Friday, February 28, 2014

Where do you stand in post-military Turkish politics?

My favorite counter-factual thought experiment is speculating on the different directions that political institutionalization in Turkey might have taken, if the 1960 coup did not take place. If the military intervention in 1960 did not happen, and the 1961 elections took place with Menderes' DP and İnönü's CHP competing for office, would DP lose the elections and leave office peacefully? I imagine a late-20th century Turkey where the military would have already accepted independent civilian control and would have no interest in toppling down popularly elected governments. Obviously, the 1960 coup was not just a historical mishap. The Ottoman political/military structure, the Unionist legacy of the 1910s, and the crucial roles the military played in the national independence war and the establishment of the Republic were undoubtedly determinant in shaping the interventionist Turkish military in the Republican era. Nevertheless, I indulge myself in political fantasy, imagining a different scenario where the military was held off just another year until the elections in 1961. Perhaps, that first fatal coup, which further entrenched the interventionist military would be avoided and a successful transfer of power through elections would foster a more democratic institutional framework in Turkey.

I started with this counter-factual thought experiment, because thanks to the interventionist Turkish military, I did not have any problems in situating myself in Turkish politics until recently. I was anti-military, period. In my opinion, the military had to be opposed because due to the military's restrictions, (which were simply internalized by almost all the political actors), on the political arena, real and meaningful political issues were simply taboo. For the military, the Alevi, the Kurd, and the Islamist were threats, and consequently, they could not legitimately exist in the political arena. For me, this was first and foremost the most important political issue that defined my political stance in 1990s and 2000s. One of the successes of the long AKP rule was kicking military out of politics and forcing it to accept civilian control. In a world where the military is not the obvious target, where do I stand? I have always identified myself as someone on the left and as a democrat. However, in post-military Turkey, where do I stand? I ask this question not because I am having doubts about my political allegiances. On the contrary, in this livelier political arena, I hold onto my values and visions for the future even more strongly and confidently. However, when the military withdrew, the political arena significantly expanded. In their rush to fill this arena, political actors muddied the waters to such an extent that it has almost become impossible to safely land your feet. In this post, I will try to describe these muddy waters, and will reiterate my question: In a political arena that is in almost complete chaos, how (and where) do you stand firm?

In the preceding paragraph, I mentioned AKP's effective elimination of the military from the political arena. AKP stood firm while the courts were going after those military leaders who allegedly conspired to overthrow AKP with a coup. Through fashionably titled cases such as Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer), many military figures (including former Chief of Staff İlker Başbuğ) were convicted and imprisoned in 2012. We can arguably consider these cases as the first instance where waters started to get muddier. Ergenekon and Balyoz were landmark events where the big boss, i.e. military, was prosecuted and discredited. However, as many similar examples would follow later, these cases did not run smoothly and transparently. Many would argue that there was clear evidence for a criminal investigation but prosecution eventually approached persecution. Through leaked evidence to the media, the suspects were publicly humiliated and discredited.

The same method of public humiliation through leaked evidence was used in the Fenerbahçe match-fixing case. Fenerbahçe won the Turkish Süper Lig, after a very competitive season in the 2010-2011 season. I am an ardent Fenerbahçe fan and had watched all the games in the second part of that season. It was a very close call and I was very proud when we were the champions at the end. In July 2011, the police started an operation, simultaneously leaking recorded phone-tappings to the press. Fenerbahçe president Aziz Yıldırım, and some other high-profile figures from various teams across the country, were accused of match-fixing. Aziz Yıldırım was arrested and imprisoned. Fenerbahçe was not allowed to participate in European championships in 2011-2012, and was eventually banned for two more years. My initial reaction to the accusations, especially after listening to the leaked tapes, was deep hatred towards Aziz Yıldırım and his cronies who embarrassed Fenerbahçe. I wanted those responsible to get punished. I saw the match-fixing case as a platform to cleanse Turkish soccer from corruption with zero-tolerance. However, the investigation and prosecution faltered very similar to the military trials, and left me wondering whether I was too hasty in condemning Aziz Yıldırım. The controversy still continues as Aziz Yıldırım was eventually released. He sustains that he was persecuted with leaked tapes and that there was no real basis to the case. Since his release, he became a more influential public figure, mustering tremendous public support for himself and Fenerbahçe. Two weeks ago on a match day, approximately 500,000 people marched in protest on Baghdad Street, from Bostancı to the stadium at Kızıltoprak

Thinking back on both cases (the military and Fenerbahçe), I feel manipulated. Both of my desires, ending military rule and cleansing Turkish football were quite professionally manipulated. Leaked evidence was used as a tool to publicly condemn those suspects before they even appeared in court. It is not that I believe there is no substance to the allegations and accusations. However, the public support created by leaked evidence enabled the prosecution to catapult these criminal cases to witch hunts. The moral high ground of public prosecution, doubled with an extremely negative public opinion against the suspects, simply gave a free hand to the courts in dealing punishment. I have practically no sympathy for the military leaders or for Aziz Yıldırım, and I believe there very well might be reasons for them to be punished. However, the ways in which these cases unfolded, appear as a reincarnation of public lynchings in mass society.

It is quite impossible to prove, but it is widely agreed that members of the Fethullah Gülen movement, who were strategically positioned in the judiciary and the police, worked together with the government in these high-profile cases. It was this cooperation that enabled establishing civilian control over the military. However, this cooperation ended a few months ago and Cemaat and AKP engaged in a bloody battle with each other. This was a terrible blow to AKP which was heavily bruised after the popular Gezi protests in the summer. The leaked tapes of top AKP figures and Erdoğan himself emerged when he was already being criticized for increased authoritarianism. AKP's strong reaction to the tapes was widely perceived as even more authoritarian, and they seemed to fuel anti-Erdoğan feelings even further.

The followers of this blog would know that I was positively surprised and energized with the Gezi protests. Moreover, I was forced to re-evaluate my stance on Erdoğan and AKP, especially after Erdoğan's increasingly arrogant and authoritarian behavior. I would be very happy to see the end of AKP. As I discussed in my previous post, I have no doubts about AKP's involvement in corruption. On the other hand, I have no illusions about AKP's own involvement in the previous cases against the military and Fenerbahçe. Consequently, I have little sympathy when AKP speakers remind everyone of presumption of innocence. I just want to offer an evil laugh when I hear them complain about the police for leaking evidence to the media. Despite all these, I would like to approach the case of AKP's leaked tapes with lessons learnt from the previous experiences. The pattern is too familiar to miss: Early morning police raids, leaked evidence to the media, etc... Where do I stand in these muddy waters? As I said, I do not find it in me to defend AKP when I strongly believe that they are buried deep in corruption. However, I cannot endorse these means to get rid of AKP.

Let's rid ourselves of all pretense. High-profile cases such as Ergenekon, Balyoz, Fenerbahçe match-fixing, and December 17 corruption are all political cases. We cannot expect the courts to act as if there were no political consequences to their verdicts. The results of these cases were bound to depend on mobilization outside the courts. In other words, had the military and its constituency mobilized better during the trials, they could have received a more favorable outcome. Publicized police raids and leaked evidence to the media took place to pre-empt such mobilization. The now-familiar scenario was put in motion to silence the pro-military constituency even before they mobilized. Faced with seemingly overwhelming evidence in the media following police operations and arrests, even the most ardent defenders of the military preferred to keep a low profile for a while. We could safely argue the same for Fenerbahçe and Aziz Yıldırım. Please let me underline this again: I am not saying that the military leaders or Aziz Yıldırım were guilty or innocent. I argue that these trials were political at the outset. Recognizing this plain fact, AKP and their allies in bureaucracy, leaked evidence in the media to preempt their opponents' mobilization.

What we see in the case of AKP and corruption is exactly the same. The only difference is that AKP is now the victim. Regardless of AKP's involvement in corruption, the police raids, arrests, and leaked tapes are preparations for a future case. These leaked tapes are a mobilization effort for a future corruption trial (as well as a stab at AKP's popularity in forthcoming elections.) Now, where do I stand in these muddy waters? I started this post with a counter-factual about imagining how differently political institutions would evolve if the 1960 coup were not to happen. This was obviously a conscious choice. I prefer to analyze politics through the development of institutions in a specific country. Then, I believe the answer to my question has to start from political institutions. Upon military's controversial departure from active politics in Turkey, what kind of political institutions filled the void?

As the discussion of these high-profile cases demonstrate, the judiciary emerged as the main political institution that determined the fate of politics in Turkey upon the military's departure. It is not a coincidence that all major political battles were fought at the court or about the court in the past decade. Some examples besides those discussed would be the Constitutional Court's 367 decision, and the recent spat over HSYK (High Council of Judges and Prosecutors). I will go so far as to argue that devoid of military's limiting but defining and legitimizing existence in politics, political actors sought a similar authority in the courts. The courts became a new arbiter in politics. We could have welcomed this development, had the political actors recognized the courts' independence. However, as my discussion of  televised police raids and leaked evidence to the media shows, the legal battles were fought with incredible ferocity that significantly reduced confidence in the rule of law. When police officers and prosecutors themselves were involved in violating the presumption of innocence, trust in the legal system inevitably dissipated. Moreover, political actors did not hesitate in colonizing the judiciary. It is widely believed that the Gülen movement has many supporters within the police and the justice system. Similarly, with recent legal changes, the AKP government unabashedly showed an effort in controlling various parts of the judiciary. In short, the most important component of our post-military institutional structure is a colonized judiciary where legal battles are fought with no respect to the rule of law.

So, here we come back to the initial question: Where do I stand in this mess? I simply do not endorse televised police raids and leaked evidence that violate the presumption of innocence. I hesitantly welcome evidence of AKP's involvement in corruption but I do not hold very high hopes for the near future when a decent trial seems simply impossible. I am deeply worried about the possibility of toppling down a democratically-elected government through leaked tapes, even though I have become very wary of that government that is becoming more authoritarian everyday. I am even more worried about a future where any government that would replace AKP would be compelled to cooperate with a force that is entrenched in the bureaucracy and can topple governments with its leaked tapes. It appears, there are no easy answers in post-military Turkish politics.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Corruption and AKP

AKP's acronym stands for Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, i.e. Justice and Development Party. For years, the leaders of the party preferred using AK Parti. As you might know, "ak" means "white" in Turkish. The obvious reference in "AK Parti" was to cleanliness, transparency and innocence. In essence, the party climbed to power in the wake of many corruption scandals which marginalized mainstream parties such as ANAP and DYP in the 1990s. Fast forward a decade or so, and many AKP leaders, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, are now facing allegations of corruption through leaked tapes of phone-tapping.

The first wave of these tapes emerged on December 17, 2013, when many high profile figures were taken into custody by the police for interrogation. These figures included the sons of three ministers in the cabinet, an Azeri business tycoon, and the CEO of a state of owned bank. The police had recovered millions of Turkish Liras and foreign currency hidden in some of the apartments.

I might try to provide a full chronological account of what happened since December 17 in a later post, but the government simply identified the allegations of corruption, the leaked tapes, and the police operation as yet another attempt at forcefully removing AKP from power - a coup. This time, the attacking power was neither the "military," nor the "deep state." It was the "parallel state." Erdoğan and other AKP leaders identified the Fethullah Gülen movement (an Islam-inspired movement, also called Cemaat or the Hizmet movement) as the parallel state which allegedly controlled key nodes in the police and judiciary. Cemaat and AKP had cooperated since the latter's establishment in 2001. For reasons yet to be found out, the cooperation ended in late 2013 and AKP and Cemaat went for each other's throat. AKP leaders tried to discredit the tapes and police operations by arguing that the "timing was meaningful." In their argumentation, the prosecutors and the police of the Cemaat accumulated tapes and cases against prominent AKP figures over time to circulate them at the most suitable time when it would hurt the most.

The AKP government reacted swiftly against the police and the prosecutors. Hundreds of police chiefs and officers were removed from office over the following weeks. Eventually those prosecutors who were in charge of the corruption case were reassigned as well. After these removals, there simply was no hope left for a decent investigation, prosecution and trial. Turkish political arena is familiar to instrumental exploitation of the law, but not to such blatant disregard of the law by those in power. I would like to come back to this topic in later posts, but today I want to talk about AKP's rapid burial under allegations of corruption, despite its legislative strength and executive power, which successfully evades judicial control for the moment. How could AKP sink under such allegations when they appeared most powerful?

The answer lies in two main institutional factors: 1) AKP motto that prioritizes "getting things done" and "providing services"; and 2) Increased personification of AKP under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

1) Before forming the AKP and becoming the prime minister, Erdoğan had served as the mayor of Istanbul for many years in 1990s. He was renowned for getting Istanbul in order and providing many services which were neglected before him. As the mayor, he fixed the problems with garbage collection and improved public transportation among other issues. It is my belief that Erdoğan approached the governance of Turkey with a similar mindset. Within this frame of mind, Turkey faced important infrastructural deficiencies and Erdoğan would fix these issues. It is not a coincidence that the main item in AKP's developmental agenda had always been construction: Construction of roads, bridges, houses, etc... Recently, the AKP government has been adamant about building a third bridge over the Bosphorus. Another important (crazy?) project under discussion has been to open a second canal to the west of Istanbul that would mimic the Bosphorus... One of the key new official agencies in this construction oriented framework was TOKİ (Housing Development Administration), which has been operating in almost every urban center and beyond to build new large residential neighborhoods.

I am sure many citizens approve these developmental projects which turned Turkey into one large construction site over the last decade. Here, I do not want to discuss and evaluate the costs and benefits of a developmental agenda that prioritizes construction beyond anything else. However, it is a fact that such an endeavor fosters a colossal construction and real estate market. It also requires readjustment of city plans to accommodate these new roads, bridges, and neighborhoods. It requires destruction of old neighborhoods and relocation of many residents. I think it is at this critical juncture where the seeds of AKP's burial under allegations of corruption were sown.

In its haste to "develop" Turkey through construction, AKP wanted to "get things done" quickly. Judicial controls, legal requirements, and local assemblies were hurdles in AKP's path to development and modernization. In AKP's view, courts were throwing away valuable projects, and legal requirements were causing delays in important projects. I strongly believe that AKP institutionalized extralegal practices over the years to cut corners short. In their bid to "provide better services," AKP oversaw the crystallization of a collective ethos within its own ranks that sacrificed the law in exchange for rapid progress. We can come up with many examples but I will suffice here with a new case I read in my friend Tuna's forthcoming article on privatization of Sümerbank factories and lands across the country.

The Sümerbank (a state-owned textile factory) in Malatya, which was situated on 129 thousand square meters, was privatized in 2004. A conglomerate of local firms had bid and bought the factory and its premises. As had been the case for such acts of privatization in industrial zones, the factory was soon demolished and plans for building a shopping mall were underway simultaneously with a zoning change that turned the area into a commercial zone. In exchange for the zone change, a part of the land was given to the Municipality as the site of the new municipal building, (which is now operational,) free of charge! In addition to the shopping mall, which has been a huge success, new plans have been underway to build a private hospital, a five-star Hilton hotel, and a large mosque on the rest of the land.

This is a perfect AKP win-win scenario: i) A formerly inefficient factory was reintroduced into urban space with no cost to the public; ii) A new municipal building was built with almost no cost to the public; iii) With a new hospital, hotel, and mosque, a livelier urban space and economy was promoted with no cost to the public. I will not delve into the topic of lost jobs at the old Sümerbank factory, or the alternative ways in which that land could have been utilized, or the extra income that the dubious privatization could have provided if the factory land were declared as a commercial zone at the outset. Such routes would simply fail to achieve rapid urban development that the AKP leadership adamantly seeks. Here, I am interested in that collective ethos that seriously perceives this particular path of urban development as successful municipal service. In an ideal type AKP privatization of a public asset, the public would be appeased with no-cost urban development, businesses would thrive with favorable land sales or zone-changes, and those happy businesses would grace the public with donations or would renovate public buildings for free. Within this conception, which prioritizes fast-paced construction at the expense of the law, lies the roots of institutionalized corruption that now bogs AKP down. Because, this type of extralegal actions could (and did) easily degenerate. (I call these actions extralegal not because they defy the law, but because they defy a certain sense of right and justice. To be honest, zoning changes and public donations appear legal on paper. However, it is also clear that they are motivated by favoritism.)

2) So far, I have assumed that AKP was motivated by doing good, i.e. "getting things done" and "providing services." I will not succumb to the assumption of evilness that AKP members have always been corrupt. I just do not believe that large bodies of people happen to be bad. Instead, we have to search for institutional structures that condition them to act in such ways. As I argued, AKP's particular conception of rapid urban development set the stage for an ethos of extralegal activities. However, how could the entire party (including its almighty pious leader) get involved in corruption? There still seems to be a huge gap between doing business in murky extralegal terrain and outright corruption, especially within a party whose basis of foundation was being clean and transparent. I believe the answer lies within increased personification of AKP under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As a consequence, AKP failed to develop necessary institutional intra-party mechanisms to combat and prevent corruption within ranks.

Over the years, AKP increasingly became a one-man party. Especially since the 2011 elections, AKP representatives have been hesitant about making definitive comments on key issues that fall outside the boundaries of their immediate roles. Erdoğan has increasingly become the sole authoritative voice of the party. His recent conflicts with Bülent Arınç, the spokesperson of the cabinet and an important senior member of the AKP movement, portray the rising tensions within AKP over Erdoğan's authoritarian tendencies.

Erdoğan's increased control over the party is reminiscent of mid-20th century corporatist regimes around the world, where a single leader had represented the entire constituency through a vertically organized party structure. This single-man rule is naturally very jealous in sharing power. Political advancement within ranks is based on winning the favor of the leader. Then, it is not a coincidence that Erdoğan preferred to appoint a significant number of his old friends (for example, İdris Naim Şahin and Erdoğan Bayraktar) to crucial posts in the cabinet over the years. Erdoğan's personal trust mattered the most.

I do not believe AKP was destined to follow this corporatist route. As Jenny White (2002) described in her important study, Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics, AKP started out with a very active grasroots organization. This momentum could have formed the basis of a more participatory and accountable party structure that would enable more local participation within the party leadership. However, increased idolization and deification of Erdoğan did not allow the AKP to develop institutions, which would provide natural checks on abuse of authority. Increasingly, local AKP leaders felt accountable only to Erdoğan, but not to their own constituencies. I believe that the lack of institutional checks on local and national AKP leaders enabled the descent from extralegality to corruption.

Erdoğan's governing style i) that perceived Turkey as one big municipality; ii) that anchored development in rapid urban construction projects at the expense of the law; iii) and that relied on personal networks of trust and friendship resulted in the simple impossibility of personally overseeing the transfers of huge sums of money. Getting public projects done for free eventually degenerated into collecting funds for the party, which degenerated into taking bribes. Simply, this is why democracies rely on judicial control and legal regulations to oversee such expenditures. When the law is overthrown to cut corners short, and alternative disciplinary mechanisms are not employed, corruption ensues. In Turkey, Erdoğan and AKP are now buried under it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

"Damn Soem Things!"

Damn Soem Things!
This particular work of graffiti became quite famous during and after the Gezi protests. Many people talked about it. I remember rapidly clicking through a top-20 Gezi slogans collection, and I think this one was #1. But I still want to write a couple of paragraphs about why I think "Damn Soem Things!" summarizes the Gezi spirit very well.

It is funny. Facing all that tear gas, water cannons, and police batons, the protesters managed to make fun of the situation all through the protests. They managed to keep spirits high. I also mentioned on an earlier post, how humor became a very effective way in which protesters re-appropriated tools in the state's arsenal. This is just another perfect example of "disproportionate intelligence".

But it is funny in a particular way. It manages to make fun of slogan-making itself. I have always believed that being able to make fun of yourself is an excellent quality. It is just fun for the sake of it. But if nothing else, it can also work as a check on inflated egos. The Gezi movement was self-critical since the very beginning. Perfect examples of their self-critical nature would be how they tried to fight against politically incorrect language by self-monitoring and how they tried to enforce the peaceful nature of the protests by warning and weeding out violent protesters. Damn Soem Things! perfectly represent that spirit by making fun of slogan-making itself.

It also reflects the non-partisan nature of the protests. Damn Soem Things! can be read as a mockery of a particular type of slogan-making. Damn Fascism! or Damn Imperialism! were quite common slogans in Turkey since the 1970s, used primarily by revolutionary leftist movements. Damn Soem Things! is not necessarily a flat out rejection of the revolutionary left, but it demonstrates a clear effort in distancing itself from such movements and their language.

And finally, with the risk of reading too much into it, Damn Soem Things! is an honest representation of the individual's bewilderment against all the forces pressing upon him/her. The officially sanctioned industrial construction behemoth encroaches the last breathing spaces of the city; the individual is increasingly reduced to a customer whose desires are professionally manufactured through corporate owned media; and the individual's political activism is reduced to voting amongst five candidates every four years. Well, damn soem things! But then, Damn Soem Things! at Gezi, with all its humor, is a recognition of that condition - and, ultimately, enlightening and empowering.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Political Parties in Turkey: Speculating on the Effects of Gezi Protests

Let me first start with what the political arena looked like in Turkey, after the general elections in 2011. These were the election results for the major parties:

AKP (Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party): %50
CHP (Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu's Republican People's Party): %26
MHP (Devlet Bahçeli's Nationalist Action Party): %13
Independents: %6.5

The Turkish election system has a very high %10 national barrier, i.e. if a party cannot collect more than %10 of the votes nationally, they cannot send any members into the parliament. The Members of the Parliament are allocated among those parties that have passed the %10 threshold, according to the D'hondt system. This barrier, which is the highest in the world if I am not wrong, is in place to prevent Kurdish candidates from getting elected. However, the Kurdish candidates have traditionally ran for elections as independents, and formed a Kurdish group in the parliament after getting elected. Consequently, the Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy Party, co-chaired by Gülten Kışanak and Selahattin Demirtaş) is currently represented with 36 members in the parliament (approximately %6.5 of 550 total seats).

AKP was formed in 2001 and won a landslide victory in 2002. It has been the successful coalition of a conservative worldview, Islamist politics, and free-market ideology with a very pragmatist leadership. AKP spearheaded the EU membership process and fought valiantly against the military authorities throughout the 2000s. Combining these struggles with economic stability, AKP has received praise both domestically and internationally. Liberal democrats, who have traditionally oscillated between CHP and center-right parties, have supported AKP throughout the 2000s for these reasons. (I would recommend Yüksel Taşkın's recent article on this issue if you can read in Turkish.)  As a result of its large internal coalition, AKP has won every single election since 2002 with increasing rates, culminating with half of the votes in 2011.

CHP is the party of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. It was the single party that ruled the Republic since its inception in 1923 until 1950, when Democrat Party (a splinter group from CHP) won the second multi-party elections. CHP has traditionally been the party of the Republican elites (soldiers, judges, lawyers, teachers, doctors, etc.) and the Republican mentality (secularism, modernization, westernization, progress, nationalism). CHP has been one of the main institutions whose aim was to forcefully  modernize those parts of the society that were perceived as uneducated and backwards. CHP was the urban, educated, and secular in charge of modernizing the rural, uneducated, and religious. Under Bülent Ecevit's leadership in the 1970s, CHP started to identify itself as left-of-center and assumed a more social-democratic agenda. In many parts of the country, CHP is still identified as the main leftist party although it had taken a sharp nationalistic turn since the late 1990s. Currently, CHP has two strong currents: 1) The Kemalist, secular, nationalist elite that is still based on the old dichotomies between modern/traditional, educated/uneducated, urban/rural, secular/religious. 2) The social democrats who focus on civil liberties, and equality.

MHP was named in 1969 by Alpaslan Türkeş. It has traditionally been ultra-nationalist and anti-communist. Its members were involved in militant activism in 1970s. It regained momentum since the 1980s through its strong position against the Kurdish movements.We can also argue that MHP has successfully enmeshed ultra-nationalism with conservative Islamist values. Consequently, they have secured a vote-base around %10 for the past two decades.

The Kurdish parties had to change their names many times over the past decades because they have been subject to hostile Constitutional Court actions that shut down their parties. BDP was formed in 2009, as a replacement to DTP (Democratic Society Party), which was banned by the Constitutional Court. BDP, and its earlier versions, represent the insistence of Kurdish citizens to join parliamentary politics. Many veteran Kurdish politicians such as Leyla Zana and Ahmet Türk suffered imprisonment and many other insults throughout their political careers. Kurdish politicians have traditionally been accused of being in league with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party); and they have traditionally rejected these accusations to avoid imprisonment. However, BDP ties with PKK have become invaluable in recent years when the state has been trying to negotiate with PKK for peace. In my view, the BDP movement consists of two strong currents (very similar to CHP): 1) A secular, nationalist, and militant group that pursues a hard-liner stance, due to decades of armed struggle with the state. 2) Social democrats that perceive a democratic and parliamentarian solution to the Turkish/Kurdish problem.


The recent Gezi protests have the potential to significantly alter this political spectrum in the long run. In my opinion, the protests will have three main consequences:

1) Socialization and politicization of a new generation. Many young people have learnt about resistance, collective movement, and political activities through these protests. Especially the democratic, pluralist, peaceful, and anti-capitalist nature of the protests (as I have mentioned in my previous post), is likely to influence and shape future political actors, actions and movements. A brand new language of politics (that strongly resonates globally) was collectively created and maintained. This is, by far the most important consequence of Gezi protests.

2) Socialization and politicization of older generations who have identified themselves as liberals, social democrats, Kemalists/nationalists, or socialists. The consistent failure of any method of resistance against the heavy-handed Turkish state had simply demoralized many generations of citizens in Turkey since the 1980s. The new political language that was formulated at Gezi shook these older generations as well. When Erdoğan and his AKP seemed most powerful, a peaceful protest movement managed to challenge it to its very core. This did not only meet with increased political enthusiasm, but (hopefully) it also came with some self-questioning and self-criticism.

After the police took over Gezi Park late Saturday night last week, many people across the country hit the streets in protest. People tried to march to Taksim from different neighborhoods in Istanbul. My friend Yalçın and I were out there on the highway, on our way to the bridge, when we were gassed and pushed back with approximately 5,000 fellow peaceful protesters. These protests continued on Sunday too, however "disproportional intelligence" appeared on Monday evening again with #duranadam (#standingman) when a protester stood without moving at Taksim Square for hours. The news on #duranadam spread very fast that night and the following days. The protest movement was channeled back into peaceful resistance, further ridiculing the government's heavy iron fist.

#duranadam (#standingman)
The peaceful character of this new chapter in the resistance movement was reinforced with the call for neighborhood forums across various parks in Istanbul on Tuesday. Since then, these forums have been taking place every night. I have joined two of them at my neighborhood park (Özgürlük Parkı) and was startled with the participants' frankness and eagerness. Particularly at my neighborhood park, the majority of the 100+ participants were above 30 years old. On Wednesday night, one of the participants, (who was in his 50s), told us that he was going to the park to clear the cobwebs in his head. This sort of self-reflection and self-criticism is very exciting and promising.

A neighborhood forum in Istanbul

3) Abandonment of AKP by liberal democrats. As I have mentioned earlier, liberal democrat intelligentsia, who play a strong political role in shaping political discussions even though they are not a big group, have supported AKP directly or indirectly throughout the 2000s. However, the change in Erdoğan's discourse since 2011, and the police brutalities against Gezi protesters, are likely to open an irreparable rift between AKP and the liberals.


Well, if you have been patient enough to read the pre-Gezi political situation, and the implications of Gezi protests as I read them, let's move on to how Gezi can affect the political spectrum.

1) After losing liberal support, and moving towards a more authoritarian/majoritarian stance, I think AKP will battle with MHP for nationalist/Islamist votes. If AKP can manage to push MHP below the %10 threshold, they would emerge as the only major right-wing party and would benefit immensely from it. This would also mean an increasingly authoritarian and conservative AKP. Such a development is very likely to further polarize the existing rift between AKP supporters and the newly-consolidating anti-Erdoğan camp.

2) The real litmus test to whether AKP would choose such a direction would be how the peace process with the Kurds fare. According to the understanding between PKK and the state, (based on what we can gather from BDP and PKK, as the officials would not openly talk about this process at all...) the first phase will be over soon, with the departure of PKK guerillas for northern Iraq. The second phase will include major legal changes that would identify legal rights to Kurdish citizens and introduce some sort of local autonomy. Will AKP continue with the vague peace process as planned, after the Gezi protests? The failure of the peace process, besides bigger problems, would lock AKP to the far right. However, continuing with the peace process could polish AKP's liberal and European credentials which were tarnished with the brutal suppression of the Gezi protests.

The Kurdish movement's stance is also important for how AKP moves with the peace process. Even though Kurdish activists were involved in Gezi protests, institutional representation of Kurdish politics was very limited. Did they fear breaking the peace process? Yes, very likely. How far would the Kurdish movement go in appeasing an increasingly authoritarian AKP regime? Would BDP cooperate with AKP on a new constitution that would recognize certain Kurdish rights in exchange for a presidential system that would make Erdoğan even a stronger force in Turkish politics? The issue of the Kurdish peace process will indeed prove to be the real litmus test for AKP's future.

3) After abandoning AKP, it is highly likely that liberal democrats may seek union with their fellow social democrats in CHP. I strongly doubt that current CHP could accommodate such coexistence. However, could the common experiences of Gezi protests, the common grounds shared in some neighborhood forums, and the common goal in opposing Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian policies bring Kemalists, social democrats, and liberal democrats together in a movement? I have serious doubts on the likelihood of such a coalition. However, I perceive such a movement as the only viable alternative to AKP rule in the near future.


I believe all political energy should be spent not only on cultivating more civic participation and peaceful resistance as seen in neighborhood forums, but also on supporting the ongoing peace process with the Kurdish movement.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gezi Protests in Turkey: A War of Narratives?

For a while, it seemed to me like there was a war of narratives over how the Gezi protests should be interpreted. Prime Minister Erdoğan and others from his government tried to portray the protesters in a certain way and the protesters offered an alternative narrative. I will talk more about these narratives, later on this post. However, I now think that the protesters were not interested in this war of narratives as much as the government was: The protesters wanted to deflect the government's unfounded claims. Besides that, they did not show any interest in putting a certain spin on their protests. I strongly believe that  this stance reflects a genuine approach to politics in Turkey: Politics as principled action.

The government's narrative shifted over time. Erdoğan started with identifying the protesters as "a few marauders" ("birkaç çapulcu" in Turkish) during the initial days of the protests, before he left for a trip to Africa. There were no nuances in this initial identification, i.e. all the protesters were marauders, drunkards, and marginals. While Erdoğan was away, police brutality resulted in an increased number of protesters at Taksim Square. The protests also spread to other parts of Istanbul and to many other cities in Turkey. To end the mayhem, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç accepted a delegation of the Gezi protesters and publicly apologized for police brutality on June 4. It was during Arınç's apology when we heard the glimpses of a new narrative on Gezi protesters for the first time. Arınç made a clear distinction between "peaceful demonstrations held by environmentalists and the violent protests held by marginal groups."

When Erdoğan came back from his trip, very early in the morning on June 7, he abandoned Arınç's conciliatory tone for a much more belligerent one. I was in front of the TV stunned at 2:30am that morning, when he let his supporters chant "Let us go! We'll crush Taksim Square." In spite of his defiant stance however, Erdoğan's narration of the protesters was in line with Arınç's. Over the next few days, he also made a clear distinction between "our environmentalist youth" and "marginal protesters". On June 11, Erdoğan called on "the youth protesting with candid feelings to end this business [of protesting]" so that they are not used by those who want to harm Turkey.

This narrative has become crystal clear with Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu's press briefing on June 11. Governor Mutlu called on the parents of the youth at Gezi Park to pull their kids out. He claimed that "marginal groups" put the lives of these kids in danger. It was quite impossible to miss Mutlu's main point when he used the phrase "marginal groups" in every other sentence. The government eventually settled on this narrative that separated between "our environmentalist youth who are protesting with candid feelings" and "the marginal groups who are protesting violently to harm Turkey". This narrative achieves three things: 1) Infantalizing the youth (and consequently undermining the broader political implications of the protests); 2) Limiting the protest with environmental concerns (and, again, undermining the broader political implications of the protests); 3) Drawing a clear distinction between peaceful protesters and violent protesters, (a distinction that cannot so easily be drawn in reality due to police baiting through disproportionate use of violence,) and legitimizing violent suppression of any protests outside Gezi Park borders.

What was the Gezi protesters narrative then? How did they try to put a spin on their identity so that they gain an advantage over the state? First of all, it is hard to talk about the protesters as a single group. It is a conglomeration of different age groups and political views. There is not a hierarchical leadership that commands the entire protest movement. Over the past two weeks, "Taksim Solidarity" emerged as the leading entity, but from what I understand, this is quite a horizontal body and the decisions are taken after long and open deliberations. They are truly democratic. Second, Gezi protesters reject violence. On June 11, after the police took control of Taksim Square and forced the protesters back into Gezi Park, NTV correspondent on the ground reported that one of the protesters threw a stone to the police. He was eventually chased by the other protesters and he had to take refuge with the cops, who subsequently took him into custody. It has become more and more clear over time that the protesters put more emphasis on the non-violent character of the resistance. See the pictures below for the iconic girl in the red dress, and another example of peaceful protests at Gezi.




Respect for plurality has been another important characteristic of Gezi protesters. If you told me two weeks ago that Kemalist groups and Kurdish activists could be in close proximity with each other, I'd just laugh back at you. However, when I was at Gezi, I saw how Kemalists were just fine with a Kurdish activist group marching and praising imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan. I have read accounts of tensions between these groups rising occasionally and how others intervene to sustain peace in the park. Check out this picture below for a perfect example:

Girl with a Turkish flag, holding hands with a guy with BDP (the main Kurdish party) banner.
Another example of the respect for plurality within Gezi Park is how the protesters were warning each other to avoid exclusionary discourses. For example, the initial graffiti and chants included "O.Ç. Tayyip", i.e. calling the Prime Minister "son of a bitch", and "ibne", i.e. "faggot", a widely used insult in daily talk. This was very problematic because many sex workers and LGBT individuals have been an integral part of the protest movement at Gezi. It is quite remarkable that such graffiti and chanting eventually stopped and people seem to be very self-conscious about it now. An LGBT Gezi graffiti below:

Revolutionary homosexuals everywhere!

The last important characteristic of Gezi protesters that I want to underline is their anti-capitalist stance. The protesters shared their resources since the very beginning. Especially with increased support from outside, the protesters set up special tents for food, infirmary, and books. Instructors have been offering many open classes, such as yoga, music and arts. See the pictures below for some examples:




To sum up, Gezi protesters are democratic, peaceful, pluralistic, and anti-capitalist. Is this their spin on who they are? Here comes the important point for me. Unlike the government's narrative, which portrays Gezi protesters in a certain incorrect way, the protesters' own narrative is completely genuine with no spin on it. Their identity is derived from their collective principled actions. The protesters' own narrative is not manufactured in order to subdue a certain political opponent, it is a reflection of their worldviews - their politics. This is why these youth just stupefied the AKP government. The government could neither comprehend nor reply to such politics. The government has been used to the old politics game where they exchanged blows with the weak opposition over how to interpret certain events. They have become masters of writing narratives that almost always won against CHP's or MHP's. They reacted the same way towards these youth, and tried to identify them as naive environmentalists who were being manipulated by marginal groups, which wanted to harm Turkey. However, when the gas cloud was blown away, what we saw was democratic, peaceful, pluralistic, and anti-capitalist young people resisting for more democratic participation in policy-making and less government intervention in lifestyles. Their story won against the government's because it simply was the plain reality.

Back in the 1970s, such principled youth action also played an important role in shaping politics. The 1970s youth was also anti-capitalist, but they were not democratic, pluralistic, or peaceful. I believe that the Gezi protesters represent a genuine approach to politics in Turkey because their political demands correspond perfectly with how they live. Their political demands are simply a reflection of their life choices. These young people have not only been asking for police violence to stop, they also have been arguing that democracy does not just consist of elections - the rights of the minorities should be respected as well. Their call for democracy, pluralism and peace is reflected in their lives at Gezi. That is what I call principled action and that is why I believe this is a genuine approach to politics in Turkey. In the midst of a political world of lies and spins, the Gezi protesters stand firm - their lives powered by their ideas and nothing else. It is a breath-taking view. I strongly believe that these protesters are offering us the blueprints of how the left can aspire to be successful in this brave neo-liberal world.





Thursday, June 6, 2013

Protest Humor: "Let's use disproportionate intelligence!"

I have shared some protest graffiti before. This time I will try to translate some other examples of ingenious protest humor. This is gonna be fun!

My all-time favorite cartoonist Selçuk Erdem's tweet on June 3, is both an example and a summary of the power of humor in Gezi protests: "Let's not throw stones. Let's throw jokes. Let's use disproportionate intelligence!" One of the things I've learnt in these protests was how police could provoke peaceful protesters  by using disproportionate violence. Experiencing such unreasonable levels of violence on themselves and their friends, the protesters would get angry and agitated. They would strike back with whatever means were at their disposal, usually just stones and clubs. This, in return, would pseudo-legitimize police's use of violence as they would then appear to be in a struggle to contain violent protesters. The Gezi protesters have demonstrated their ability to collectively control their reactions and nullified such baiting tactics by the police, to a great extent. This, obviously, reduced the number of tools available for peaceful protesters tremendously. However, as the Gezi protests demonstrated, "the use of disproportionate intelligence" is a great weapon that damages the opponent's reputation while uplifting morale within ranks. Oh yes, time for some examples!

You shall step on wet bathroom slippers with socks on your feet RTE (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan)
A perfect peaceful curse, don't you think?



Here is a perfect artwork that plays with the AKP emblem. No commentary needed!


Another piece that symbolizes the #occupygezi's reliance on twitter. Just perfect!

TEAR GAS



Pepper Dolma
These two images are awesome examples of reappropriating the opponent's arsenal through disproportionate use of intelligence. The empty cases in these images are empty tear gas cannisters. The first one is used as a lemonade cup with a sliced lemon and a straw. The second one is even better. Tear gas is called "pepper gas" (biber gazı) in Turkish. As you know, Turkey has delicious pepper dolma (biber dolması), i.e. fat green peppers stuffed with rice. Well, there is a stuffed pepper for you!

What helps against tear gas? Vinegar! Lemon!
Unless you lived in Turkey throughout the 1980s and 1990s, you will most likely miss the reference in this one. The actress on the left is Adile Naşit, and the actor on the right is Münir Özkul. They are both veterans of Turkish cinema. I grew up watching their movies. These two scenes are from the same comedy movie Neşeli Günler! (1978 - Happy Days!). This couple, with six kids, have a shop where they sell pickled vegetables and pickle juice. In the opening scenes of the movie, they get into a huge argument about whether the best pickles are made with vinegar or lemon. I really want to congratulate the genious who made the connection between that argument in that movie and tear gas. As you might know, lemon and vinegar are both very helpful in soothing the effects of tear gas! (In case you were wondering, the argument between the couple ends up in a divorce and she leaves the house with three of the kids in a heartbreaking scene. The movie is about how the kids find each other many years later and eventually convince their parents to come together again.)


Erdoğan sitting on a throne of empty tear gas cannisters. It is quite a powerful image. The shape of the throne is another reference to famous TV series, Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin novels.


THE PENGUINS!


If you were wondering how the penguins got involved in the Gezi protests that very quickly enveloped the entire country, here is why. At 1:06 AM, on June 2, at the peak of demonstrations and clashes, CNNTÜRK, a franchise of CNN, was broadcasting a documentary on penguins, whereas CNN International was broadcasting the ongoing events live on the ground. This irony was not lost to the protesters and soon penguins became somewhat of a symbol for #OccupyGezi.


Above is a cartoon mocking CNNTÜRK.


And the penguins were spotted in the protests.


Then the mockery got out of control of course! A video from Bobiler.com


"To Chapul"

On June 2, during the peak hours of protests and clashes, Prime Minister Erdoğan identified the protesters as  "birkaç çapulcu" (a few marauders). Çapulcu almost perfectly translates as marauders: 1) Those forces of the army that harassed and looted settlements on the other side of the border; 2) Looters during public upheavals. This identification was widely perceived as another arrogant remark by Erdoğan and pulled even more people into streets in protest over the following days. Then, as in the case of empty tear gas cannisters, protesters reappropriated "çapulcu" and deployed it as a humorous tool against Erdoğan and the government. For instance check out this wikipedia entry on "chapulling", or this video below!:


Everyday I'm Chapulling! The next video is in Turkish but you might want to take a look if you need a crash course on this new verb in English:


And finally an international Çapulcu below!

Noam Chomsky

ÇARŞI



Beşiktaş FC fan group Çarşı (together with Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray fans) have been on the front lines of the clashes since the beginning of the protests. Çarşı fans even chased TOMAs (Toplumsal Olaylara Müdahele Aracı - Vehicle of Intervention in Public Events) with a bulldozer they got hold of. They eventually captured a TOMA as well, which they re-named as POMA (Polis Olaylarına Müdahele Aracı - Vehicle of Intervention in Police Events). Below is supposedly the account of the interaction with the police chief on radio when they captured the vehicle:



Chief: Open a hole in the barricades, don't go in too much!
Toma 7: Understood!
Chief: Now move back, spraying water!
Toma 7: Understood!
Chief: Toma 9, you spray water at the same time too!
Toma 9: ZzZzZz
Chief: Toma 9!
Toma 9: I am Vedat, listening!
Chief: Oh, who is Vedat?
Toma 9: From the open stands, the drummer!
Chief: Toma 7, retreat!
Toma 7: Black!

The final "Black!" of Toma 7 is the beginning of the chant for Beşiktaş with jersey colors black and white. Almost a week after that incident, I came across this picture earlier today:


Left Çarşı activist: Do we have someone who can drive a helicopter?
Right Çarşı activist: If it doesn't work, we can just drive it on the ground Vedat :)

Excellent joke about capturing a helicopter this time (while underlining the continuing airborne surveillance of Taksim Square) with a reference to Vedat, the POMA-captor!

The humor of Çarşı fans is also visible in the video below where Beşiktaş FC Çarşı fans call on the police to join the chant. They shout "Red" and the cops they have been fighting shout back "White" - in the colors of the national team. Emphasis on  mutual connections through the national football team is somewhat disarming after all...




The common theme in all of these humorous protests seem to be reappropriation of a tool in the opponent's arsenal and its redeployment through the use of "disproportionate intelligence". Let's conclude with an excellent performance, which mocks Erdoğan's identification of a protest method - hitting pots and pans together - as "Pots and pans, the same old tune!":




Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Course: Politics, Instructor: Youth

Alternate Title - Confessions of a Liberal Democrat

The Gezi protests that have spread like wildfire around the entire country within a week led me into some self-questioning and soul-searching. I had endured some friendly (and some unfriendly) taunting and criticisms from family, friends and colleagues over the past few years about my political stance, i.e. giving indirect support to the Erdoğan government. The accusations were factually correct - that was my political stance. As a response, I had defended myself with certain arguments that I will mention later on this post. However, with the Gezi protests and the police brutalities that followed, I was anti-Tayyip in no time. Hence the soul-searching: Am I just unprincipled? Or, was I just wrong and came to see the inevitable truth? Bear with me on this post until I make up my mind!

I have never voted for AKP. On the contrary, for more than a decade, I have been voting for the Kurdish BDP (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi - Peace and Democracy Party) candidates (who could only run for the parliament as independent candidates because of the high 10% national election barrier). I was really proud when my vote was represented in the parliament, for the first time in my life, when Sebahat Tuncel was elected in 2011. So, how could I give indirect support to Erdoğan and his party, when I had been consistently voting for the Kurdish party? (Please cross out donations, as I have spent the last decade of my life as a graduate student...)

As I mentioned in previous posts, AKP had been adamant about battling against the hitherto unquestioned authority of the bureuacratic (military and judicial) elites in Turkish politics. Within a decade, AKP was able to undermine these traditional and structural sources of power. It was not an easy struggle. Like boxers in a prolonged match, both the bureaucratic elite and the AKP government gave each other nasty bruises. A particularly important moment in that struggle was on April 27, 2007, when the Office of the Chief of General Staff issued a memorandum, which blatantly threatened the government. This sort of an intervention was reminiscent of previous such military coups and memorandums (in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997), which had significantly altered the political equilibrium. Unlike previous military interventions into parliamentary politics, the government did not step back and publicly questioned the legitimacy of the memorandum. It is fair to say that the bureaucratic elite's downfall hastened from that point on, and the voters kept supporting AKP in subsequent elections with increasing numbers.

AKP also had played an important role in Turkey's bid to become a part of the European Union (EU). Turkey became a candidate country in 2005 and accession talks ensued immediately afterwards. The talks lost steam over the years due to problems on both sides, however AKP's advocacy of the cause led not only to significant pro-human rights legal reforms in Turkey, but also increased public sympathy towards membership in the EU.

Fast forward the really problematic recent AKP years into 2013, and we end up with the detente with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), which had been in military combat with the Turkish state since the 1980s. This internal war between the state and the PKK had cost more than 40,000 lives. Despite AKP's complete unreliability in pursuing a stable relationship with the Kurdish resistance, the spring of 2013 brought a warm surprise to all of us, when the government and the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, had clearly reached some sort of an understanding. As a result of that understanding, Kurdish guerrillas have been leaving Turkey for Northern Iraq for the past two weeks. There has not been any incidents between the guerillas and the military during this retreat (except for a small skirmish two days ago).

To cut to the chase, these are the main reasons why I gave "indirect support" to AKP. Having experienced the "guardianship" of the military that restricted the political arena throughout all my life, and having lived through the horrors of the 1980 coup (with its completely depoliticized aftermath), and the lost years of 1990s' coalitions, where simply nothing (but nothing) politically significant happened; AKP's strong government and its aforementioned achievements and promises were akin to a few droplets of rain in the desert. I voted "yes" for the controversial constitutional changes in 2010, that reduced military and judicial oversight in exchange for increased governmental control. The motto then, through which the like of my own are mocked ever since, was "not sufficient, but, yes." The constitutional changes were approved by 57.9% of the electorate. These results paved the way for AKP's slamdunk victory in 2011 with approximately 50% of the votes. That 50% brings us to today, i.e. Erdoğan's arrogant and majoritarian/ authoritarian ruling style that precipitated the Gezi protests.

Were there no signs of AKP's, or (more appropriately) Erdoğan's (rather pathological) corruption with power? Yes, there were. Was I not disturbed with AKP's, or (more appropriately) Erdoğan's neoliberal policies that idolized construction, consumption, and credit? Yes, I was. Mind you, I was aware of Erdoğan's increased authoritarian tendencies;  AKP's neoliberal policies that emphazised increased privatization; and AKP's rationalization of more and more parts of the Turkish economy to make them available for international investments. However, my politics was a pragmatic politics of keeping a ledger book, based on who I am and where I stand. Not seeing any practical political alternatives to AKP, being grateful for its achievements in undermining the military, the vague promise of the accession into EU, and the impending Kurdish peace, I was simply an "indirect" supporter of the AKP.

The Gezi protests were a slap on my face too.  The courageous youth, on average about 15-20 years younger than me, just showed that there is an alternative - that there was always an alternative. I thought the current political arena could not accommodate an actor that could meaningfully challenge AKP. However, these young people did not only carve out a huge space for themselves, they also filled that space with a very strong coalition of unlikely partners: Socialists, Kemalists and Kurds.

My political imagination failed me. The youth, who spent half their lives (and their entire adult lives) under the AKP regime, offered us the possibility of a new future. My conclusion? I feel old.