artwork that mixed pride flags with an image of the Kaaba—as “LGBT youth” working against Turkey’s “national and spiritual values.” His interior minister meanwhile, called demonstrators “LGBT perverts” in rhetoric condemned by the U.S. State Department, which also said authorities should release detained protesters.

Kaftancioglu was among their first defenders. She showed up at the campus on Jan. 4 and then tweeted in support of scores of students arrested at the university. Erdogan and Interior Minister Soylu responded the next day, the latter tagging her as a member of the banned Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front, a militant group listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S.

Undeterred, Kaftancioglu went to the courthouse on the night of Feb. 3 to monitor the cases of more than a hundred more students detained that day, and document any violations of their rights. She is now suing Erdogan and Soylu each for 1 million Lira ($134,000) over their branding her a terrorist.

If she goes to jail in the next few weeks, she tells TIME at her friend’s house in Beyoglu, she’ll use the time to learn a new language, or perhaps study for an additional university degree. Either way, “I will come out stronger,” she says, stubbing her cigarette in a glass ashtray. In the meantime, she has faith in the marginalized, and especially in Turkish women, to continue the struggle for equality: “I know that the strongest antidote to a single man is the organization of many women.” Outside the window behind her, the mosque’s afternoon call to prayer ends. Then, the silent progress of snow.

With reporting by Engin Bas / Istanbul

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Joseph Hincks / Istanbul at joseph.hincks@time.com