Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Power, Paternalism and Fate in Soma

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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.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

May 19, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Disasters in Soma

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

May 15, 2014 at 1:40 pm

Twitter and the March 30th Elections

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My prediction that Turkey would not ban twitter was disproven in remarkably short order.  Starting midnight Friday Turkish time twitter was blocked.  The ban failed spectacularly with millions of Turks using DNS and VPN networks, tricks that have become common knowledge in Turkey from the days of the YouTube ban, to circumvent the block.  Tweets in Turkey were up 138% from average in the the hours immediately after the ban.  Within a matter of hours, news of the ban had gone viral worldwide and everyone from the US State Department to Russell Crowe put out statements condemning it.

Despite  the world-wide condemnation (which Erdogan famously stated he did not care about), the ambiguous legality of the court orders instituting it and the epic failure of the ban to prevent anyone from using twitter (besides party die-hards), the blockade has still not be lifted.  Sunday, Erdogan once again denounced Facebook and YouTube, leading to fears that these social networks will be blocked shortly.  Of greater concern is the fact that DNS networks were blocked over the weekend and rumor has it, thanks to the new internet law, the government will soon have the ability and legal authority to block specific IP addresses, making subverting social network bans much more difficult for the average person.  However as Zeynep Tufekci observed, only a full block of the internet would prevent Turks from finding ways to get online.

Some have dismissed the twitter ban as technological and political naivete, or the last desperate efforts of a tyrant on his way out.  Though the ban in many ways has been a complete failure and is no doubt an indicator that Erdogan fears for his political future, there is shrewd political calculation behind this move.  Erdogan is betting that the ban will do more damage to his opponents than to himself in the final days leading up to the March 30 elections.  Evidence of Erdogan’s motives appeared shortly after the ban was put in place  when the hashtag “we’ll go to the streets for Twitter” began trending in Turkish.  Government critics and opposition figures countered this sentiment, calling for calm, and it was soon discovered that the hashtag was most likely spread by government trolls.  Erdogan was likely expecting the banning of twitter, a platform that figured prominently during the Gezi protests last summer, to trigger more protests.  In the year since Gezi, Erdogan and his political allies have been using the threat of “Gezi People” trying to destroy Turkish democracy and overthrow a duly elected government as a way to strengthen their hold over their conservative base.  Protests in response to the ban would have only served to strengthen his case.

It is also widely believed that the twitter ban may be a preemptive strike against the release of even more serious evidence of Erdogan’s involvement in corrupt activities, or possibly even a sex tape, in the last week before the March 30 elections.  Although the block on twitter would do little to stop the dissemination of such tapes, bans on YouTube and Facebook in addition to the blockage of IP address might indeed slow their spread among all but the most technologically savvy Turks.  However, it is important to note that such new evidence, if it does exist, may not do much to change the mind of current AKP supporters. At least some supporters do not believe the party’s denial of corruption charges.  Multiple reports have found that Erdogan supporters are willing to ignore or accept corruption because of the economic and infrastructure improvements the AKP has brought about over the last 10+ years.

Like the corruption allegations, the twitter ban indeed appears to have done little to diminish Erdogan’s popularity among his base supporters.  He was cheered after announcing his intention to shut down twitter at a rally in Bursa Thursday and was again met with approving cheers when he spoke of doing the same to Facebook and YouTube at an even bigger rally in Istanbul Sunday.  Unlike Mubarak, whose attempt to ban twitter was indeed an indication that his rule was coming to an end, Erdogan is a legitimately elected head of state.  Despite the fact that he is increasingly despised by 50% or more of the population, the fractured and ineffective nature of the opposition parties means that the AKP still enjoys a plurality of support among Turks, and that’s all they may need in order for the party to continue to control the key cities of Istanbul and Ankara.

Given the symbolic importance that both the government and the opposition have ascribed to this election, analysts and pollsters have already spent months trying to predict its outcome, especially in the mayoral races in Istanbul and Ankara.  Turkish polls are notoriously biased (one of the leaked tapes revealed Erdogan personally fixing a poll before it was released) and methodologically unsound.  However, given the recent gerrymandering of local election districts, the resilience of the AKP’s base and the weakness of the opposition, the AKP may very well legitimately maintain power in Turkey’s two largest cities.  Despite the fact that the odds are arguably in their favor, there have been concerns about the possibility of election fraud, which has not been the case in decades.  The EU has offered to send observers and the government has at least officially welcomed the offer.

Even if these elections are monitored, I foresee accusations of fraud no matter which side ultimately prevails.  Given the importance of these elections for the AKP’s self-declared mandate, observers have rightly worried that they will have no qualms about stuffing ballot boxes.  However, a potentially more dangerous scenario would be for the opposition parties to take Ankara and Istanbul legitimately, only to have the government question the legality of the elections.  This could lead to the canceling of the elections and Erdogan securing an even tighter grip on power, having more “proof” that there is a 5th column trying to revert to the bad old days of secular dictatorship.  This would be a worst-case scenario, but most credible predictions about Turkey’s immediate future look bleak.  Unless a strong opposition party emerges, and the AKP collapses, Erdogan will continue to push the country into two ever more entrenched camps.  The more polarized the country is, the more difficult it will be for the two sides to reconcile within a democratic system.

The AKP v. Social Media

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Turkey has a long history of official government censorship.  Despite this fact, the issue has exploded on both the national and international stage over the past several years.  The factors driving the shift from passive acceptance to active resistance to media censorship among Turks are two-fold: there has been a radical shift in both people’s expectations of the media and the seriousness of Turkey’s censorship laws

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society by Prof. Zeynep Tufekci, sociologist of technology, and Engin Onder, one of the founders of the Turkish alternative media collective 140 Journos.  Engin traced the inspiration for 140 Journos to a pivotal moment in recent Turkish media history.  In 2011, a group of Kurdish smugglers crossing the Turkey-Iraq border were bombed by the Turkish military.  The Turkish government subsequently claimed that they had believed the group to be PKK fighters.  Thirty-four people, mostly teenage boys, were killed.  After the story broke, the Turkish media sat on it, afraid of repercussions if they were to break the story.  One journalist, Serdar Akinan, decided to report on the incident independently.  In an iconoclastic act of “citizen journalism,” Serdar traveled to the home village of the victims just in time to witness a mass funeral.  He uploaded a picture of the funeral procession to his instagram account, which spread rapidly on social media, effectively breaking a story that the mainstream media had refused to touch.

Serdar’s reporting on the Roboski massacre demonstrated the power of social media to cut through the mainstream media’s stifling self-censorship.  The coverage of the Gezi protests a year and half later offered further proof of the growing disconnect between the information being reported by the mainstream media and the facts on the ground.  The Gezi protesters and those that sympathized with their cause relied on social media sources, especially twitter, for accurate, up-to-date information.  Sources like 140 Journos were especially important as they vet their reports for accuracy before posting them.

The ability to access unfettered news via the internet questions the whole logic of government censorship.  What’s the point of censoring one form of media when the same information can be spread on another?  Instead of using the rise of social media as an excuse to loosen its grip on the mainstream media, the Turkish government has pursued the opposite approach.  AKP government officials have argued that the media controls imposed by the AKP government are comparable to those imposed by previous Turkish governments.  However, Prof. Tufekci argued that the recently passed internet law gives the government unprecedented powers to pursue critics.  It will allow the government not only to access information about the web usage of all Turkish citizens but also to present this information in court as evidence.  The AKP government had previously blocked websites, most infamously YouTube.  However, as Prof. Tufekci pointed out, these bans were easily and frequently circumvented via tools like proxy servers; the prime minister himself acknowledged as much.  Very few Turks have ever been prosecuted for their online activities.  However, this new law is designed to close these loop holes by requiring ISPs to keep a 2 year log of all their customers’ activities.  Prof. Tufekci believes that likely use the information they gather from ISPs to bring intimidating suits against government critics for their online speech.

When asked about the threat that this new law poses to the work of 140 Journos, Engin seemed fairly unconcerned.  Indeed, the Turkish government is playing a loosing game in its attempts to censor the internet. Half of Turks are under the age of 30.  At least 50% of the population has access to the internet at home and 41 % of internet users have a smart phone.  Twitter claims at least 10 million users in Turkey, making Turkish the 8th most used language on the micro-blogging site.  Erdogan’s frequent denunciations of social media sites, Twitter in particular, indicates that he considers these sites, and in following the free flow of information, a real threat to his hold on power. Two weeks ago, he threatened to ban Facebook and YouTube, a threat that he subsequently back down on.  Just today, Erdogan announced that he planed to “dig out” twitter from Turkey.  Despite the immediate panic this statement is causing, I would be very surprised if it was carried through.  At the Bergmen Center talk Prof. Tufekci made it very clear that extreme measures such as a total ban on the internet were very unlikely to happen in Turkey due to the internet’s deep penetration in society.  If the government were to attempt to ban the internet, it would be a clear indication that they have completely lost control.  Due to its popularity in Turkey, I would argue that the same sentiment applies to banning Twitter, if to a some what lesser degree.  Twitter has become invaluable to government opponents in terms of organizing, sharing news, etc.  Erdogan is playing a dangerous game, and he almost certainly knows it.  The “Gezi people” will not accept such a ban without a fight.  If Erdogan does indeed have a court order to shut down Twitter in Turkey, the consequences may cost him dearly.

A Death in Istanbul

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Yesterday Berkin Elvan, age 15, died in Istanbul.  He had spent nine months in a coma after being hit in the head by a gas canister when he went on an errand to buy bread.  His death sparked demonstrations at Turkish universities and cities around the country.  Many of the protests were quite large and resulted in violent clashes between police and protesters.

Berkin was a child bystander, making his innocence in his fate undeniable.  Thus far, PM Erdogan has remained silent on his death, though other high government officials, including President Gul, have expressed their condolences.  I will be curious to see how, if at all, Erdogan tries to spin this death so it is connected to one of his long list of enemies.  Perhaps we are about the see the uncovering of the bread lobby.

Like shoeboxes before it, bread has become a symbol of protest against the government.  As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in her must read post on yesterday’s events, bread has a deep social significance in Turkey.  You quite literally cannot eat a meal in Turkey without an accompanying pile of bread.  Bread symbolizes life and nourishment in Turkey, more so than in other cultures.  The use of bread during demonstrations yesterday not only represents the circumstances of Berkin’s death, but his short life itself.

Since December 17, Turkey has been embroiled in a government corruption scandal in which both PM Erdogan and his son Bilal have been implicated.  Tapes of phone conversations between Erdogan and his son as well as high ranking members of the media and government are being gradually leaked on the internet via anonymous sources.  During one particularly infamous series of leaked phone calls, Erdogan is purportedly heard telling his son to get rid millions (it is claimed up to a billion) dollars in cash before investigators can find it.  Erdogan’s protection of his own son, while he was coldly complicit in the death of another person’s son, was an unspoken undertone in yesterday’s protests.  Berkin’s mother made the provocative statement that “It wasn’t God who took my son, it was Erdogan.”

As I wrote previously, Turkey has been on edge, just waiting for a spark to reignite the “resistance.”  It is too early to predict whether Berkin’s death will spark a demi-revolution a la Ukraine or fizzle out like many of the protests over the past year.  Berkin’s funeral, which his family has made a public event, is scheduled for 3 pm Istanbul time (9 EST due to daylight savings).  The reaction of the police to the crowds gathered to mourn will speak to the level of insecurity of the government.  A government that is confident of its control over its population and its hold on power does not tear gas the funeral of a child.

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March 12, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Institutionalized Censorship

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Update: Since posting this, President Gul has signed the internet bill into law.

Censorship is its own institution in Turkey.  More specifically, media censorship operates through multiple institutions and is pervasive to the point that it has been internalized by individual journalists.  The current government’s illiberal attitude toward both traditional and new media is not rooted in their brand of conservative, Islamic-inspired ideology but in Turkey’s tradition of state paternalism.  It is perpetuated through cultural norms and, under this government, through the entanglement of media with businesses, particularly construction and banking, a situation that provides ample incentive for media companies to remain in the government’s good graces.

Even before Gezi brought it international attention, media censorship was an everyday, open reality in Turkey.  Anyone who has spent more than a week in the country will have encountered the bizarre phenomenon of flowers covering cigarettes on TV or a message warning you that a website has been blocked by the government.  Turks put up with and even expected the government to institute censorship.  Hence Erdogan’s recent nonchalant admission that he personally requested that a television station cut references to a statement made by an opposition member of parliament during the Gezi protests.

However, within the past year attitudes have been changing.  The Gezi protests were a turning point in both Turkish citizens’ and the Turkish government’s relationship with censorship.  The extent of government bias in media was laid bare in the infamous penguin incident on Turkish television and the fight against censorship pulled into the mix of eclectic grievances expressed by the Gezi protesters.  Simultaneiously, the use of social media during the course of the protests exposed the internet as the weak point in the government’s control of information.

As Turkish citizens called for a freer press, the government sought to plug the dike of social media.  Their initial tactic was to prosecute citizens for online speech.  However, the failure of this tactic has been laid bare in the wake of the graft scandal which hit the country December 17.  As the government fought to contain the extent of the corruption probe, leaks began springing online.  Videos and voice recordings purporting to show government officials engaged in corruption began spreading via social media.  The new internet bill aims to contain these leaks.  The current protocol for blocking a website or removing a piece of information posted online requires a court order.  In the time it takes to procure such an order, items posted online, such as the leaks related to the corruption probe, have time to go viral.  The new internet censorship law would cut out the requirement for a court order, allowing the government to censor online information at will.  The law also requires that internet service providers store data from their customers for two years so that the government can search the internet history of users for nefarious activity.

If President Gul signs this bill into law (he has until the 25th of this month to do so), it will be a huge blow to free speech in Turkey.  Despite pre-existing government censorship, the internet was the freest platform for communication in Turkey.  However if, or more likely when, the law goes into effect, it will not be the death of the internet in Turkey.  The internet as a constantly expanding and changing system, free of political borders, and its dynamics will always be on the side of those who wish to spread information rather than contain it.  Unless the internet is completely taken out of play, users will find creative ways to work around any government that tries to constrain it.

The Latest Round of Protests in Turkey

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Yesterday there were protests in at least 3 major cities in Turkey (Istanbul, Ankara and Antalya).  Protesters in Istanbul gathered to oppose the creation of more hydroelectric dams outside a hydroelectric power convention.  They were met with tear gas when they tried to enter the convention center.  The Minister of Forestry and Waterworks, who gave the keynote address at the opening of said convention, stated without any irony that “It’s impossible to understand those who oppose [Hydroelectric Power Plants]…It’s not right to oppose [these plants].”  In Ankara, protesters angry over the extended detention of suspects in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases marched toward the parliament building.  Police intervened in the protester’s progress  with water cannons, some of which were almost certainly filled with a mixture of water and noxious chemicals.  Photographs of these clashes between police and protesters in both Ankara and Istanbul bear an eerie similarity to some of the most iconic images from Gezi last year.

Though these protests are certainly significant expressions of the continued frustrations of a significant slice of the Turkish population, they are far smaller and less coordinated than the Gezi protests of last summer.  That being said, given the volatile atmosphere in Turkey right now, it would not be surprising if another series of coordinated protests broke out in the near future.  A trigger point like Gezi park could spark such protests, but the organic spontaneity of an event like Gezi makes it difficult to forecast.  However there are some Turkish holidays which are often the occasion for protests and could serve as a jumping off point for another round of nation-wide, coordinated demonstrations.  The most notable is May 1, Labor Day, which is widely marked by leftists in Turkey.  Commemoration of the holiday has historically centered on a rally in Taksim square.  Last year the Taksim rally was banned by the local government but unions and left-leaning Turks gathered anyway.  The resulting police-protester clashes were arguably a preview of the Gezi protests that started less than a month later.

The other 50% of Turkey has still not found a political outlet.  The continued police clashes with protesters critical of the government and suppression of the press has only added to the embattled mentality among those who don’t walk the AKP line.  The political, social and media outlets that should serve as a release valve for those with minority and opposition view points are being closed off.  Given this increasingly authoritarian atmosphere, it is certain there will be no shortage of protests in Turkey for the foreseeable future.

Written by ataturksrepublic

February 14, 2014 at 3:48 pm