Archive for October 2013
The fight for public input into “public” projects has moved from Gezi, Istanbul to ODTÜ, Ankara. For the last several months the Middle East Technical University (acronym ODTÜ in Turkish), has been the scene of fierce protests against the construction of a road by the Ankara municipality through its campus. Paralleling Gezi, the ODTÜ protests have centered around the environmental destruction the construction would cause, specifically the clearing of a large number of trees. The ODTÜ protesters have also been subject to violent police intervention.
Over the weekend the struggle between the protesters and the local government escalated to a new level. The University administration had joined the fight against the construction of the road, attempting to legally appeal the construction plans. The University was apparently assured that construction would be halted until the appeals process was completed. However, it appears that Friday night the municipality began clearing the forested area where the proposed road will run without notifying the University. The University has issued a statement outlining its interpretation of the events and threatening legal action. The AKP mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek claims that the Friday night construction blitz also came as a surprise to him. However, he went on to defend the construction, stating that there were no legal obstacles to its continuation.
PM Erdoğan has also become involved in the controversy. Discussing the issue on Tuesday he stated that “Everything can be sacrificed for roads, because roads are civilization. But those who are not civilized do not know the roads’ value. In our values, roads do not recognize any obstacle. Even if there is a mosque in front of a road, we would demolish that mosque and rebuild it somewhere else. We won’t stop because somebody says so. Bandits used to block roads in the past, now modern bandits are blocking the roads.”
Erdoğan’s statement reveals that he still believes that he is facing an uprising of the old Kemalist secular elite. However, later on Tuesday, #direncami started trending on Twitter in Turkey. The term diren (resist) became the term used for protesting or “occupying” during the Gezi uprisings. The tag #direncami (resist mosque) is a twitter protest against the theoretical threat of Erdoğan to destroy a mosque in order to build a road. The Turkish tweeters were signalling that Erdoğan missed the point entirely. The protesters at ODTÜ are not calling for equal opportunity destruction but a cessation of all arbitrary destruction.
Whether or not Erdoğan would actually support the destruction of a mosque in order to build a road is largely beside the point (though I seriously doubt he would). However, this statement should be a wake up call to his conservative Muslim supporters. Erdoğan is willing, at least in theory, to sacrifice a symbol of the values that he supposedly holds most dear to the god of “progress.” With his latest statement the Prime Minister has provided further proof that the popular uprisings in Turkey are not an example of secularists fighting against an encroaching Islamism, but about civil society fighting against an encroaching authoritarianism.
Check out my first piece for Your Middle East:
No matter who gets involved or which side ultimately prevails, Turkey will still be among the losers of the Syrian war.
A true liberal democrat is a rare species in Turkish politics but it appears that they do in fact exist. Last week I attended a talk by a Turkish MP from Bursa Aykan Erdemir. Erdermir is an interesting figure: a young Harvard PhD and former professor who was elected as a CHP MP from the AKP dominated district of Bursa in 2011. His talk, titled “Prospects for Pluralist Democracy in post-Gezi Turkey” painted a clear-eyed picture of the causes of the Gezi protests and real problems Turkey faces if it is to become a truly liberal democracy.
Erdemir identified a number causes that worked in conjunction to create popular uprisings in Turkey this summer. He believes demographic changes that Turkey has been undergoing for the last several decades are central to growing political discontent. The shift from large, extended families to small, nuclear ones has changed a formerly heavily patriarchal society into what he dubbed a “child-archal” society. Erdemir believes that the patriarchal state is out of sync with the changing family dynamic; a dynamic which has resulted in an more individualist world-view amongst the younger generations. He also mentioned the population shift from rural to urban areas, the growing export based economy and the increasing educational attainments of the average Turk as factors that have resulted in a significant societal shift. Erdemir emphasized the ubiquitous of technology in Turkish society, specifically the use of smart phones, which has created greater access to larger world and competing ideological view points.
Erdemir quite rightly observed that this trend toward greater engagement with the world and intellectual pluralism cannot be “undone.” However, he identified a number of challenges facing those who wish to promote greater liberalness in Turkish society. The Turkish State has few checks and balances and is becoming more efficient and competent and the bureaucracy is expanding. This is bad news for groups such as the Gezi protesters as the government has more coercive power without any internal mechanism to check it. Erdemir also discussed the phenomenon of the increasing conflation of the State and the ruling party in the minds of both those in power and the Turkish masses in general. The ruling party has also engaged in what he termed “state capitalism” or “clientalism” but could also be given the cruder moniker of crony capitalism. Erdemir also criticized the government for its censorship of the media and the increasing surveillance of citizens. He did not criticize capitalism itself however and made a connection between market freedom and political freedom.
Erdemir did not shy away from another problem with a more personal connection: the lack of a credible opposition to the AKP. He was optimistic about some of the changes his own party has undergone since Kemal Kilicdaroglu became chairman in 2010 but said that the party was only about halfway to where it needed to be. Erdemir does not think that there will be a massive shift in favor of the CHP next election and believes that Turks would prefer the AKP with new leadership in place. Clearly this is a reference to the more moderate Gul potentially replacing Erdogan as Turkey’s premier (either in the form of Prime Minister or a more empowered President).
From his district of Bursa, Erdemir has been able to observe what the more conservative elements of society think about the Gezi tumult. Growing out of an Islamist past, the AKP has been criticized in recent years by numerous observers (including myself) for failing to remember the state oppression they fought against for so long and co-opting the same repressive measures of the previous, strictly secular governments. Erdemir reported that at least some of the ordinary conservatives in his district were sensitive to the fact that the oppressed seemed to have become the oppressors. He found that those ordinary Turkish conservatives were disillusioned to a certain extent by the events of this summer and expressed that this is not what they wanted from the AKP.
Erdemir emphasized multiple times that the CHP was a “social democratic” party but mentioned nary a word about the party’s “eternal chief“. The CHP is officially a socialist party, in that it is part of the Socialist International association of political parties. Interestingly, Erdogan’s newest yes-man Yigit Bulut recently made headlines in Turkey for asserting that Erdogan is a “true socialist.” This seemingly out of the blue comment could have been an awkward attempt at undermining the appeal of the CHP (though it was quickly dismissed by the official party spokesman).
In regards to the difficult regional problems Turkey is coping with, Erdemir criticized the “adventurous” foreign policy that the Turkish government has pursued over the last few years. As Assad himself recently warned, Erdemir believes Turkey’s funding of Syrian militants and the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict could come back to haunt Turkey. However, He also believes that Turkey can not be a democratic “island” in the sea of increasing chaos in the region and there needs to be a promotion of democracy in the region. To quote: “You can’t be a democracy with Al-Qaida as your neighbor.”
From this talk as well as in his other media appearances and commentary in English, one can conclude that Erdemir is a rare true liberal in Turkish politics. However, my Turkish is not good enough for me to fully analyze how he presents himself to a domestic audience. I of course want to believe that there are real democrats in the Turkish government, but remain skeptical until I can get a good report on Erdemir’s rhetoric and reputation in Turkey. If you are someone who is thus informed, please let me know about the “Turkish” Erdemir in the comments!