Archive for June 2013
Two speeches to be exact. On Sunday PM Erdogan spoke for two hours at a rally for his supporters, which may have drawn a crowd as large as 295,000. His rhetoric was nothing new for anyone who has been following protests- reminders that he has the backing of the majority interspersed with accusations against a wide range of conspirators (more on this speech below).
A few hours later he was at the annual Turkish [Language] Olympics, an event sponsored by the Gulen Movement. Here Erdogan sought to rally supporters of the Movement to his cause, referring to peace. brotherhood and unity- Gulen buzzwords. Though supporters of the Gulen Movement are generally conservative Muslims, a demographic that makes up much of the AKP’s base of support, Erdogan knows he can’t take their support for granted. Even before the protests broke out, the head of the Movement, Fethullah Gulen, was making some very poignant sermons warning about the evils of hubris. During the last two weeks, Gulen has also made statements urging dialogue and reconciliation- of course, the precise opposite of what Erdogan is doing. However, Erdogan’s reception at the Turkish Olympics was reported to be extremely positive. It will be interesting to see if Gulen makes any statements in the near future in response to this weekend’s crackdown.
The wild card of the Gulen movement aside, Erdogan’s message is undoubtedly still convincing to a significant portion of Turkish society. In contrast to embattled dictators, Erdogan most likely did not have to bribe or threaten supporters into attending his rally (although free and easy transportation certainly did not hurt). Despite his increasing image problem abroad, Erdogan is still able to hold his base by controlling the reality they experience. While protesters elsewhere were being gassed by the police, the atmosphere at the AKP rally was relaxed. The free transportation ensured participants would not have to encounter any unpleasantness on the trip to the rally. During his speech, Erdogan repeated his main talking points, telling the crowds that they represented the “real” Turkey and that protesters represented marginal groups. The actions of the police were praised and those police in attendance were as relaxed as the crowds around them. Partnered with the Turkish media’s pandering to the State, it is not hard to imagine that many of the PM’s supporters simply cannot fathom what the other “50%” has been seeing and/or personally experiencing for the last two weeks. The AKP’s supporters are spoon fed a version of reality that they want to believe for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the PM is “one of them.” I can’t personally attest to this, but I suspect that if you are a working-class Turk living far from the centers of protest, even on the outskirts of Istanbul, it would be all too easy to believe Erdogan’s propaganda.
I refer to Erdogan’s talking points as “propaganda” because aside from his (former) 50% electoral success, many of the claims Erdogan has made and continues to make in his speeches have been proven false. I will not review the evidence for these claims, as many have already done so, but discuss one in particular which touches on the crux of the issue. Erdogan continues to accuse protesters of drinking, fornicating and walking around with shoes on inside the Dolmabahce mosque, which served as a makeshift shelter and triage point during some of the clashes. As Louis Fishman discusses in his excellent article, Erdogan is acting as if the country is still as deeply divided along religious and secular lines as it was once was. Those Turks who have gathered in Gezi and Taksim over the past weeks have been nothing if not eminently respectful of the pious Muslims in their midst. Erdogan seems either unable or unwilling to believe that it is possible to be simultaneously secular and respectful of religion. This mindset reflects a Turkey that is fading away. Young men and women, which make up the majority of those protesting in Istanbul, exhibit a classically liberal mindset that was largely unknown in previous generations. The fight in Turkey is not about the trees, it is not religious versus secular or even AKP verses supporters of other parties. It is a struggle of classic liberalism against the last vestiges of the democratic but decidedly illiberal Statist Turkey that has existed since its founding.
As I argued previously, Erdogan believes that he can strong-arm the protesters into submission, but he may very well be letting his anger blind him to the damage he is doing to his own position. I still believe that Erdogan may have no end game, aside crushing the protests and then smoothly sailing into the next election cycle. However, the chances of this protest movement being summarily crushed without a fight are increasingly thin. If a true dialogue is not quickly established between the protestors and the government, the situation will inevitably continue to deteriorate.
As I sat and watched a stream of the violent raid on Taksim square Tuesday night, I like many others wondered what the Turkish government could possibly be thinking. What did they have to gain by repeatedly gassing demonstrators on the eve of promised talks with protest representatives? Why would the governor lie to the people he governs? Why would the Prime Minster set the stage for a showdown between two groups of his own citizens? It was irrational. It was insanity.
To an outside observer the Turkish government’s and PM Erdogan’s don’t appear to be acting upon any rational strategy aimed at resolving these protests. What is their end game? Perhaps the essential problem is that there is none. According to an intriguing new approach to game theory, some actors are simply “clueless.” Michael Chwe, who introduced this theory, was inspired by the interaction between two characters of unequal social status in the novel Pride and Prejudice. The higher ranking character believes that she can control the actions of a lower ranking character simply by throwing around the weight of her social standing. However, the lower ranking character refuses to be controlled and is actually able to manipulate the situation to her advantage because of the anger she elicits from her superior. Despite her social advantage, the higher ranking character looses in the end. She is “clueless” about other factors impacting the situation because her anger precludes her from approaching the situation in a rational manner. In other words “calling your enemy an animal might improve your bargaining position or deaden your moral qualms, but at the expense of not being able to think about your enemy strategically.” PM Erdogan is currently “clueless” and is allowing his anger to cloud his judgement, raising the tension in Turkey to a dangerous level. Both Erdogan and his government stand to loose big if they continue to allow their real but tenuous popularity to convince themselves they have the upper hand.
From contributor M. James:
The following, written on 6/8/13, is a follow-up on a prior post, which sought to explain how Turkey’s multi-party system not only fragments the opposition of the ruling party, but also perpetuates Turkey’s illiberal—albeit democratic—society. As part of this chronically fragmented society, the demonstrators of this last week will have a difficult time unifying to effect meaningful political change. Worse, they don’t even know what they are fighting against.
One week ago, at 2:30am, I dropped my duffel on a poorly lit street corner and hailed a cab for Esenboğa International Airport. My shirt was damp and my sinuses were still tingling, but I was oddly at ease. In three hours, I’d be on my way home.
I offered the remaining bills in my pocket—80 lira—and the driver’s face lit up. He asked what time my flight was, urged me to buckle up, and handed me his sweater-vest as a pillow. I sneezed; he laughed. For the next hour on the road, I pretended to sleep. The city was calm, but there was electricity in the air. The deliberate cacophony of pots and pans emanated from one apartment—what would become, over the next few days, a 9:00pm ritual—but the rest of Ankara seemed asleep. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if they—like me—were only hushed, with one eye open.
The evening had been, in some ways, a bust. Intruding on my last, nostalgic night of draft beer and good company was the unwelcome irritation of expired Brazilian tear gas. I consulted Reuters—these were already, allegedly, the biggest protests to rock Turkey in years. And so, through the pungent smell of propellant, the tinny sound of the canisters, and the sight of sprinting protestors through the windows, I wondered aloud at what the next step would be.
The Turk seated across from me shrugged. He wanted garlic bread, but the bar had been too busy cutting lemons for its gas-afflicted patrons to complete the order. We called a few friends and urged them not to join us after all. Once the garlic bread arrived, we could talk. “It’s about time,” seemed to be his outlook on both the bread and the protests. “Won’t get good media coverage, though.” Being that he would start working at a Turkish newspaper in three days, I trusted his judgment. Would anything really change, though? We disagreed on that point.
We did agree, though, that our allergy symptoms were improved by the CS gas. The asthmatic bartender wasn’t as pleased. I blew my nose into a napkin and squeezed lemon into my eyes.
News and social media were already exploding. It was the “summer of discontent” in Turkey—obvious echoes of the Arab Spring. I laughed. It wouldn’t catch on—this was not anything like the Arab Spring. Soon, it would be re-branded as part of #occupy. Closer, but not quite. A few days later, I would begin to see the locally originated #diren, the imperative of “to resist,” or—even better—“to put your foot down.” Much closer.
The question, of course, was whether or not those sprinting figures outside the window agreed on what they were resisting. Some came into the bar and, like many of the staff, sported tree-shaped stickers to demonstrate their solidarity with the Istanbul Gezi Park protesters. But everyone knew that this was not about a park, or greenspace, or even environmentalism. When I asked, the first word I heard was “fascism.” Adequately vague, but adequately powerful. The point was that these people had preexisting grievances with their government, and this was a timely outlet.
We walked outside just as the displeased throngs—marching from park to park since the afternoon—returned to John F. Kennedy Ave., carrying banners and chanting slogans. There were only three hundred, at the most, but within ten minutes, they drew a reckless police TOMA truck and plenty more tear gas. I was pulled into the next bar after being “warned” by the TOMA truck—a quick water cannon across the chest. I ordered another beer. Someone threw a chair at the truck.
Half an hour later, still bemused and sniffling, I decided to head back to the apartment and grab my luggage. Part of me was happy to be leaving these streets, but another part was irritated enough to want to stay. And the more I sneezed—such an unbecoming complement to indignation—the more irritated I got. Did what I was doing tonight really warrant that police response?
I suspect that many who witnessed that night on JFK Ave., or earlier that day in Gezi Park, walked home with similar thoughts. Fascists. What has made matters even worse is PM Erdoğan’s typically inflammatory reaction: A recitation of his perverse idea of what “democracy” means, i.e., nothing beyond election day. Many marginally displeased Turks have certainly been drawn into the ranks of the irritated by these authoritarian responses to what would have otherwise been truly marginal protests. And they have clearly been irritated enough to withstand the systematic irritation of their collective sinuses.
I have posted already, on Atatürk’s Republic, about how Turkish politics is only “democratic” in the strictest sense of the term, lacking anything that could be called liberal. The “liberal” use of tear gas in the last week only underlines this absence.
The problem is systemic, and can be blamed squarely on Turkey’s ill-conceived multi-party system, which all-too-naturally begets tyranny. Ironically, the men and women who have taken to the streets in the last week will try to work within their constitutionally illiberal democratic system, believing wrongly that the person of Erdoğan or the AK Parti is exclusively to blame for the “fascism” that they perceive. Even more ironically, the young secularists who make up a large portion of the disaffected—themselves quite liberal-minded—would be the last to advocate the two-party system that Turkey needs if it is to become a tolerant, rights-based, secular nation. Not only does the multi-party system prima facie seem more liberal, but the constitution that prescribes it came from Atatürk’s hand.
Until they realize what it really is that they should be resisting, the demonstrators will only be confused and irritated. And even if they do realize, and continue to seek change, they will soon understand that full-scale revolution is the only answer—a step that very few would be willing to take. Unfortunately, I do not see any other way out. The only solution is to challenge the very nature of Atatürk’s republic.
As we pulled up to the international departures terminal, I thanked the driver for his sweater-vest, dragged my duffel from the trunk, and handed over the 80 lira, and 75 kuruş—all my bills and change. He thanked me. I smiled and nodded.
Kolay gelsin seemed the best parting words. Literally, “may it come easily.”
The obsessive Turkey watcher that I am, I have spent a good chunk of the last few days following the news and analysis coming out of Turkey. Though we are still in the midst of the storm, there are some conclusions that can be drawn with a fair amount of certainty.
-Popular frustration has been building up in Turkey over the last several years because of lack of public input into projects. There has also been a disturbing trend of police using excessive force against peaceful demonstrations of all kinds. These two elements, among others, created a volatile situation that exploded on Friday.
-After the initial police interventions, the protest became a magnet for all kinds of Turks with grievances against the government. Some of these new protesters are also frustrated with the AKP’s construction programs, others are perennial AKP opponents. One protester interviewed Piotr Zalewski in his great Time article nicely sums it up when he says “We’re against everything.” Any and all pent up frustrations against the current government are on display at the moment.
-The protests started out among the largely secular and young. however, over the last few days I have seen mounting evidence that, even if they are not joining them in the streets (though some are), the protesters are gaining support from at least some of the AKP’s base demographics.
– We can not say for sure how many AKP supporters sympathize with the protests but there is no doubt that the AKP’s support will be diminished. The AKP’s economic success and history of liberalizing reforms has won the support of many “secular” Turks (not traditionally associated with the AKP) including liberals and the businessmen. Those who were late to jump on the AKP bandwagon will cast their vote elsewhere. However, Turkey’s opposition parties are both weak and unappealing to large segments of the population. The AKP will therefore remain a force to be reckoned with in Turkish politics until a viable alternative capable of bridging the many divides of Turkish society appears.
-Despite the fact that many are making the easy (and inaccurate) comparison between the Occupy Gezi movement and the protest movements that brought on the Arab Spring, in all likelyhood this movement will not birth a full out revolution. Unlike the Arab Spring countries, Turkey is a democracy. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The AKP (embodied by Erdogan) received an impressive 50% of the vote in the last election. As discussed above, the popularity of Erdogan and the AKP will certainly take a hit but when it comes down to the line, I am willing to bet that Turkey would rather go with the devil it knows (and elected) over the devil it doesn’t know. However, Erdogan’s ability to guide the creation of a new constitution, already compromised, is likely lost and with it his dream of becoming Turkey’s first American style president.
– If Erdogan continues to insist upon eating his foot, and assuming that no new political opposition party is conjured up, Turkey’s calls for alternative leadership will have to be answered from within the AKP itself. The most likely candidate to step up to the job is the current President Abdullah Gul. Though informal polling indicates that he is unpopular among the protesters, he has consistently shown himself to be the foil to Erdogan’s impulsive and often volatile style of politics. I suspect that after things have cooled down, the AKP base, and those on the bandwagon, will see him as the rational alternative to Erdogan.
– Erdogan, and Turkey in generally, will see their soft power and popularity seriously weakened in the region. Bashar Assad’s denunciations of Erdogan’s handling of protests is certainly ironic but not undeserved. The man who touted democracy abroad refuses to bend to the will of his own citizens. Erdogan’s hypocrisy has been laid bare and I doubt the beleaguered populations of Egypt and other Arab spring countries will any longer have any interest in buying what he is selling.
-Footnote: This should be (and is) is the least of Turkey’s concerns right now, but I cannot see how the IOP will ever agree to give the 2020 Olympics to Istanbul after this weekend.