Archive for January 2014
It’s been a while, but M. James is back with a new post. You can check out his regular blog here: http://28east.wordpress.com/
Weather-permitting, it is not uncommon to see a young man selling books outside of the Nâzım Hikmet Cultural Center in Ankara. As in many places in Turkey, the wares are carefully assembled on a repurposed aquamarine* bed sheet and laid out on the sidewalk for passers-by to politely ignore while the peddler busies himself with something else—in this case, reading.
On one particular late-May afternoon, I happened across this man after a perplexing transaction with an unctuous electronics salesman and a relatively gratifying transaction with a tobacconist. The point being, I was in a good enough mood to stop and look. I’d always found these displays somewhat romantic, yet crude. So while interested, I didn’t want to be seen patronizing the odd practice. I would rarely stop to look.
As usual, the books were mainly either beyond my linguistic abilities of comprehension or counter to my sense of propriety. One, however—an older, water-damaged paperback—caught my attention. It was a compilation, a volume of the collected newspaper articles and columns of the late Peyami Safa, journalist and novelist extraordinaire. An unusual find.
After several more minutes of nervous browsing, I picked the book off of the sidewalk for the third and final time, leaving a conspicuous aquamarine gap, like a missing tooth. The young man looked up from his book only when I approached him with my selection. He asked for three lira. I gave him five—it was worth far more than five lira to me.
A few days ago, I found the time to give that book some of the attention it deserves. Here’s one of the more serendipitous, yet disturbing, selections I found, titled “The Book on the Sidewalk.” I will let it speak for itself, perhaps to be expanded on later:
THE BOOK ON THE SIDEWALK
In yesterday’s article, “Book Morgue,” Salâhaddin Güngör had this to say about the book displays that have cropped up on nearly every street-corner: “There are so many valuable and rare books in those displays that one would be shocked what can be had for the price of a glass of Hamidiye† water.”
In Turkey, there is nothing that suffers as much indignity as books. Not just Hamidiye water, but cigarette butts, filthy rags, old shoes, empty bottles, and even the broken wood and iron scavenged from rubble will all fetch a higher price than their own raw materials—and more buyers, too. Only books, only those damned, wretched books are placed on the same ground as dog waste and put up for sale without so much as a piece of cloth beneath them. When a country gives the same position to knowledge and literature as it gives to its heels, and places the nourishment of its mind underfoot, that suggests that books have about as much dignity as the brooms in grocers’ shops (at least the brooms are hung one or two meters off the ground).
Script both new and old,‡ authors both great and insignificant, works from both east and west, compilations, translations, and every variety of writing, writer, and quality—all underfoot.
Fellow-citizen! There is a danger as dreadful as an enemy invasion hidden in this tragedy. Fellow-citizen! Great catastrophes will utterly destroy the progress of any nation where books crawl on the ground. Fellow-citizen! Good, bad, valuable, worthless, compilation, and translation, buy your share of these books! Sell your bedspreads if need be, but buy these books and get them off the ground!
Tan, July 23rd, 1935
*I.e., the color of public pool locker room tiles. No, the peddlers’ bed sheets are not always aquamarine, but when they are, I remember it.
†A high-mineral-content water piped from Istanbul’s Belgrade Forest since 1902; apparently a subject of derision for quite some time now.
‡Referring to both Latin and Arabic script, the latter of which was officially canned in 1929 and replaced by the modern Turkish language.
In December I wrote a post arguing that the power of the current government, while formidable, was not absolute. However, in the 7 weeks or so since I wrote that piece, the situation has drastically changed. In order to fight back against the “parallel state” they claim is behind the ongoing corruption investigation, the government has set about consolidating its power. (Just today a bill was proposed that will mandate consent of the Prime Minister in order to prosecute senior members of the military and 800 journalists from the state-run TRT news conglomerate). Most worrying is a bill that will be up for debate in Grand National Assembly this week that, if passed and signed by President Gul, will strip the judiciary of any independence from the executive branch. Because of the AKP’s large majority in the Assembly, the bill is expected to pass when brought to a vote.
Before the restructuring of the judiciary could take effect, President Gul would have to sign it into law. Gul has long been the voice of reason in Turkish politics and many, including myself, have hoped that he could serve as an effective check on Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies. Unfortunately, Gul’s actions last week show his comparative liberalism may be all talk. He signed into law a widely criticized bill that makes it illegal to provide first aid to a sick or injured person without “authorization.” Gul has also refrained from criticizing either the medical or judicial bill. In the case of the judicial bill, he has expressed hope that the same reforms to the judiciary can be done through a constitutional amendment, which would relive Gul of the responsibility of having to put his signature on the bill.
For the first time since I started writing about Turkey, I believe that its democratic institutions are seriously under threat. If this bill is passed and the judiciary is effectively merged with the executive Erdogan and the AKP will have destroyed the last internal check to their political power. If the AKP has a strong showing in the March elections, which polls and reporting suggest will happen, I would not be surprised if Erdogan announces his intention to continue on as Prime Minister.
If there was ever a time for the US to throw its diplomatic arsenal at Turkey, it is now. Unfortunately, the US government has stated its intention to do precisely the opposite. On January 12 Secretary of State Kerry met with Foreign Minister Davutoglu and they subsequently held a joint press conference. The press conference revealed that Kerry and Davutoglu discussed Turkey’s ongoing political problems. However, Kerry also unequivocally stated that “the United States of America has absolutely no interest in being caught up in or engaged in or involved in the internal politics, the election process of Turkey.” I would normally agree that the US should keep its distance from internal political rows, but this is an exceptional case. Given the strategic and symbolic importance maintaining democracy in Turkey, it would be detrimental not only to Turkey but to US interests for the Department of State to avoid voicing its displeasure regarding recent political developments. If done behind the scenes as to avoid playing in to current conspiracy theories, I believe a multi-facited diplomatic blitz could discourage Turkey’s leadership from further assaults against the country’s democratic structures. Not only should State personel be involved in this effort, but President Obama should take advantage of his historically close relationship with PM Erdogan and make a personal appeal. Turkey is in several tight diplomatic spots right now. It is going ahead with plans to pump oil from Iraqi Kurdistan, much to the chagrin of the central government in Baghdad. The Syrian crisis has flooded Turkey with refugees and compromised the safety of its southern borders. If the US offers to help Turkey solve these or other international problems the Turkish government may be more inclined to take US displeasure with the current political developments seriously. If the US government is truly committed to supporting democracy building abroad, it must make efforts to prevent the erosion of democracy in one of its most strategic allies.
The massive storm of scandal that has enveloped Turkey for the last several weeks has finally begun to ebb. In its wake it has left three ministerial resignations, a handful of defections from the AKP, a massively reshuffled cabinet and over a thousand dismissed or reassigned law enforcement officials. Analysts seeking to predict what lies in store for Turkey in the months ahead have focused primarily on two questions: Will Erdogan ultimately survive this scandal? (see here and here) and Will this incident end up strengthening or weakening Turkish Democracy? (see here here here and here)
It is indisputable that in the short term, Erdogan isn’t going anywhere. He has utilized the same defensive strategy with which he rode out the Gezi Park protests; namely blaming foreign conspirators and agitators for sparking the incident while viciously clamping down on any public protests. However Erdogan has not been successful in convincing all party members to echo his talking points. One former minister who was not implicated in the scandal but who recently resigned from the AKP out of protest harshly criticized the Prime Minister’s interference in construction projects, saying that ” he never really quit the Istanbul mayor’s office.” The Minister for Environment and Urban Planning, who was forced to resign as part of the scandal, went so far as to directly implicate Erdogan and call for his resignation.
Despite these damning words from former allies, not to mention the fact that his son has been caught up in the inquiries as well, Erdogan has loudly maintained his strategy and refused to quit. We shouldn’t expect anything less. Erdogan is nothing if not tenacious and stubborn. He remains convinced, rightly or wrongly, that he has a precedent to rule and he is acting in the best interests of the Turkish people. Even if evidence is uncovered that directly implicates him in construction bribery and graft, Erdogan will simply remain consistent in his blame of foreign plots and deep state actors.
The million dollar question is how will the events of the last several weeks affect the health of Turkish democracy. Though undoubtedly the rampant corruption and collusion between the AKP and the Turkish construction industry needs to be addressed, some have expressed concern about the fact that the Gulen Movement is likely driving the current probe. The Gulen Movement is believed to count among its members a significant proportion of the Turkish police and judiciary. The firing and reassignment of hundreds of police officers involved in the scandal investigation is just the latest effort of the current government to purge the Movement from positions of power. Though the Gulen Movement’s penetration into the Turkish government is hard to accurately ascertain, the fact that the government has been able to punish with impunity so many law enforcement officials for pursuing this corruption investigation leads me to believe that Gulen’s power has been over estimated. It is certainly a poor sign for Turkish democracy that this investigation was at least partly motivated by revenge against the government by a shady private organization. However, at this point I believe that it is even more concerning that every attempt to further the corruption investigation is immediately shut down.
Unless we see another dramatic twist in this saga, for better or worse the Gulen Movement probably will not serve as an outside check on the AKP government. However, like many Turks, the Movement may be putting their faith in the upcoming election cycle to do the job for them. Turkey has held free and fair elections for decades and over the next year and a half or so there will be 3 important votes. The first, coming up in March, is for local governments and is widely expected to act as a much needed gauge of the AKP’s current popularity. This summer the first popular election for the important but largely ceremonial office of President will take place followed by parliamentary elections next summer.
Though much to Erdogan’s chagrin the presidency still does not wield significant power, the race for this office will in some ways be a crucial junction for the AKP administration. According to AKP party rules, Erdogan cannot serve another term as Prime Minister. However, it is eminently clear that he does not want to give up power and go quietly into the night. Since his plan to become an “American Style” president has failed, Erdogan has two options if he wants to stay in power: he can run for President or change the party rules and serve another term as Prime Minister. Health of Turkish democracy will be able to be gauged by the challenges or lack thereof that Erdogan will face when embarking on either of these paths. Current President Gul, who more popular among the Turkish citizenry than Erdogan, has not given any clear indication as to what his future political plans are. If both run for President or Prime Minister another nasty intra-AKP war is likely to break out. However, given that the lack of current significant challengers to the AKP, this kind of fight could ultimately serve to break the AKP’s current hegemony. The highly respected scholar of Turkey Erik Zurcher recently wrote a convincing piece arguing that we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the AKP. A Gul challenge to Erdogan could facilitate this and, in a best case scenario, lead to a new conservative party purged of many of the more extreme elements that have poisoned the party’s once admirable platform in recent years. Even if it does not come from Gul, a challenge to Erdogan must come. There is no need to elaborate on the fact that allowing Erdogan to change the AKP party rules and continue to remain Prime Minister would be a very bad blow to Turkish Democracy.
The possible retrial of those convicted in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases* adds a wild card to this already complex mix. Erdogan is trying to poison the reputation of the Gulen Movement by placing blame for all the shady elements of the trials on them. He is also using the possibility of a new set of trials as a public demonstration that the AKP no longer needs the help of the Gulen Movement in order to keep the secular establishment at bay. However it is anyone’s guess as to whether the retrials will happen and, given the recently proposed law which would effectively muzzle the judiciary, what the outcome will be. I worry that Erdogan may under the illusion that he can convince the military that Gulen Movement acted without the knowledge of the government. I think the possibility of a fully reinvigorated military remains remote, but it would be dangerous to assume that the leash on the military could be loosened without it attempting to reestablish at least some of their former power.
An investigation into the unholy relationship between the AKP government and the Turkish construction sector has been a long time in coming. Any savvy Turk or Turkey watcher will tell you construction graft and bribery have been an open secret for years now. The government reaction to the scandal has seriously undermined the independence of the police and the judiciary, and in following the at least temporarily tightened the AKP’s hold on power. However, Turkey has faced far worse challenges in much more fragile periods of its democracy and yet has continued to slowly but surely progress in its political development. 2014 is going to be a tough year for Turkey but the demonstrated resilience of the Turkish people and their commitment to democracy should make even the most hardened cynic pause before diagnosing a mortal wound to Turkish democracy.
*The AKP and Gulen movement are generally believed to have worked together during these cases in order to neuter the secular-military establishment.