Archive for May 2014
The anniversary of last year’s Gezi protests has reopened the lively debate regarding what if anything these events say about the changing nature of Turkish society. The political impact of the protests is highly debatable but there is no doubt that Gezi marks a turning point in the relationship between the AKP government and it grass-roots opponents. The Gezi movement initially caught the government off guard and put them in a defensive position. In Turkey, with its history of strong-man politics, being put in a defensive and weak position can spell death for a political party. The AKP’s need to maintain its aura of power doomed the chances of a peaceful and productive ending to Gezi from the start. The AKP sprang back with an offensive campaign designed to crush Gezi physically and politically and reassert its power.
Unfortunately for opponents of the government, this offensive campaign hasn’t ended. The AKP has allowed and probably encouraged the police to adopt a shoot first ask questions later strategy when dealing with any government opposition groups. It is this kind of reckless behavior that has led to the vicious cycle of protests and deaths, particularly in Alevi towns and neighborhoods. The government did not even bother to take a more nuanced approach to the understandably angry crowds that gathered in the wake of the Soma disaster. Many outside observers were shocked by these tactics, but most Turkey watchers have come to expect nothing less from the current government. Erdogan has made it clear in his nearly daily speeches that all opposition or discontent will be considered traitorous. Grief over the preventable death of a loved one is no excuse for lashing out against the AKP or its leadership.
Soma proved that no one is immune from the AKP’s offense against opponents, but those with any association with Gezi, however tenuous, have been the target of an organized government legislative and propaganda campaign. The AKP’s strategy for preventing another Gezi is to eliminate all places of refuge for protesters, whether they be physical, legal or social.
The government eliminated physical refuges by outlawing the emergency treatment of injured citizens without authorization. Part of the impetus behind this law is to force injured protesters into state owned hospitals where the police can document and arrest them. Erdogan has also done his best to discourage private or religious institutions from offering protesters shelter during clashes with the police. The Koc conglomerate, which owns the hotel off Taksim square which allowed protesters to take shelter in its lobby, was hit with an unexpected audit. One of Erdogan’s favorite antidotes regarding Gezi is the instance where protesters turned a historic mosque into a shelter and triage site. Erdgoan has accused these protesters of not only desecrating the building but also drinking inside the mosque. The muezzin of the mosque, who had reportedly invited the protesters to take shelter there, was soon after exiled to a small town. The protesters themselves are also facing criminal charges.
Desecrating a mosque isn’t the only crime Gezi protesters have been charged with. The AKP has used every legal maneuver and thrown every criminal charge they can at protesters, from creating an illegal organization to wearing inappropriate clothing. The Turkish government has also prosecuted dozens of people for “thought crimes,” prosecuting or suing twitter users who dared criticize the government.
The social offensive against Gezi protesters and their supporters may be the most damaging in the long term. Erdogan has ensured the continued political domination of the AKP by characterizing “Gezi People” as the ultimate “other” from good Turkish citizens. They are traitors who burn the Turkish flag. They are terrorists. They are guilty of murder and assault. No one in their right mind would support the goals of such people.
Despite this multifaceted attack on grass roots opposition in general and protesters associated with Gezi in particular, Erdogan has failed to eliminate the serious undercurrent of discontent in Turkey. Instead, he has created a dangerously polarized society, with supporters of the AKP convinced of evil of government opponents, and opponents of the AKP (correctly) convinced that the government is out to get them. This is unfortunately the contemporary legacy of Gezi: a government which is determined to reinforce its power through the persecution, prosecution and demonization of the opposition. The good news is that grass-roots opposition to the AKP has not been crushed and barring a catastrophic crackdown, most likely will remain active. The AKP and Erdogan in particular have compromised their moral and politically authority in the process of undertaking this blanket offensive against opponents. Soma starkly highlighted that the government has overstepped the boundary of who and what they can legitimately include in their smear campaign. As I stated previously, Soma will not bring down Erdogan. However, it would be ill-advised for Erdogan to repeat the performance he put on for the crowds gathered at the mine. Telling mourners that certain people are simply fated to die tragically, then kicking and punching members of the angry crowd that subsequently gathers is not the way to win votes; and Turkey is (still) a democracy.
Modern Turkey was founded and shaped by the innovative but paternalistic regime of Ataturk. The tradition of Great Man and paternalistic politics was carried on by Ataturk’s successor Inonu and many of the democratically elected governments that followed him. Turkey’s secularist governments never fully shook the paternalistic tradition, earning them limited popularity among the masses. Part of the hope that surrounded the AKP in its early years was that they promised to break this tradition by liberalizing the laws governing social and political life. After over 10 years of as the dominant political force in Turkey, few of these promises have been kept. Particularly since the 2011 election, the leadership of the AKP has proven that they are as much a product of Turkey’s paternalistic political tradition as any of the secular predecessors. Erdogan’s actions in the wake of the Soma tragedy are just the latest and most startling manifestation of this long Turkish tradition.
The AKP grew out of Turkey’s Islamist political tradition. As result, many in the Western media have interpreted the AKP and Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian governance as a sign that they are preparing to institute “sharia” rule in Turkey. However, a review of the party’s political legacy and current initiatives reveals a government that is more interested in expanding its power than spreading Islamist ideology. The party first attempted to consolidate power through the drafting of a new constitution. The proposed constitution would have reconstructed the balance of power in the government, redefining the position of President as a strong executive without building in checks and balances. After the proposed constitution failed to make it past the drafting committee, the party has pursued other means of consolidating power. A recent law subjugated the judiciary to the executive branch, seriously compromising one the few effective checks on the AKP’s power. Erdogan, up against internal AKP term limits, has strongly hinted that he plans to be a candidate for President in the upcoming elections. He has also stated that if elected he will not conform to the traditional role of President in Turkey, that of an impartial, non-political moderator. Instead he promised to “use all my constitutional powers” as president, alluding in later speeches to either an official or unofficial expansion of the powers of the office of President.
Historically, the AKP has quashed any internal dissent from or debate of party policy, maintaining a strict hierarchical structure that it is now trying to mirror in the government as the whole. In the past year the party has subjected the country to an obsessive campaign against political dissent. The AKP has compulsively repeated the claims that any and all of its political opponents are engaged in a conspiracy to launch a coup against the current government and destroy the democratic system. The AKP’s war against political plurality has naturally led to further restrictions on media freedom and independence. Conglomerates sympathetic to the government have been buying up newspapers, leading to a dearth of critical reporting. All media outlets face pressure from the government, in some cases being personally scolded by the Prime Minister for not toeing the AKP line. Notoriously, the social media platforms Twitter and You Tube were banned for a period coinciding with the recent local elections.
Particularly over the past year, Erdogan’s attempts at paternalistic social engineering have triggered warnings from both in and outside of Turkey that the country’s secularism is under threat. The most prominent example of “Islamically-inspired” legislation is the new restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcohol. Though annoying to secularists and largely unnecessary, these laws seem to have had little real impact on the ability of both Turks and tourists to enjoy a drink. Most concerning have been reports that reports that abortion has been de facto banned in state hospitals. However, Erdogan’s successes at passing conservative social controls have been few and far between. Those areas in which there has been change, such as alcohol and family planning, are favorite targets of conservatives the world over. The conservative shift over the course of the AKP’s time in office is real but stems more from Turkey’s tradition of paternalistic governance than Islamism. Arguably, the AKP’s Islamist heritage is distracting observers from the most likely explanation for Erdogan and the AKP’s political recent trajectory: the consolidation of power for the sake of power itself. Erdogan has made no secret of his conservative political and social positions and is not hiding a secret Islamist agenda. As evidence by the lengths he has gone to to break down checks on his power, Erdogan is more concerned with, and been more successful at, finding a way to maintain his control over the country than instituting elaborate Islamist social programs.
Erdogan’s infamous reaction to the tragedy in Soma can only be fully explained in the context of Turkey’s tradition of paternalistic politics. For most politicians elsewhere in the world, the obvious first reaction in the wake of a tragedy is to console the survivors, shed tears for the victims and promise them and their families justice. Instead, Erdogan condescendingly informed the gathered mourners and survivors that it is the fate of miners to live and die in such tragic circumstances. As cogs in his program of fast-paced economic and infrastructure growth, Erdogan, needs working class Turks such as miners to accept their “fate” and keep on working despite the unacceptably high rate of occupational injury and death in Turkey. They need to trust that Erdogan knows what’s best for them. Ironically, Erdogan’s attempts to pacify Soma with references to “fate” rings strongly of the neo-Orientalist stereotyping that the AKP and the Turkish media outlets which support them have so vocally condemned. Soma should be a wake up call for Erdogan and the AKP. There is a limit to Turk’s tolerance for government suggestions about how they should live (and die). Erdogan may be free to suggest what Turks should eat or how many children they should have, but Soma has made it clear that Turks are willing to fight for the right to have agency in their own fate.
The mining disaster in Soma has scraped off the shallow veneer of Turkey’s economic “miracle” and exposed its serious human costs. The AKP launched the Turkish economy into the 21st century without adopting modern standards in labor laws and occupational safety. Ironically, when speaking at Soma yesterday, Erdogan tried to put Soma in perspective by citing death tolls from mining disasters in other industrialized nations. His main examples occurred during the last half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Arguably his choice of statistics is more of a Freudian slip than a simple sign of ignorance. The height of the industrial revolution in the west enjoys parallels with Erdogan and the AKP’s growth-at-any-cost mentality.
The AKP government has proven no better than previous governments at preventing man made or responding to natural disasters. Multiple studies have shown that occupational safety conditions in general, and mine safety in particular, have not improved over the AKP’s time in government. In fact, comparing a study of 1999 data to the latest 2010 TEPEV statistics reveals that the rate of fatalities per million tones of coal doubled in 10 years. Both Turks and the international community alike have been happy to look the other way despite frequent and high profile fatalities.
Erdogan’s tone-deaf response to the disaster prompted angry crowds to mob and protest the Prime Minister in Soma. Solidarity protests were organized in Istanbul, Ankara and other major cities across Turkey. The scale of the disaster and the government’s botched response has led to the quotidian speculation that we are finally witnessing the fall of Erdogan. At the moment the protests over the disaster remain small and local enough that once again gas and TOMAs will probably be enough to tamp down dissent. Erdogan’s unsympathetic speech yesterday was similar in tone and content to a speech he gave in 2010 after another mining disaster. His career was apparently unscathed by the 2010 speech, granted it probably did not receive as much publicity at the time.
However, I do think this incident is demonstrative of significant cracks in the facade of “national will” that the AKP has built around itself. The Soma mine disaster’s significance lies in that it directly affects, and has angered, a portion of the AKP’s base constituency. Even a usually staunchly pro-government paper has called for the Energy Minister’s resignation. Yesterday was also the first time the grievances of (a portion) of the AKP’s supporters lined up with those of the student and residual Gezi protestors. A series of botched government responses to natural or man-made disasters could possibly lead to a significant drop in AKP support. (Though there still remains the problem of the divided opposition…)
Soma will not single-handedly bring down the AKP but, like Gezi, it is one of a series of events that exposes the party’s waning political acumen.