Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has accused Russia of interfering in the presidential election race three days before voters head to the ballot boxes. Mr Kilicdaroglu, who currently holds a five percent lead over Mr Edrogan in the polls, claimed Russia was “behind montages, conspiracies, deep fake content and recordings” in a bid to disturb the democratic election process.
It comes as one of the four candidates, Muharrem Ince, pulled out of the race after his face was superimposed on an Israeli porn video and shared widely on social media.
Mr Kilicdaroglu, the head of a six-party coalition in opposition to Mr Erdogan, has emerged as the frontrunner in the presidential race.
His election could dampen Turkish relations with Russia, which have thrived under Mr Erdogan despite Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Turkey’s NATO membership, as he is seen as the more pro-Western candidate.
Mr Erdogan, in contrast, has relied increasingly on Russian investment, as well as a personal relationship with Putin, to prop up Turkey’s struggling economy.
In a statement on Twitter on Thursday evening, Mr Kilicdaroglu warned Russia to “keep your hands off the Turkish state”, adding that their “friendship would continue” only if there was no further interference.
He wrote: “Dear Russian Friends, You are behind the montages, conspiracies, Deep Fake content and recordings that were exposed yesterday in this country.
“If you want to continue our friendship after May 15, keep your hands off the Turkish state. We still stand for cooperation and friendship.”
On Thursday, Muharrem Ince, one of four presidential runners, cited a concerted effort to slander and assassinate his character using deep fakes as his reasons for withdrawing his candidacy.
From the Turkish capital of Ankara, he said: “I’m withdrawing my candidacy. Fake invoices, fake videos, pictures… They took a video from an Israeli porn website and added my face there.
“Unfortunately some people in Turkey shared those for the sake of being in so-called opposition. What I have seen in these last 45 days, I have not seen in 45 years.”
He did not explicitly blame Russian agents for the deep fakes but accused Turkish authorities, who are under Mr Erdogan’s purview, of failing to protect his reputation.
The polling organisation Metropoll predicted late last month that Ince voters would predominantly give their votes to Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and Mr Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), with some also going to the far-right Nationalist Movement party and the nationalist Iyi (Good party) in the parliamentary race.
It is the latest example of deep fakes being used in the presidential race in Turkey. At a pre-election rally last weekend, Mr Erdogan played an alleged deepfake that claimed to show banned Kurdish militants declaring their support for Mr Kilicdaroglu.
Mr Erdogan has used public resentment towards the Kurdish population to attract voters ahead of the election on Sunday. His blocking of Sweden’s application to NATO on the grounds that they are housing members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is viewed as part of this strategy.
While the pro-Western stance of Mr Kilicdaroglu must not be overstated, he has said he will seek to rebuild relations with Europe and the United States, relations that he claims were damaged by the current President.
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And Mr Erdogan’s views towards Russia and the West are clear. On April 27, the Turkish President welcomed Vladimir Putin via videolink to celebrate the loading of fuel into Turkey’s first civilian nuclear power plant, built by state-controlled Russian nuclear corporation Rosatom.
The £16 billion ($20 billion) Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant perhaps best symbolises the flourishing bilateral energy and economic ties the two leaders have forged during their two decades in power as president or prime minister of their respective countries.
On the call, Putin hailed the building of the nuclear plant, with Russia’s help, as “another convincing example of how much you, President Erdogan, are doing for your country, for the growth of its economy, for all Turkish citizens.”
Grappling with 44 percent inflation, Turkey under Mr Erdogan has ignored Western calls to sanction Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and has continued to profit from Russian tourism, including housing oligarchs affiliated with Putin, such as former Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, who reportedly resides in a mansion on the Bosphorus, a luxurious waterway in the northwest.
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