Sport and politics can't be separated. That statement itself is nothing new, and Turkey is no exception.
But something was different over the weekend: After the severe earthquake disaster in the southeast of the country, the public anger spread around the stadiums of the big traditional football clubs and was aimed directly at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government for the first time.
In unprecedented scenes, fans of Istanbul clubs Fenerbahce and Besiktas used league matches to emphatically demand the resignation of the government. Lead by the opposition, Erdogan and his ministers have come under heavy criticism over the earthquake disaster.
Many are angered particularly by the fact that those in charge approved or turned a blind eye to the construction of earthquake-unsafe buildings directly on a fault line. Another massive point of criticism is the delayed arrival of search-and-rescue teams to the entire affected area.
The earthquake on February 6, 2023 has caused immense damage and devastation to a country that has already been struggling with an economic crisis for months. The reactions against the government have now further intensified ahead of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.
Football stadiums as the last bastion
The Turkish government has restricted press freedom and freedom of expression in the country for years, and the weekend scenes could lead to a further attempt to silence critical voices in the stands. After the Besiktas match against Antalyaspor, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is an ally to Erdogan's ruling AKP, described the protests as irresponsible and disrespectful to the earthquake victims.
"The Nationalist Movement Party strongly condemns the use of sports in dirty politics during such sensitive and painful days for our country," Devlet Bahceli wrote on Twitter, calling on clubs to play behind closed doors in order to prevent further protests. In an initial concrete step, Turkish authorities have banned Fenerbahce fans from attending their team's match at Kayserispor on Saturday.
Bahceli added that all fans chanting against the government should be "investigated and punished." In light of the events, Bahceli, a Besiktas supporter, canceled his membership of the club.
Shortly after the two earthquakes, the government put pressure social media platforms once again in an attempt to silence critical voices as quickly as possible. But thousands of fans chanting slogans against the government at football matches is a new dimension of collective protest. Experts believe that many people have overcome the fear threshold towards the repressive government in Ankara.
The two games over the weekend also led to some popular sports commentators coming out in support of the fans, arguing that the voices in the stands should not be silenced. The situation has caused great excitement in the camp of AKP opponents.
Reactions from society can 'tear down walls'
Sports journalist Bagis Erten told DW that he sees the calls for the government's resignation as a "social reaction" rather than a "political one."
"That's why fears can't be an obstacle. Social reactions have the ability to tear down walls," he said. He also points out that governments all across the world have a problem when it comes to fans in football stadiums.
"When you suppress the social opposition, like anything you trample on, it seeps through somewhere and then spreads to other places. Terraces in the stadium have always had their fair share of that spread, whether it's in Europe, Latin America or the Middle East," said Erten.
Will the protests be taken to the streets?
Sports journalist Kenan Basaran told DW that protests in the stadium "are a refuge for the suppressed right to protest. On the streets, these protests are forbidden."
Basaren said stadiums are "more anonymous and crowded" and give protesters partial protection from the intervention of security forces.
"In an ideal democracy, an individual can show their democratic reaction in the streets. Why can't someone, who can shout in the stands shout in the streets? That's the real question."
Besiktas' largest and best-known fan group is named "Carsi." The collective is currently on trial in connection with the "Gezi"-events, the street protests against the Erdogan regime that took place in many cities across the country in 2013.
Close ties between clubs and government
Groups like "Carsi" however remain in the minority across the Turkish Super Lig. There is little solidarity with the demonstrators, as many clubs are closely connected to the AKP. Those clubs even went as far as issuing statements criticizing the weekend's stadium protests.
Erdogan's hometown club Rize used particularly harsh language in its statement, calling the participants of the stand protests "scoundrels" and "sewer rats." Another club that disapproved of the fans' behavior is Corendon Alanyaspor. The chairman of the board is the older brother of Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Even before the AKP, there was a major problem in Turkey regarding the corrupt relationship between sport and politics. But it is fair to say, that this corruption has reached its peak during the AKP era.
Sports journalist Inan Ozdemir says that governments in Turkey like to inject politics into sports: "It was easy for them, as long as they could control the messages in the stadiums." For many years, the AKP was used to not hearing "a critical voice against itself."
'A serious warning'
It is hard to judge, whether the wave of protests in the stands will continue. According to Bagis Erten, however, these reactions are a "serious warning" to the government.
"After the earthquake, they are facing a much bigger social reaction than they thought. In other words, it's a reaction they can't suppress, organize or intimidate."
This article was originally published in Turkish.