Reading Turkey

Photo by Canset Aslıgül Eroğlu

You may have woken up to the week with distracting news from Turkey and may be wondering what is happening in a country generally known by its friendly people, hospitality and beautiful summers. I'm afraid there is no short answer.

A bit of background information

To understand the dynamics in Turkey, there are a few things one has to consider:

  1. The Republic of Turkey is the only secular country in the world where the population is predominantly Muslim. English word "secularism" may be somewhat misleading,            “since it is often used in the context of antireligious philosophy. The term used in Turkish is based on the French laïcité, which denotes what we might call "separation" - the principle of separation between religion and the state.”
  2. This is the legacy of Kemal Atatürk, the country’s founder, who aspired to build a democratic state
  3. Democracy is not very well understood in Turkey. There were three coup d'états in our lifetime; in 1960, 1971, and 1980. The latest constitution was made by the military in 1980. Since the 1990s, two “Islamic parties” were closed; one in 1998 (Refah Partisi) and another one in 2001 (Fazilet Partisi). In 28 February 1997, there was a "postmodern coup" against an Islamist political party.
  4. Turkey is multicultural; however, the state traditionally does not act equal to ethnic or religious minorities. (See TESEV publications).
  5. Before 2002, Turkey’s GDP had not exceeded $270B. So it wasn’t particularly a rich country.

And then something happened in 2002

A right wing Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish), led by someone with anti-secular views, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, won the election and a two-thirds majority of seats, becoming the first Turkish party in 11 years to win an outright majority.

This was a clear message to all other parties, which they unfortunately ignored. The first failure of reading the public mind, of reading Turkey... 

Under AKP the Turkish economy has thrived, by every measure. (See TEPAV reports). Here's the GDP growth for instance:

This rapid growth won Erdoğan a lot of public support to accomplish certain things that were deemed impossible, such as demilitarisation of politics (for the first time in decades the general public doesn't know the name of the head of Turkish Armed Forces), massive infrastructure improvements (roads, railways, etc), major investment on the healthcare system, e-government        projects that are second to none in the world, etc.

The impressive progress allowed Erdoğan to win two more elections. In 2011, AKP managed to increase its share of the vote to just under 50%, "an impressive result for a party that has already been in power for more than eight years."

Now, here's the problem

During this period the main opposition party, Republican People's Party (in Turkish CHP), has lost opportunity after opportunity to win votes back. Instead of coming up with alternative (read better) policies, all they did was to oppose everysingle AKP policy, even if what was being proposed was actually good for the country. In the end CHP "proved unelectable, trapped in the past and reliant on generals and judges to win back what it keeps losing at the ballot box" and AKP raised its vote to 50%.

This was the second misreading of the public mind, this time on Erdoğan's part. He thought the people voting for him were actually voting for all  his policies. This wasn't the case. Some people simply were not  voting for CHP and that was that. Others didn't even understand the policies.

Without a credible opposition Erdoğan became authoritarian. He stopped seeking public opinion on important issues and started pushing his agenda almost singlehandedly.

Since CHP was in no way to react, one would expect media to voice concerns. Not in Turkey. Since Erdoğan became less tolerant of criticism in recent years freedom of expression is under serious threat in Turkey. There are [still] hundreds of journalists in prison. Tens of thousands of websites are blocked at a national-level. When Doğan Media Group, one of country’s biggest groups, were publicly against some of his policies, they ended up with a $2.1 billion bill in back-taxes and fines.

There is an increasing number of human rights violations too in the country, as demonstrated by the number of judgments against Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights. Courts are just not functioning as they should. Criminal justice system is in desperate need of a reform.

So who would be the voice of the silent public?

Gezi Park

As it turns out, the answer is a few hundred youngsters, who until now were labelled as “apolitical”.

Istanbul municipality had announced that the only park left in the centre of Istanbul, namely Gezi Park, was to be demolished to make way for the reconstruction of an old military building (yes Erdoğan gets irony, albeit seldom), which would house a shopping mall. When the council cut a couple of trees in a midnight operation, a few people nearby posted it on social media and a couple hundred youngsters moved to the park to stop the demolition.

These were just a bunch of naive, romantic kids with tents. They were peacefully protesting the construction of yet another mall, which Istanbul has plenty of (1 sq/m per 4 citizens).

What happened next would define the course of events in the following days. Police moved into the park the next midnight and used what can only be defined as “excessive force” (teargas, water cannons, etc) to get those people out of Gezi Park.

When the word got out, more people moved in and the police had to be even more brutal. People were hurt, both physically and emotionally. Police had not acted like a protector of the citizen but rather like the private army of a prime minister. This continued until entire Taksim Square, including Gezi Park, were occupied by Istanbullers, and it was simply not feasible for the police to intervene (this doesn’t mean they haven’t tried!).

Erdoğan then went on the TV to say “I’m not going to change my plans just because a bunch of looters are against them. That building is going to be constructed.” This was the second catalyst for people to retaliate – this time not only in Istanbul but in many cities around the country and indeed internationally. The result was more teargas (note the empty shells below).

"The looters" were also the ones cleaning their park during the day before continuing their protest for the entire evening.

All people wanted was to be heard, and here was the elected prime minister who was openly saying “I’m not going to listen to you”.

Media was being silent again. The following scene from 1st June 2013 summarises it all (CNN Turk vs CNN International).

Erdoğan then gave an interview where he demonstrated that he lost all sense by using phrases like “Anybody who drinks is an alcoholic”, “We would mobilise 200,000 people against them if we wanted”, “There is a plague called Twitter. That thing called social media is now a nuisance for all societies”, and many more.

This is what brought Turkey to the turmoil it is in today. This was the third failed attempt to read the mind of a nation.

Historic Opportunity

The opposition opportunistically attempted to turn these events to their advantage. This was the final misreading of the society. People were extremely quick to respond and said “this is beyond parties”. One of the most shared pictures on social media (below) says “The public are in squares not for you but because you failed”.

This summarises the sentiment behind the uprising. Members of the parliament should finally learn to read their people. The ruling party should employ inclusionary policy making processes seen in a deliberative democracy. The opposition should simply make way to fresh blood, and if they don’t, I’m willing to bet that Erdoğan will raise his votes to 60%, despite all that happened. Afterall "we are too rich to be as illiterate as we are... We are one of the few countries that manage to earn money without getting educated" and in today's Turkey getting richer seems far more important than freedom of expression, human rights, or a functioning justice system.

Ekin Caglar, 3 June 2013, Turkey