Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Dystopia: Congratulations America! Welcome to the club!

I am dumbstruck, like the rest of the world, with the news about 'President-Elect' Trump. Congratulations, America! Welcome to the club!

As I am trying to make sense of this development, I'll just share my thoughts here.

In  a way, this can be seen as another swing of the pendulum that is American politics. In my mind, America represents both the best and the worst. Liberals in U.S. have become the spearhead in progressive politics. From gay rights to the occupy movement, we look up to them. On the other hand, well, America produced the Tea Party and Trump. I have the pendulum metaphor in mind, because, at least in recent history, major achievements by the liberals were followed by Republican governments that pulled in the opposite direction. The Civil Rights Act was a major achievement but it was followed by Reaganomics that abandoned the lower classes to the whims of the 'free market', and the war on drugs that resulted in mass incarceration of minorities, especially African Americans. Then came W. Bush and his war on terror. Perhaps, the heavens cautioned us (not only the Americans but the entire world) about what kind of wreckage a clueless American president could cause. First it appeared that that caution was heeded. Obama's inspiring election campaign with the motto, 'Yes, we can!', restored liberals to power. Obama achieved important accomplishments such as The Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal, and the normalization of relations with Cuba among others. The new president was a rational, reasonable, and decent man with amazing oratory skills. In addition, he was the first African American president. I believe many Americans could not make peace with that fact. The pendulum is swinging to the other side. Trump votes are a strong reaction to a progressive black president.

Trump received reactionary votes and I believe part of the blame rests on President Obama's shoulders. Obama promised change and he did not deliver. True, he was blocked by the Republicans along the way and that limited what he could achieve. This simply does not change the fact that his campaign that galvanized the youth and created so much hope did not bring change. And unfortunately for Hillary Clinton, this election, even more so than the 2008 elections, was about change.

Many people make this argument so I am not going to belabor the point: Very similar to other parts of the world, many lower-class Americans feel the effects of globalization that enables free mobilization of businesses, goods, and people. Not only the fast technological changes themselves are unsettling, but also loss of their jobs, and appearance of different-looking people in their neighborhoods are big changes in lower-class Americans' lives. Enter Trump (or replace the name with Erdoğan, Orban, or Netanyahu) with an appearance of grandeur and big promises of bringing back past times of greatness. These leaders' bigger-than-life charisma itself is a point of identification. People without much hope for the future look up to the fearless, wealthy, non-apologetic and self-righteous leader and find their betrayed hopes in him. A wealthy, crass, arrogant and simply inadequate man who brags about not paying his taxes (in addition to grabbing women by their genitals) shines as someone who beat the system with no repercussions - unlike the people themselves. Populist and discriminatory rhetoric directed towards the disillusioned masses is not a new phenomenon. Surprising news for American exceptionalism! Again, congratulations America, welcome to the club!

There certainly were other factors that contributed to Clinton's defeat and they raise important questions about the democratic system in the U.S. For example, the reports on the closure of voting stations in some minority areas is very disturbing. (I should also mention the disenfranchisement of felons as another major problem here.) FBI chief's bizarre and disturbing involvement in the elections with Clinton's e-mail investigation was also highly problematic. Simply put: If it was possible to investigate the files before the elections, why did not Comey wait until the investigation was over to warn the Congress? I believe, a bigger problem lies with the media - a problem we also suffer here in Turkey. This starts with the free airtime the sensational Trump received during the primaries, and follows to the different expectations imposed on the candidates. Using a private e-mail server as a Secretary of State is reckless behavior. Yet, is it equal in importance to bragging about grabbing women by the genitals, bragging about how smart someone is for not paying taxes while earning millions of dollars, or not even declaring tax returns? I understand that the ratings matter but this nexus of capitalism, media, and democracy bring us to our current predicament.

We are living through a period where global capitalism is searching for a solution to its perennial problem: How to deal with the masses that are needed (and sometimes not needed) for production and consumption. Democracy, human rights and the rule of law have been the traditional western liberal path to maintaining meaningful order. Emergence of unabashedly illiberal leaders that successfully appeal to people's fears with populist and discriminatory rhetoric is undermining democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Current developments in Turkey are a testimony to this. Turkey is becoming a bad copy of Russia, whose leader Trump is infatuated with. We should neither easily dismiss people's fears nor the illiberal solutions these authoritarian leaders' are offering them. These phenomena are a direct consequence of the unfettered reach of global capitalism that destroyed human lives and the nature with impunity for centuries. It faces yet another crisis, where disillusioned masses all around the world are not buying into the game. And surprisingly enough, either through state manipulation of the media, or partisanship of the media, or just because of how contemporary social media could block any oppositional worldviews out of your sight, individuals never get the full picture anymore.

We are facing a complete failure of the ideals of the Enlightenment. More than two centuries ago, Kant argued that we needed "public use of reason". It was vital for him that people had the room to speak up their minds, so that eventually each person heard others and eventually developed the skills to think for themselves. Where global capitalism brought us today is masses of disillusioned people who either do not care, or do not have access to different viewpoints. Trumpalike vultures are feeding on this. Two centuries after Kant, even with a robot on Mars, we still cannot think for ourselves. Liberalism is in crisis, is it time to get back to Marx?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Sultan-Reincarnate

This is not an Onion piece. It is real. An olive tree (reportedly a thousand years old) had been uprooted to be planted somewhere else by the President during a ceremony. (And yes, there is a giant mascot there...)

There are many things to discuss in this picture: The notable absence of women; The subservient body language of most of the men in suits, especially the hands folded in front. However, I just want to briefly discuss the mindset that uproots a thousand-year old tree to replant it during a ceremony.

I did not research the issue, but I will assume that there is a risk in replanting a tree. It is possible that it could wither and die. The ruthless and reckless audacity in taking the risk of killing a thousand-year old tree for ceremonial purposes represents what Erdoğan has become. First, his decisions are backed up by almost unrestricted power. Erdoğan has dominated the state apparatus (including the judiciary) to a great extent; but he also controls and/or co-opts important social forces such as media and academia.

Second, Erdoğan seems more and more like Marx's sorcerer (in the Communist Manifesto) "who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells." Marx was describing the bourgeois society and how it is no longer able to control the enormous means of production that it created. Similarly, Erdoğan seems like he has unleashed a buried inner demon upon Turkey that devours dissent and gets bigger and more self-righteous after each feast.

He knows what is best and necessary. If he has decided that a thousand-year old tree could and should be uprooted, it will be done. It is a curious mindset. We as a country, embodied in the mascot and the men with hands folded in front, are expected to conform. If laws are not in congruence, they shall be changed. If academics do not agree, they shall be fired. If journalists criticize, they shall be jailed. I am not writing these in mockery. This really is the mindset. All other systematic sources of knowledge are deemed subservient to the needs and orders of the Sultan-reincarnate. Law, science and rationality need to adapt because he has decreed so.

What is really frightening is the dissemination of this model of power and authority in daily life. More and more people seem to be imitating this ruthless and reckless audacity in Istanbul, which makes daily life much harder and very unpleasant. In public transport, parking, traffic, and queues, I observe more and more self-righteous behavior that is unchecked by custom, religion, or rationality. He has done it. He has moved on. You will live with the consequences of his behavior.

Let me not end on such a discouraging note. Here is a picture from Erdoğan's visit to another park last year. In this visit, he was pictured poking the doves with an umbrella:

I think this picture is another perfect example of the mindset I have been discussing. But on a funny note, it became another internet phenomenon. Here are a couple examples that play with the image:

With Darth Vader and Luke

In the Sesame Street

And you can find some more here.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Fairy Tale of Rights in Turkey

I will be teaching a course on law and society next semester. I have taught this type of a course back in the US, but this will be my first experience in Turkey. My advisor Michael McCann at UW used to teach this course by starting with Stuart Scheingold's 1974 book, The Politics of Rights. My thinking about law and the US is still very heavily influenced by this book. Scheingold initially focuses on the ideological appeal of the law: 'the myth of rights'. On page 17, he says: 'The myth of rights rests on a faith in the political efficacy and ethical sufficiency of law as a principle of government.' This widely shared myth then forms the basis of his analysis in explaining how it can provide opportunities for legal and political mobilization. I find all of this quite fascinating but what I am really interested in at the moment is the argument's Durkheimian undercurrent: The notion that this 'myth of rights' is widely shared by Americans. In Durkheim's language, the myth of rights would be a strong component of the collective consciousness that holds the American society intact. Let's put the empirical question - whether this is still (or was ever) an accurate assessment - aside. Now, to come back to my course next semester, and as a die-hard comparativist, I have always wondered how this particular argument would hold in Turkey: 1) The Scheingold question: Is there any basis for a myth of rights type of argument in Turkey? In other words, does the rights-bearing subject play at least a partial role in how individuals are imagined within the collectives consciousness(es) in Turkey? 2) The Durkheim question: Regardless of the question of law and rights, what is it that holds the society in Turkey intact? What has it been? What is it now? Is there such a common story anymore?

I am planning to think and write on this more. However, here is my brief take on these questions.

1) This is the type of question that my research is likely to pursue in the future, so no easy answers yet. However, from a comparative perspective, I can easily claim that the myth is more like a fairy tale in Turkey. Compared to a daily American context, you almost never hear the invocation of a rights-bearing subject here. Of course there is wide-spread formal and informal legal mobilization, but I daresay it is rather an example of mobilizing official tools that are external. These external tools may offer good opportunities for reaching our goals but they do not really shape our imaginations.

2) If not rights or law, then what shapes our consciousness? Well since this is their garden, I will let the cats offer some speculations. The Ottoman Empire consisted of different religious communities. I am not an Ottoman historian, but the fact that these communities co-existed side by side for centuries, implies an operational shared common set of understandings, norms and practices, (which were inevitably enforced by official violence).That legacy had been annihilated by the WWI and the establishment of the Republic. The non-Muslims had come to be perceived as the agents of European capitalists and enemies. They were purged and/or killed. Most of the remaining non-Muslims were eventually sent away through population exchanges. The state offered and imposed a non-apologetic tranformation that focused on westernization and Turkishness. This took place while the properties of the non-Muslims were being expropriated and redistributed. I am basically arguing that the new Republican collective consciousness was about forcefully becoming western and Turkish, all the while suppressing the historical guilt of killing and purging the non-Muslims. When that meta-story was finally challenged with AKP's cooptation of the Kemalist state in early 2000s, I am afraid we are now even bereft of that dirty story that somewhat connected us to each other in our guilt and ignorance. We have now become Durkheim's nightmare: A society still in the process of capitalist transformation with no common and accumulated story to connect us in these dire circumstances. Actually, the stories we have accumulated are pitting us against each other. We pretty much hate each other here now...

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Path to Civil War

Please do not read this if you do not want to see graphic pictures of violence.

It is Christmas time, but it is not merry here. We are on our path to a civil war. The Suruç massacre on July 20, and the Ankara massacre on October 10, propelled the PKK (or some groups tied to the PKK) to respond with attacks on security personnel in eastern Turkey. Moreover, in the past few months, a new type of resistance emerged: Ditches in urban centers. The goal, as it appears, is to block the access of state security forces in urban areas. This is supposedly in congruence with PKK's calls for 'democratic autonomy.' The official response has been declaring curfews enforced with snipers (yes, snipers); surrounding these towns and neighborhoods with armored vehicles and heavy artillery; and marching these units to demolish ditches and barricades. As you might imagine, many civilians were killed by explosions or by sniper fire. Let me underline this fact: Turkish citizens have been killed by the Turkish military's sniper fire. Thankfully, our state declared that it regrets such casualties...

First, let me state that I do not claim to see the complete picture yet. Are these ditches built by the guerillas (or terrorists, in official discourse), or are they built by the civilians? Or, maybe, is there an organic cooperation? I hesitate to reach conclusions at this point. But let me say this: If this is the implementation of a decision taken by the PKK command, I have no sympathy for it and I believe they are as responsible of these civilian deaths as the state.

Here are some pictures:

A 13 year old girl was shot dead and could not be buried because of the curfew at Cizre. Her family kept her in the deep freezer until the curfew was lifted.

The body of a dead PKK guerilla was mutilated and was pulled behind a police vehicle at Şırnak.

A 70 year old man was killed by sniper fire in Cizre. His body stayed out in the streets for three days until the curfew was lifted.

And these pictures are a few months old. New ones are coming in, as the conflict over the ditches spread into a number of urban centers. However, I want to talk about a different picture that I saw at earlier today:

This picture is from a house at Nusaybin and reflects my feelings on these recent events rather well. The photographer went into the yard and took the picture of the girl (who went outside) from inside. She is smiling at us, from the direction that the bullets came in. I just hope it was safe then, and has been so since. The fact that she is smiling is giving me hope that noone she loves was hurt. The fact that she is smiling is giving me hope that smiling is still possible there.

I appreciate that the photographer went inside and took these pictures, as I believe this is what we lack. We know what the state tells us: 'They are fighting the terrorists,' and 'they are in a legitimate fight to establish control in urban centers.' But, at what cost? Our own citizens are suffering under inhumane curfews and assaults. We need such journalism that goes 'inside,' and tells the story from there. And, of course, we need outlets that would carry those stories. Tough luck on that!

The only way to avoid a civil war in the (maybe not so) long run is to let the smiling face of this little girl pierce through our barriers, as those bullets did so to her house. And for that, we need to understand how war, funded by our money and votes, hurts fellow citizens inside those doors with bullet holes.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Attacks on HDP offices in Turkey: The Unholy Alliance of AKP and PKK

In the past few months, many HDP (Peoples' Democratic Party) offices had been (and is still daily being) assaulted by mobs. This poses a stark contrast to the election results (June 7) that catapulted HDP above the national election barrier by 13%. HDP's electoral success was a colossal achievement. In previous parliamentary elections, the Kurdish candidates had run as independents and could not reach beyond 6% of the seats overall. However, HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş's success in the presidential elections in 2014, led to the HDP decision to run as a party in June 7 parliamentary elections. Many people, including myself, criticized HDP for taking such a huge risk, because failing to pass the 10% national barrier would mean no HDP representatives in the parliament, and consequently, an AKP (Justice and Development Party) super majority that would benefit the most by the missing HDP seats (as AKP has been the second most popular party in the Kurdish regions). However, HDP successfully forged a left and humanitarian coalition that received many Turkish votes, in addition to the bulk of the Kurdish votes. HDP's almost unbelievable achievement is a huge development for Turkish democracy, and not only because it helped bringing and end to the AKP majority rule. HDP's success is extremely valuable for bridging the gap between the Kurd and the Turk with a democratic and peaceful agenda. I will most likely blog another post just on that topic. In this post, I would like to talk about the increasing hostilities HDP has been facing since before the elections.


Above is the video of a mob attack to the local office of HDP at Balıkesir, my hometown, on September 7. On that day, several HDP offices in other cities were also attacked. Here are some more pictures from that assault on September 7:

HDP headquarters in Ankara were also attacked in the evening on September 8. Some nationalist (!) protesters were recorded chanting: "We do not want [military] operations. We want massacres..." Merging PKK with HDP, these nationalist (!) mobs were indeed calling for mass killing of Kurds... Others were also targeted by the angry mobs. In a bizarre and ugly incident, a Kurdish man was forced to kiss an Atatürk statue... I am personally dumbstruck in finding out how so many people around me adopted a hostile, almost fascist, discourse almost overnight. This cartoon below represents my situation pretty well:

 One morning when you wake up: Columnist Yılmaz, Facebook friend Suat, Ayça from Twitter, Cab driver Gökhan, Cousin Serkan, etc.

So why did things go down for HDP after such an incredible electoral success on June 7?

The answer is clear: AKP and PKK are in an unholy alliance, using violence and terror, to undermine HDP, which emerged as a significant threat to them on June 7. Using violence to undermine a democratically elected political party is not a new phenomenon in Turkey. What we are observing is yet another incident of violent repression of a group which is eager to participate in a political system that is unwilling to accept it within. It appears, undermining HDP is beneficial both for AKP and PKK at the moment.

There had been various attacks to HDP personnel, offices and meetings during the election campaigns before June 7. The deadliest one was a bomb explosion during the HDP election meeting at Diyarbakır on June 5, only two days before the election. It was a miracle that only a few people died. It was also significant that the HDP leaders called for calm and peace in the wake of the explosion despite several deaths and many injuries. The worse attack took place at Suruç, a small town at the Syrian border, after the election on July 20. Most of the thirty two people who died were there as a part of a socialist youth federation (a HDP component) that was organizing a relief effort for the Syrian refugees at the border camps. This explosion was clearly the turning point. ISIS was blamed for both of the bombings, however many people, including myself, identified "deep state" forces as the culprit. Apparently, the PKK did so too. Since this event, PKK started to attack Turkish security personnel in south-east Turkey, delving straight back into the nightmares of 1990s. Two days after the Suruç massacre, on July 22, two police officers were found dead at their home at Urfa. PKK claimed responsibility for the attack. PKK, in an ambiguous statement, a week after the incident, claimed that the killing of the police officers was an independent action of local guerillas, not based on a command from PKK headquarters (link in Turkish). The conflict escalated nevertheless. In the past month, hundreds of people died. Turkish security forces attacked PKK targets not only inside Turkey, but also in Iraq and Syria. We do not know the exact number of guerilla casualties but the numbers seem to be in hundreds. Currently the southern town of Cizre is under permanent curfew and there are reports of civilian casualties under sniper fire. PKK reciprocated. Many security personnel were gunned down or bombed over the past month and a half. Most tragically, 16 soldiers were killed in a bomb blast at Dağlıca on September 7. On the next day, 13 police officers were killed in another explosion at Iğdır. Some people argue that this recent steep escalation indicates the entry of more experienced PKK forces, who had most likely been busy fighting against ISIS in Syria, into the scene.

I am not a security analyst and I will not try to speculate on why Turkey and PKK would go back into a dire military struggle against each other while they are both busy fighting a much more dangerous threat to the south: ISIS. That is just beyond me. However, I believe there is a very good domestic reason for both of them to attack each other: Undermining the burgeoning HDP.

The escalation of violence is undoubtedly the antidote to HDP's success in bridging the gaps between Turkish voters and the Kurds. HDP, with its unwavering call for equality and human rights, had managed to reach many people. HDP co-leader Demirtaş's easy innate charisma had captured many people's interest, and when they listened, they surprisingly found a humane and friendly discourse. Violence is in the process of undoing this unbelievable achievement. When people are dying left and right, calls for ceasefire and peace appear naive. They fall on deaf ears. People once sympathetic fall back on discourses of animosity. The memorized and internalized enmities resurface with stronger resilience. However, AKP and PKK meet in this unholy alliance because they are both threatened by HDP's success.

During the election campaign, HDP co-leader Demirtaş had a one-sentence parliamentary group speech on March 15, 2015.: "Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: We will not let you become the president!" The nationalists and Kemalists had been arguing that AKP and HDP were conspiring to exchange Kurdish rights for Erdoğan's presidency under a new presidential regime (with increased powers). To dispel such worries, HDP's response was: "We will not let you become the president!" (To avoid confusion: Yes, Erdoğan is the president of Turkey since 2014. The full title of the office in Turkey's parliamentary system is Cumhurbaşkanı, i.e. "President of the People." Başkan, i.e. "President", is used for presidential regimes.) This was arguably the most effective HDP slogan throughout the entire campaign. One of Erdoğan's close aids even called this slogan a provocation!

In essence, HDP's entry into the parliament by beating the 10% national barrier was sufficient to bring down AKP majority rule. The math is clear. It is very hard to achieve a parliamentary majority with four major parties. HDP had delivered. By blocking an AKP majority, they had crushed any hopes of a constitutional change that would deliver extra powers to the president. In the aftermath of the elections, the ultra-nationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party) rejected a coalition with HDP in it, and this destroyed any chances of a coalition with no AKP participation. On the other hand, HDP rejected any coalition with AKP in it, especially after the June 5 Diyarbakır explosion and the Suruç massacre. This left few possibilities for a coalition and it became clear that AKP preferred a new election to hopefully force a majority in the parliament. How? By undoing HDP in elections where  violence and terror is rampant. The AKP government has shelved the peace process and escalated violence to force HDP down the 10% barrier, by disenchanting Turkish voters of HDP and/or by physically making it impossible to vote in various Kurdish towns for security reasons. In other words, AKP is playing with fire in escalating violence. The goal is to close down south-east Turkey and steal any sympathy for HDP in the rest of the country by forcing a mental equation of HDP with PKK. With more and more security personnel being killed by PKK attacks, PKK is further demonized. However, with each death, pressure on HDP increases. HDP calls for the state to cease military operations and calls for the PKK to cease attacks and drop arms. However, these calls fall on deaf ears. Declarations that equate HDP with PKK appear on paper and TV everyday. Especially the social media reeks with racist and fascist calls. It is in this bleak atmosphere that mob attacks against HDP offices increased. When coffins of soldiers and police officers are arriving daily, HDP offices are presented as the most suitable targets for the protesters' self-righteous fury.

If AKP is ready to drop the peace process and risk nation-wide ethnic violence to force HDP down, why does PKK cooperate with it? I will offer two speculations on this: A cynical one and a political one. The cynical speculation is short and simple: PKK had struck a deal with AKP over presidency in exchange for the recognition of certain Kurdish rights within a new constitution. In this scenario, HDP would fail to beat the 10% barrier, which would result in an AKP super majority to unilaterally change the constitution. HDP foiled this deal by its successful election campaign which was very hostile to AKP. Inevitably, both AKP and PKK are eager to punish HDP now. I have serious doubts about such a scenario. I really doubt such a strong understanding and agreement could have developed between PKK and the AKP government. Moreover, I really doubt HDP could afford to defy PKK in such a blatant manner. PKK, after all, wields the gun...

The second scenario is based on my reading of the politics of the Kurdish movement in Turkey. We have to acknowledge that the Kurdish movement had achieved its recognition by the Turkish state, thanks to the PKK and its armed resistance, despite the capture of its leader by Turkish security forces in 1999. The most significant actor in the Kurdish movement in Turkey is undoubtedly the PKK. HDP is strongly connected to the PKK. It is important that PKK holds the gun, but PKK also represents generations of resistance and sacrifice for the Kurdish population. Öcalan himself, despite capture and incarceration, is still a powerful leader. However, I believe HDP's recent electoral success and Demirtaş's personal charisma has challenged these dynamics. HDP now offers a democratic solution to the Kurdish problems. In other words, HDP had achieved what PKK could never imagine to: Reaching to the Turkish electorate. So the question arises: What would happen to the PKK if HDP takes over the leadership through increased public support and legitimacy across the entire country? I believe that some PKK leaders are not very happy about such increased popularity of HDP and Demirtaş. The violent responses to the state operations that killed dozens of state security personnel achieves several things: i) Undermining HDP's position; ii) Consolidating PKK components; iii) Demonstrating to the Kurdish population, once again, who wields the weapon and who is there to defend them. I am obviously not an expert on such organizations, and I do not believe all PKK leaders share this mindset, however I believe leaders are not always so eager to give up hard-won power and respect.

In summary, AKP and PKK both have their reasons to undermine HDP through violence and terror. Moreover, this unholy alliance which is based on attacking each other is a struggle over the control of a group of people (mostly Kurdish but also some Turkish) who deliberately chose to support a discourse of democracy, peace, and human rights. However, neither AKP nor PKK are ready to recognize this democratic choice. Instead, they have decided to suppress it with increased violence and terror directed at each other. It falls on us to recognize this deceit and offer a hand to HDP. It falls on us to defy calls that equate HDP with PKK. It falls on us to defy the ultra-nationalist discourse that aims to forge fascists out of regular people through manipulation of their fears.

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.