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Posts Tagged ‘Erdogan

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.

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

March 12, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Don’t Panic Revisited

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

January 21, 2014 at 5:01 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

Don’t Panic

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The AKP has been making some insane policy threats lately.  These statements have (justifiably) caused an uproar from many Turks and Turkey watchers.  However, I think we all need to take a step back and consider the possibility, or probability, that despite their current vice-like grip on Turkish politics, the neither Erdoğan nor the AKP in general have the power or mandate to carry through with many of these proposed “reforms.”  It is too early to predict the long-term consequences, but Erdoğan’s antics seem to be backfiring and causing even some former supporters to question his leadership.

The first piece of good news is that Erdoğan is not going to get his wish to become the first American-style President of Turkey anytime soon.  The commission tasked with reforming the current constitution, which was created by the generals in the wake of 1980 military coup, has fallen apart.  The AKP had already agreed in August not to push for a presidential system to be included in the new constitution.  Turkey still desperately needs a more liberal constitution but the AKP does not seem to be ready to make the concessions needed to make this happen.

Erdoğan’s rhetoric over the past year has necessitated almost non-stop damage control from the other high-ranking members of the current administration, namely President Gül, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç .  It appears that at least Arınç is getting sick of being the PM’s apologist.  He publicly made statements both during the Gezi protests and the recent co-ed housing controversy that clearly articulated his opposition to the Erdoğan’s position.  In an act of censorship shocking even in Turkey, critical statements Arınç made regarding PM Erdoğan were censored by the state TV network, which Arınç himself is tasked with overseeing. There were even rumors that Arınç would be quitting politics after both controversies but it seems he will be staying in government at least until the 2015 elections.  Gül, who in some polls rivals Erdoğan’s popularity, has not been as confrontational in his opposition.  However, many of his speeches as of late has notably contradicted Erdoğan on the same talking points.  Gül very well may be trying to distance himself from Erdoğan in anticipation of the 2015 elections.  There has been much speculation as whether Gül will run for Prime Minister or continue to occupy the position of President, but it is too early to tell.  What is clear is that Gül wishes to maintain his reputation as a moderate figure amongst the increasingly polarizing voices coming out of the AKP.

Erdoğan’s antagonism isn’t just limited to within in the party.  For reasons that are not quite clear to even experts on the subject, Erdoğan has begun a campaign to close down the private extra-curricular “cram” schools that have become a fixture of the Turkish educational landscape.  This proposal is clearly directed at the Gülen movement, who control about a quarter of these institutions.  The Gülen Movement’s followers generally fall within the AKP’s core demographic.  However, since the Gezi protests the movement’s leader, Fethullah Gülen, has made some official statements that could be interpreted as critical of the current government’s increasingly conservative bent.  The announcement of Erdoğan’s intention to close down study centers has started a war of words between Gülen and Erdoğan.  The impact of this rupture between arguably the two most powerful figures in Turkey is hard to predict, if for no other reason than the secretive nature of the Gülen Movement has left its scale largely unknown.

The fight against the closure of privately owned schools has already been taken up by groups outside of the Gülen Movement.  These “cram” school have become an indispensable stop-gap in the inadequate Turkish educational system.  Though the constitutional court is expected to overturn any law that would ban them, the damage has already been done.  Erdoğan once again has stubbornly continued to insist that these schools need to be closed, despite widespread public outcry and protests against such a measure.  The issue of education touches all segments of Turkish society, thus this issue may have a greater impact on the AKP base than the Gezi protests.  The opposition within the AKP has already been apparent.  One AKP minister who opposed the proposed prep school closures quit the party on Saturday after being actively marginalized and threatened with an internal disciplinary measures.

Loudly and publicly declaring the intention to implement politically or legally impossible reforms is par for the course for the AKP.  The direction of the latest round of the perennial threats to reconvert the Istanbul Hagia Sophia into a mosque illustrates this trend nicely.  At a speech marking the occasion of a new carpet museum on the premises November 16, Bülent Arınç stated that “we currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque … we are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”  Then last week it was reported that former monastery turned mosque turned ruin  in another part of the old city would in fact be soon renovated and opened as a mosque.  This property just happened to be administered by the Hagia Sophia Museum.  As I have stated previously, any real attempt to turn the Istanbul Hagia Sophia into a mosque would be an international and domestic political disaster.  However, this latest announcement regarding the monastery seems to be part of a quiet campaign to turn lesser known Byzantine churches into mosques, often without the knowledge or support of the local community.  Similarly, Erdoğan and the AKP may talk of instituting extremely conservative social policies, but the best they can do now is chip away at laws affecting only the very secular population (such as those associated with the sale of alcohol).

Significantly, the latest controversies, mostly sparked by Erdoğan, have begun to touch the pious majority.  No political party has yet emerged that could rival the AKP’s currently numbers.  However, if a combination of the opposition parties could together take a chunk out of the AKP’s 50%, the hegemony of the AKP could be greatly diminished.  The regional elections in March 2014 will give us a better sense of how the social and political unrest has affect the AKP’s popularity.  In the meantime we should take the AKP’s policy threats with a grain of salt, but continue to watch for attempts to institute conservative social policies in small but significant ways.

Written by ataturksrepublic

December 2, 2013 at 6:49 pm

What can we say about Occupy Gezi?

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The obsessive Turkey watcher that I am, I have spent a good chunk of the last few days following the news and analysis coming out of Turkey.  Though we are still in the midst of the storm, there are some conclusions that can be drawn with a fair amount of certainty.

-Popular frustration has been building up in Turkey over the last several years because of lack of public input into projects.  There has also been a disturbing trend of police using excessive force against peaceful demonstrations of all kinds.  These two elements, among others, created a volatile situation that exploded on Friday.

-After the initial police interventions, the protest became a magnet for all kinds of Turks with grievances against the government.  Some of these new protesters are also frustrated with the AKP’s construction programs, others are perennial AKP opponents.  One protester interviewed Piotr Zalewski in his great Time article nicely sums it up when he says “We’re against everything.”  Any and all pent up frustrations against the current government are on display at the moment.

-The protests started out among the largely secular and young.  however, over the last few days I have seen mounting evidence that, even if they are not joining them in the streets (though some are), the protesters are gaining support from at least some of the AKP’s base demographics.

– We can not say for sure how many AKP supporters sympathize with the protests but there is no doubt that the AKP’s support will be diminished.  The AKP’s economic success and history of liberalizing reforms has won the support of many “secular” Turks (not traditionally associated with the AKP) including liberals and the businessmen.  Those who were late to jump on the AKP bandwagon will cast their vote elsewhere.  However, Turkey’s opposition parties are both weak and unappealing to large segments of the population.  The AKP will therefore remain a force to be reckoned with in Turkish politics until a viable alternative capable of bridging the many divides of Turkish society appears.

-Despite the fact that many are making the easy (and inaccurate) comparison between the Occupy Gezi movement and the protest movements that brought on the Arab Spring, in all likelyhood this movement will not birth a full out revolution.  Unlike the Arab Spring countries, Turkey is a democracy.  The importance of this cannot be overstated.  The AKP (embodied by Erdogan) received an impressive 50% of the vote in the last election.  As discussed above, the popularity of Erdogan and the AKP will certainly take a hit but when it comes down to the line, I am willing to bet that Turkey would rather go with the devil it knows (and elected) over the devil it doesn’t know.   However, Erdogan’s ability to guide the creation of a new constitution, already compromised, is likely lost and with it his dream of becoming Turkey’s first American style president.

– If Erdogan continues to insist upon eating his foot, and assuming that no new political opposition party is conjured up, Turkey’s calls for alternative leadership will have to be answered from within the AKP itself.  The most likely candidate to step up to the job is the current President Abdullah Gul.  Though informal polling indicates that he is unpopular among the protesters, he has consistently shown himself to be the foil to Erdogan’s impulsive and often volatile style of politics.  I suspect that after things have cooled down, the AKP base, and those on the bandwagon, will see him as the rational alternative to Erdogan.

– Erdogan, and Turkey in generally, will see their soft power and popularity seriously weakened in the region.  Bashar Assad’s denunciations of Erdogan’s handling of protests is certainly ironic but not undeserved.  The man who touted democracy abroad refuses to bend to the will of his own citizens.  Erdogan’s hypocrisy has been laid bare and I doubt the beleaguered populations of Egypt and other Arab spring countries will any longer have any interest in buying what he is selling.

-Footnote: This should be (and is) is the least of Turkey’s concerns right now, but I cannot see how the IOP will ever agree to give the 2020 Olympics to Istanbul after this weekend.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 3, 2013 at 4:41 am