The government of incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Sweden of interfering in elections in Turkey, adding another grievance to an array of problems between the two countries amid Turkey’s ongoing block of Sweden’s membership in NATO.
The blatant accusations, which included Sweden’s funding of Turkish groups that, according to the Turkish government, caused problems during the voting on May 14, serve the nationalist and xenophobic narrative often promoted by Erdogan government officials during the campaign.
The explicit accusations were made by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu in a televised interview on May 19 during which he claimed that the Swedish Consulate in Istanbul was behind the funding provided to some nongovernmental organizations.
“The Oy ve Ötesi [Vote and Beyond] Association caused anarchy at polling stations. They threatened everybody. They threatened chairpersons and election officials as well as police who were trying to provide security around polling stations. Who funded them?” Soylu asked.
Oy ve Ötesi was set up in Turkey in 2013 to raise awareness among citizens that they should cast their vote in elections and should join forces to ensure the security of the ballot box as well as to boost faith in the electoral process. The group trains activists to help monitor the elections and make sure no wrongdoing occurs.
The group receives funding not only from Sweden but other countries as well as part of civic initiative programs that aim to promote citizen participation in democratic processes and increase turnout during elections.
During the interview Soylu started reading from a report and gave figures about how the Swedish Consulate had funded the group over a period of years. Two pages from the report, visible on the TV screen when the camera zoomed in, was titled “Bilgi Notu” (Information Note), which means Interior Ministry investigators compiled the information on NGOs that received foreign funding and provided the minister with background information so that he could pitch it in his public remarks. It is a clear case of abuse of power by the minister since neither Oy ve Ötesi nor other associations have been officially charged with any wrongdoing so far.
According to Soylu, Oy ve Ötesi received 1.3 million Turkish lira from the Swedish Consulate in 2023, claiming this was just the tip of the iceberg. The NGO also got some funding from Belgium in the amount of 53,000 euros this year. The association also received funds from Germany and the US according to the report shown on TV by the minister.
He also said the Swedish Consulate was involved in the funding of the Election Monitoring Platform (Seçimi İzleme Platformu), an alliance of various NGOS that came together to observe and monitor elections. “The Swedish Consulate gave 500,000 Turkish lira to the platform in 2022,” he added.
Soylu also named the National Council of Swedish Youth Organizations (LSU), a nonprofit and non-political organization, as an entity that tried to influence the elections in Turkey by providing 367,000 Swedish krona to the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (Yurttaşlık Derneği), a human rights organization in Turkey.
During the interview Soylu recalled a conversation with his Hungarian counterpart, Sándor Pintér, who warned him about foreign interference in elections. “My friend Pintér said to me: ‘Mr. Suleyman, we went through elections [in Hungary]. [Billionaire businessman George] Soros interfered; the US interfered in our elections. The US Treasury directly funded some NGOs. I beg you to be vigilant, don’t allow such interference in your elections.’”
Describing such funding for NGOs as a national security problem for Turkey, Soylu said his ministerial portfolio gives him the power to monitor all associations in Turkey. He also named Germany and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation as among those who tried to interfere in the elections and said an investigation into their activities is ongoing.
Turkey’s new accusations against Sweden will complicate the Nordic country’s bid for membership in NATO, which was blocked by Turkey when the Erdogan government refused to send the membership protocol to parliament for ratification. Turkey claims Sweden has failed to live up to the terms of a memorandum signed on June 28, 2022 by Turkey, Sweden and Finland to address the Erdogan government’s demands.
Both Scandinavian countries, which have been long supporters of Turkey’s membership in the European Union, denied the Turkish government accusations and said they had fulfilled the terms of the memorandum. They also made clear that they would not let Turkey impose its demands on the work of their independent judiciary and vowed to not compromise on democratic values.
Turkey reversed its position on Finland, paving the way for its full membership in NATO with parliamentary approval but continued to block Sweden’s bid. Ankara accuses Sweden of harboring what it calls “terrorists,” a claim Sweden rejects, and is demanding the extradition of dozens of people including journalists, activists, critics and dissidents.
When put to the test in the Swedish judiciary, most extradition requests from Turkey were rejected by Sweden’s Supreme Court, which ruled that allegations cited by Turkey did not amount to a crime under Swedish law. In one case of an extradition request for a journalist living in exile in Sweden, the court ruled that professional journalistic activity cannot be deemed to be criminal activity. At the core of the dispute lies fundamental differences between Turkey and Sweden when it comes to the understanding of the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms.
The Erdogan government is believed to have been using Sweden as a punching bag to secure its demands from the US government with the hope of striking a bargain over an ongoing criminal case in US federal court. When the trial starts in the case of Turkish state lender Halkbank, indicted by federal prosecutors in New York for money laundering on behalf of Iran, Turkish President Erdogan may be exposed to criminal charges since he was the key government official who approved the money laundering scheme in the Turkish financial system in exchange for bribes.
Sweden has for decades been providing funding to Turkish nongovernmental organizations to promote the rule of law, rights and freedoms including those of women, vulnerable groups, journalists and human rights defenders.