Atatürk's Republic

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Posts Tagged ‘liberalism

Turkish Democracy: Still Alive, but Still Flawed

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The results of Sunday’s general election in Turkey are (almost) official.  With 40.8% of the vote, translating into 258 representatives, the AKP is still the largest party in parliament.  However, in contrast to the previous three general elections where it won a plurality of the vote, the AKP is 16 delegates shy of being able form a government. The party will likely have to partner with one of the three other parties sending representatives to parliament: the secularist CHP, which won 25% of the vote (132 representatives), the Nationalist MHP, which won 16.3% of the vote (80 representatives) and the Liberal Kurdish HDP, which broke the election threshold with room to spare and won 13.1% of the vote (80 representatives).  For a details on governmental rules and formalities governing the creation of coalition government in Turkey, see this BGN news explainer. For an indepth breakdown of all the possible and probable political scenarios, see Aaron Stein’s masterful piece for the Atlantic Council.

There are dozens of different aspects of these election results that are ripe for discussion, from the unprecedented number of women and minority representatives to the effect that the war in Syria (and seige of Kobane) had on the vote distribution.  The topic that has rightfully dominated the blog-o-sphere is what do these election results mean for both the immediate and long-term future of Turkish politics and democracy.

Despite the fact that the AKP is still the largest party by far, I do think it is fair to interpret these results as a reprimand to the party generally and to Erdogan’s leadership specifically.  Simply pointing out that the AKP is still won 15% more of the electorate than the next most population, or even spinning the results the opposite way and saying that 60% of Turks voted for another party, fails to take in to consideration the crucial context of both Turkish politics and this election.  First, Turkey still has a political opposition problem.  For millions of average Turks, there is still no party that better represents their interests than the AKP. The traditional opposition parties of the CHP and the MHP, despite some decent efforts during this campaign, still have not figured out how to put together a policy program that will convince voters that they can actually govern. The HDP succeeded in selling itself as not just a Kurdish party, but pluralist identity that represents a number of marginalized groups (Kurdish nationalists, LGBTQ, Christian, feminist and other minorities).  The politics of the HDP is arguably the politics of the next generation of Turks, a party that fulfills many of the ideals of the Gezi movement. Unlike its compatriots, the dynamic and (for Western liberals in particular) appealing HDP has a definite agenda and policy program. However, it is simply never going to draw enough votes from the current pool of average conservative, ethnic Turkish voters.  Until a new center-right alternative comes along (and barring any major crises such as a full out economic crash or invasion of Syria) a great number of Turks will continue to vote AKP.  There is no other party that better suits their beliefs and interests, and hence the AKP numbers will remain relatively high.  Even a dislike for the main plank in the the AKP platform, namely a constitutional change in order to create a strong presidential system, seems to have not been enough to drive many AKP voters into the arms of another party.

There is no doubt that both the AKP and Erdogan consider their party’s showing to be dismal and downright embarrassing.  The AKP’s share of the vote dropped 9% from the last parliamentary election in 2011, but more telling the party went from enjoying a near super-majority to not even being able to form a single-party government.  The party leadership looked like they were listening to a eulogy during PM Davutoglu’s post-election speech.  President Erdogan for his part has gone into hiding.  During the election campaign, Erdogan crisscrossed the country and dominated the airwaves asking, neigh demanding, that Turks grant the AKP a super-majority and, more importantly, allow him to be installed as the real (and not just de facto) executive authority in the country.  The election result was a firm rebuke of Erdogan’s authoritarian dreams and I suspect that, given the unpopularity of a presidential system among even those who were likely to vote AKP, that many AKP voters are quietly happy with the result.

Michael Koplow argued in Foreign Affairs that Erdogan is still quite dangerous given the defacto powers he has accumulated and the fact that many outgoing AKP MPs will be drawn into his circle of advisers.  I agree that Erdogan’s political career is far from over, but the fact that he has not been able to yet been able to find a way to spin these results in his favor, or even fall back on blaming one of his imaginary legion of enemies, speaks volumes. There is also no way he will be able to continue on acting with the unchecked impunity as he has for the past year as President.  There is a reason that Erdogan campaigned so hard to have his powers officially enshrined in the constitution.  Without a constitutional change to a powerful Presidency, the parliament and Prime Minister still officially have the real power in government.  Erdogan knows this and hence put everything he had into trying to legally secure his position.  Irony is that unpopularity of the proposed presidential system was very likely a main contributing factor to the AKP’s loss of support.  The opposition parties, particularly the MHP which is most likely to partner with the AKP in a coalition government, have jumped on this and made it clear that will not work with an AKP which is dominated by Erdogan.  There is no way the AKP can move forward, and form a government, without addressing, and restraining, the Presidential elephant in the room.

The good news is that the Turkish people have definitively voiced their rejection of a president for life and a single party state in what was, despite widespread fears of fraud, a free election.  The bad news is that democracy requires more than periodic elections, and Turkey is still burdened with a sycophantic media, weak civil society, corrupt oligarchs, and a majoritarian approach to rights.  The country’s institutional system, and political culture, are still set up to allow one party or individual to accumulate undemocratic levels of power.  Addressing and fixing so many ingrained problems would be a challenge for the most united, progressive government let alone a coalition government which will be lucky just to be able to hold itself together.  The party with the most reformist agenda, the HDP, is unlikely even to be part of the ruling coalition. A majority of Turks voted for change, and they are likely to get their wish in the form of a cowed President, but much needed institutional reform probably won’t even make it to the parliamentary floor.  I still truly believe that Turkey has a brighter, more liberal future ahead of it but the road leading there will be long and require a drastic overhaul of both the political parties and the institutions that govern Turkey.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

June 9, 2015 at 8:24 pm

Ergenekon is not Gezi

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In the few days since the initial sentences were pronounced in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases, the media has been inundated with articles about this years-long judicial saga (or at least as inundated as the media ever gets regarding news about Turkey).  Most experts acknowledge that Turkey’s Deep State was a very real and powerful entity that has to some degree been tamed by these trials.  However, there is also widespread consensus that the net cast by the investigation also caught up many government critics that most likely had nothing to do with the deep state or coup plots.  Given the timing of the case and its targeting of journalists, academics and politicians critical of the government, it is all too easy to try to draw a straight line between Ergenekon and the ongoing Gezi movement.  Some media coverage of the case has done just that, juxtaposing a picture of an Ergenekon defendant with a story about Gezi-related media censorshipOthers are more subtle, emphasizing demographic and political commonalities between the protesters in Gezi and those outside the Ergenekon courthouse.

However, as with most things in Turkey, the connection between Gezi and Ergenekon is far from simple.  Though arguably they both can be cited as examples of the AKP’s suppression of its critics, Ergenekon and Gezi represent two very different moments in Turkish political history.  Ergenekon and those who passionately defend or disparage the handing of the case represent the old Turkey and it’s strict Kemalist/Pro-military vs. Islamist/anti-military political divide.  In contrast, Gezi is the first truly liberal and diverse widespread political movement in Turkish history.  The “polarization” that is so stark in the case of Ergenekon is much fuzzier in Gezi.  Those who oppose the Ergenekon trials are generally affiliated with the old Kemalist secular elite who were very much already politically aware and active.  In contrast, Gezi is overwhelmingly young, the majority of which claim no political affiliation and were not politically active before the protests.

While it is fair to assume that anti-Ergenekon secularists would support the Gezi protests, the same does not hold true for the reverse scenario.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Gezi leadership has refused to get involved in the Ergenekon protests.  While at least some of those facing prison terms in connection with Ergenekon or Sledgehammer are the victims of injustice, they don’t represent the same kind of injustice the Gezi movement was built around.  Gezi resonated amongst those who felt they had no voice in politics.  In contrast, many of the non-military defendants in Ergenekon became targets because of their prominence as outspoken nationalists and government opponents.  Despite the involvement of MHP (nationalist) and CHP (Kemalist) in Gezi, the movement itself eschewed these labels.  Polls have shown that participants in Gezi are not keen on voting for any of the existing parties.  CHP parliamentarians have noticeably become more liberal in their rhetoric since Gezi in an effort to attract it’s stubbornly politically independent demographic.

In short, Gezi supporters seem to be happy to watch Turkey’s political battle royale from the sidelines with no particular concern for the outcome.  After all, the two sides represent illiberal, if opposite, political positions.  If we learned from Gezi, it is that the next generation wants to free itself from state paternalism and authoritarianism, whether it be in the name of Islam, capitalism or secularism.

Written by ataturksrepublic

August 8, 2013 at 3:24 pm

No, things are not back to normal in Turkey

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or Why Occupy Gezi still matters.

Egypt may have usurped Turkey as the Muslim-country-in-crisis of the moment, but the protest movement that began over a month and a half ago in Turkey is far from dead.  The police have continued to use force against any gathering that even remotely resembles a protest, especially in or near Gezi park.  They have also begun arresting individuals suspected of participating in the protests outside the context of demonstrations.  In response to the heavy-handed tactics of authorities, there has been a boom in creative passive-resistance protest in recent weeks including public standing, walking, festivals and even Ramadan Iftar dinners.  There have also been move made toward creating a solid political movement out of the diverse grievances of the protestors through the creation of community forums throughout Istanbul.

These forums are of course only baby steps toward Occupy Gezi having representatives in local or national government.  In the short term, as myself and others repeatedly predicted, Erdogan and the AKP are not going anywhere.  Indeed some, including anthropologist of Turkey Jenny White*, have begun to question whether Westerners and Turkish elites have over estimated the real impact Occupy Gezi has had and will have on Turkish politics.  I certainly don’t discount her observations and they mesh with my own impression that away from the protest centers there is little sympathy for the movement.  In this way the AKP’s base has been little effected by Gezi and the party is sure to remain a force to be reckoned with in the short term.  However, the very existence of the Gezi movement itself remains remarkable and bodes well for the political future of Turkey.

Occupy Gezi would be an interesting political anomaly in almost any country because of the political and cultural diversity of its participants.  However this kind of intermixing of people is especially remarkable for Turkey.  As White outlines in her new book, “mixing” of different populations has been stigmatized in Turkey as long as the existence of the Republic.  Homogeneity was something to strive for and difference, whether it be ethnic, religious or linguistic, suppressed.  In Gezi participants have marveled at how the complete opposite sentiment prevailed.  As both myself and my collaborator have discussed previously on this blog, this kind of classical liberalism and tolerance of difference is a new development both in Turkish society and politics.  It appears that Western liberalism has not only arrived in Turkey through some of the EU-influenced legal changes but through soft power and cultural means as well.

M. James believes that it will take a radical upending of Turkish society for liberalism to take hold, but I counter that Gezi could very well bring about a liberal transition in more slow but sure manner.  I believe that the Occupy Gezi protestors represent the future of Turkey.  This statement may sound overly sentimental, or like propaganda from the Jewish controlled interest rate lobby if you are currently part of the Turkish government, but statistics and social trends back me up.  The Turks who have participated in Occupy Gezi up to now have been largely young. The average age of a protester in Istanbul is 28.  Not only do young people make up an inordinate number of the Gezi protestors, but the Turkish population as well.  The Gezi demographic has become politically awakened and is just reaching the age where members of their generation will start to have a direct political impact. I hypothesize that even those young people who did not or could not participate in protests are more likely to be sympathetic to the protesters because of their use and access to social media.

In short, I believe that what we are witnessing in Turkey is the symptom of a generational change that will gradually overtake and liberalize Turkish society, much like the changes America underwent from the 1960s onward.  There are still many political obstacles that these new “Young Turks” must overcome, not the least of which is finding and fielding political candidates that believe in classical liberalism.  However, I continue to remain optimistic that in the end State violence will not be able to stop this liberal awakening.

*Full disclosure- I am a former student of hers.

Written by ataturksrepublic

July 17, 2013 at 3:08 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

#irritated Ankara

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From contributor M. James:

The following, written on 6/8/13, is a follow-up on a prior post, which sought to explain how Turkey’s multi-party system not only fragments the opposition of the ruling party, but also perpetuates Turkey’s illiberalalbeit democraticsociety. As part of this chronically fragmented society, the demonstrators of this last week will have a difficult time unifying to effect meaningful political change. Worse, they don’t even know what they are fighting against.

One week ago, at 2:30am, I dropped my duffel on a poorly lit street corner and hailed a cab for Esenboğa International Airport. My shirt was damp and my sinuses were still tingling, but I was oddly at ease. In three hours, I’d be on my way home.

I offered the remaining bills in my pocket80 liraand the driver’s face lit up. He asked what time my flight was, urged me to buckle up, and handed me his sweater-vest as a pillow. I sneezed; he laughed. For the next hour on the road, I pretended to sleep. The city was calm, but there was electricity in the air. The deliberate cacophony of pots and pans emanated from one apartmentwhat would become, over the next few days, a 9:00pm ritualbut the rest of Ankara seemed asleep. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if theylike mewere only hushed, with one eye open.

The evening had been, in some ways, a bust. Intruding on my last, nostalgic night of draft beer and good company was the unwelcome irritation of expired Brazilian tear gas. I consulted Reutersthese were already, allegedly, the biggest protests to rock Turkey in years. And so, through the pungent smell of propellant, the tinny sound of the canisters, and the sight of sprinting protestors through the windows, I wondered aloud at what the next step would be.

The Turk seated across from me shrugged. He wanted garlic bread, but the bar had been too busy cutting lemons for its gas-afflicted patrons to complete the order. We called a few friends and urged them not to join us after all. Once the garlic bread arrived, we could talk. “It’s about time,” seemed to be his outlook on both the bread and the protests. “Won’t get good media coverage, though.” Being that he would start working at a Turkish newspaper in three days, I trusted his judgment. Would anything really change, though? We disagreed on that point.

We did agree, though, that our allergy symptoms were improved by the CS gas. The asthmatic bartender wasn’t as pleased. I blew my nose into a napkin and squeezed lemon into my eyes.

News and social media were already exploding. It was the “summer of discontent” in Turkeyobvious echoes of the Arab Spring. I laughed. It wouldn’t catch onthis was not anything like the Arab Spring. Soon, it would be re-branded as part of #occupy. Closer, but not quite. A few days later, I would begin to see the locally originated #diren, the imperative of “to resist,” oreven better“to put your foot down.” Much closer.

The question, of course, was whether or not those sprinting figures outside the window agreed on what they were resisting. Some came into the bar and, like many of the staff, sported tree-shaped stickers to demonstrate their solidarity with the Istanbul Gezi Park protesters. But everyone knew that this was not about a park, or greenspace, or even environmentalism. When I asked, the first word I heard was “fascism.” Adequately vague, but adequately powerful. The point was that these people had preexisting grievances with their government, and this was a timely outlet.

We walked outside just as the displeased throngsmarching from park to park since the afternoonreturned to John F. Kennedy Ave., carrying banners and chanting slogans. There were only three hundred, at the most, but within ten minutes, they drew a reckless police TOMA truck and plenty more tear gas. I was pulled into the next bar after being “warned” by the TOMA trucka quick water cannon across the chest. I ordered another beer. Someone threw a chair at the truck.

Half an hour later, still bemused and sniffling, I decided to head back to the apartment and grab my luggage. Part of me was happy to be leaving these streets, but another part was irritated enough to want to stay. And the more I sneezedsuch an unbecoming complement to indignationthe more irritated I got. Did what I was doing tonight really warrant that police response?

I suspect that many who witnessed that night on JFK Ave., or earlier that day in Gezi Park, walked home with similar thoughts. Fascists. What has made matters even worse is PM Erdoğan’s typically inflammatory reaction: A recitation of his perverse idea of what “democracy” means, i.e., nothing beyond election day. Many marginally displeased Turks have certainly been drawn into the ranks of the irritated by these authoritarian responses to what would have otherwise been truly marginal protests. And they have clearly been irritated enough to withstand the systematic irritation of their collective sinuses.

I have posted already, on Atatürk’s Republic, about how Turkish politics is only “democratic” in the strictest sense of the term, lacking anything that could be called liberal. The “liberal” use of tear gas in the last week only underlines this absence.

The problem is systemic, and can be blamed squarely on Turkey’s ill-conceived multi-party system, which all-too-naturally begets tyranny. Ironically, the men and women who have taken to the streets in the last week will try to work within their constitutionally illiberal democratic system, believing wrongly that the person of Erdoğan or the AK Parti is exclusively to blame for the “fascism” that they perceive. Even more ironically, the young secularists who make up a large portion of the disaffectedthemselves quite liberal-mindedwould be the last to advocate the two-party system that Turkey needs if it is to become a tolerant, rights-based, secular nation. Not only does the multi-party system prima facie seem more liberal, but the constitution that prescribes it came from Atatürk’s hand.

Until they realize what it really is that they should be resisting, the demonstrators will only be confused and irritated. And even if they do realize, and continue to seek change, they will soon understand that full-scale revolution is the only answera step that very few would be willing to take. Unfortunately, I do not see any other way out. The only solution is to challenge the very nature of Atatürk’s republic.

As we pulled up to the international departures terminal, I thanked the driver for his sweater-vest, dragged my duffel from the trunk, and handed over the 80 lira, and 75 kuruşall my bills and change. He thanked me. I smiled and nodded.

Kolay gelsin seemed the best parting words. Literally, “may it come easily.”

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 10, 2013 at 3:59 pm