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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.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

May 30, 2014 at 10:43 pm

What Lies Ahead for Turkey

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

January 8, 2014 at 9:02 pm

The Prime Minister’s Speech

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 17, 2013 at 1:56 pm