Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive

With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

July 19, 2017
8 min read

When (according to official figures) 51 per cent of Turkish voters voted in April’s referendum to extend the executive and legislative powers of the president, effectively signalling the end of the parliamentary regime as established in 1923, Turkish and international news hailed the result as ‘historic’. An article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled ‘RIP Turkey 1923-2017’ even went as far as to suggest that Turkey as we have known it is now ‘dead’.

In fact, there was nothing particularly historic about the referendum. Since 2014, when the president was elected for the first time by popular vote rather than by parliament, Turkey has been governed by a de facto presidential system. The referendum was the last step required to legalise the status quo. A ‘yes’ was required and the government ensured that it was achieved.

Reign of fear

The referendum campaign was, in the words of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report, conducted on an ‘unlevel playing field’. Its report underlined several reasons for this critical assessment.

One was the explicit rhetoric of public officials that tarnished the ‘no’ campaign and identified ‘no’ voters as ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’. Lack of media coverage of the ‘no’ campaign was another. The state of emergency, which has been renewed every three months since the 15 July coup attempt last year, was also underlined as a backdrop of violation of freedom of assembly and expression.

However, the situation was much worse than the obstruction of a free and liberal referendum process. What the OSCE report did not, or could not, state was the reign of fear in the country.

President Erdogan’s regime has converted state measures designed to tackle the coup-plotters into a purge and witch-hunt against each and every vocal dissident in Turkey. Facebook posts, Twitter timelines, coffee-house chats, magazine articles, blogs and columns have been increasingly criminalised and become the so-called ‘proof’ of the accused’s ‘support of terrorism’.

In the run up to the referendum voices critical of the regime were systematically silenced. Several MPs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, including the co-leaders, have been imprisoned. One of them, Selahattin Demirtas, had been a presidential candidate in the 2014 elections and his party based its June 2015 general election campaign on the anti-Erdogan slogan ‘We will not allow you to be president’. Another strong opposition voice, the daily Cumhuriyet, has seen its editorial board members and columnists imprisoned.

Popular defiance

Despite all of this, the people of Turkey refused to give Erdogan and his party the clear mandate they had been expecting. Almost all metropolitan cities, including Istanbul, Ankara, Diyarbakir and Izmir, voted ‘no’. This is the first time in the modern history of Turkey that voting in the metropolitan cities has gone against the overall result of an election or referendum.

When it became clear that the ‘no’ was doing much better than the regime had expected, the Supreme Election Board (SEB) initially stopped sending the counting results to the opposition parties, and then made an unprecedented decision: it accepted votes that lacked an official stamp.

These two actions guaranteed a victory for ‘yes’ and the regime supporters quickly took to the streets to claim it. The OSCE report described the practices of the SEB as ‘undermining an important safeguard and contradicting the law’.

When ‘no’ voters realised that the referendum was being hijacked, they also took to the streets and called on the main opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party (RPP) leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, not to accept this illegal act. Kilicdaroglu’s speech, however, was nothing more than a call for calm – he urged people not to take to the streets at all but wait for the party to use legal channels to challenge the status quo.

Opposition complicity

The referendum reinforces the argument that the main opposition in Turkey has served only to legitimise and reproduce the authoritarian regime. Not only does it provide useful window-dressing for the regime to claim that Turkey is a democracy, it also blocks the popular resistance of the opposition forces by keeping it within the boundaries set by the regime.

Any attempt to challenge the referendum result through established channels is doomed to failure, given that these channels have long since been seized by the regime itself. The RPP has failed to acknowledge – or adequately challenge – the increasing concentration of power that has been occurring in Turkey for the past five years because in practice it benefits from the status quo through the local municipalities and clientelist economy that revolves around it.

It is hardly surprising that while most local municipalities of the pro-Kurdish party have been taken over by the state, none of those controlled by the RPP have been touched. In reality, the RPP is no less an obstacle to democratic and popular resistance in Turkey than the ruling party.

International complicity

In addition to the RPP domestically, another actor has been complicit internationally in the rise of the Erdogan regime: the west.

For the USA, Turkey is a Nato ally and an important strategic actor in the fight against ISIS in Syria. The close strategic relations between Washington and the Erdogan regime started as early as 2002, when the moderate Islamism of Erdogan was presented as a role model for the post-9/11 Middle East. Erdogan himself was a co-chair of the Greater Middle Eastern Project of the Bush administration.

US bases in Turkey were used during the invasion of Iraq, and now they are operational again for Syria. The regime’s logistical support for the Free Syrian Army (transferring weapons, hosting fighters, treating the wounded) has been crucial for Washington’s plans to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, who has been supported by Russia.

For European states and the EU, the situation is politically more complex. Turkey is a candidate country for EU membership, whose minimum accession criteria include free and fair elections, as well as respect for fundamental rights, among them freedom of the press, expression and assembly, and rights of minorities.

These criteria have been increasingly disregarded by the Erdogan government. And with Turkey hosting almost three million Syrian refugees and acting as Europe’s border guard, the EU has been unusually mild in its criticisms of authoritarianism and violation of freedoms. This is despite the war of words that broke out between Erdogan and some European governments during the referendum campaign.

A striking example of European complicity is the EU-Turkey refugee deal, which was agreed during the military operations by the Turkish state against the Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey. The operations wiped several towns off the map and, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 2,000 civilians were killed and 355,000 people displaced. The EU granted international legitimacy to the Erdogan regime when it needed it most.

In addition, Turkey is potentially an energy hub, enabling resources to be transferred via Turkey to Europe as an alternative to dependence on Russian gas. This is not an unusual practice for the EU, which had similar understandings with Ben Ali of Tunisia, Gaddafi of Libya, and Mubarak of Egypt.

Choices

The Erdogan regime now faces two choices. One is to acknowledge that it faces strong popular opposition in the cities that cannot be handled easily through pseudo-opposition parties and requires a new conciliatory approach.

Given the experiences of the recent past, this is unlikely. The most probable option is to increase oppression in a context of economic crisis, high unemployment and increasing food prices. Most of the population in Turkey is in debt and the lira has been devalued in relation to the dollar and euro.

The hope for the left is that it can build on the recent experience of popular opposition arising from the Gezi Park protests in 2013. Everything started over ‘a few trees’ in Gezi Park, Istanbul, which is the only public space in the heart of Istanbul left untouched by aggressive neoliberal urbanisation. The government planned to destroy the park and build a shopping mall in a replica of a historic Ottoman military barracks. The protests, started by environmentalists, spread throughout Turkey in three days and for two weeks different groups, including trade unions, feminists, LGBT+ groups, students, unemployed graduates, socialists, communists, anti-capitalist Islamists, Kurds and other minorities, occupied public spaces all over the country. According to official statistics, five million people attended the protests.

Although the recent developments in Turkey give a different impression at first glance, the Gezi Park resistance was a turning point for Turkey’s democratic struggles. For the first time, different groups that had previously had no contact or sympathy for each other, came together and resisted collectively in a non-macho, pluralist and peaceful way.

It was their first encounter with each other, and the unique nature of the protests meant that the institutions of the state did not know how to deal with them. The government could not decide its course of action, and the opposition parties, particularly the RPP, could not connect with the resistance.

It is time for the opposition forces to think beyond the status quo and reconstitute the horizontal and radical politics they managed to create during the Gezi protests in 2013. We did it before, we can do it again. Turkey is still alive.

Nazim A is a pseudonym

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


38