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!


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.


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

"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


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.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How protests in Turkey are perceived abroad

Okay time to write about an issue that I have been thinking about for a while: How these protests are perceived abroad. The protesters have been relying heavily on foreign media coverage until yesterday. This was even more important when Turkish media were almost entirely self-censoring. However, are the foreign sources doing justice to what is going on in Turkey? On earlier posts,  I wrote about how I find the seculars vs Muslims perspective simplistic. I also have a problem with the Orientalist perspective.
Are these protests yet another example of an Oriental dictator oppressing his subjects? This is definetely the message you get from some of the truly helpful international supporters of the protests like Anonymous. I, myself, happily shared their video which declared war (with their usual mechanic voice) on the Turkish government websites. However, is Erdoğan another dictator similar to his counterparts in China and Iran as Anonymous claims?
The answer is no. I will actually try to reverse the tables and risk doing some injustice to fellow comrades who have been very helpful in publicizing the protests. What we see in Turkey is not the usual pains of democratization that all democratic countries once supposedly passed through. Democratization is not a single path that each country should follow in turn. On the contrary, democratization is a process - a process in which political struggles take place in a country, based on its unique historical background and circumstances. Consequently, rather than talking about democracy in dichotomous terms (democratic or authoritarian), we should think of democracy as a scale with quite subjectively defined thresholds. Then, I think a better question about Turkey would be: Based on our observations of these protests (the demands, the pressures, the participants, and the government's responses), is the level of democracy in Turkey satisfactory?

As I see it, we are not witnessing a revolutionary movement to topple down a brutal dictator in Turkey. People hit the streets when they were upset with police brutality as they observed in the social media. They rushed into Taksim Square to criticize a popularly elected government which received 50% of the votes in the last elections (which were inarguably fair, except for a very high 10% national election barrier). We may be talking about an arrogant, over-confident and majoritarian leader but Erdoğan is not a completely unaccountable, hereditary tyrant. What is at stake in these protests is not revolution but the right to a say in city planning, a slap on the government's hand in intervening in different life styles, and an insistent call for increased public participation and public debate in policy making. This is democracy at work.

"The political" in these protests here pertains to people's immediate lives and concerns. Politics in Turkey is no longer conducted under proxies within limited arenas because the judiciary and the military wanted it so. People in Turkey hit the streets in protest even against a strong popularly elected government, and they pushed it back. This is what democracy looks like when political issues in debate are real, not fake.

We are obviously at a crossroads. The protesters made their point. Yesterday, President Abdullah Gül said that they got the message: Democracy does not just consist of elections. However, we are all pretty sure that the Prime Minister did not get that message yet. Where do we go from here? The answer to that question will definetely affect the quality of life and the quality of democracy in Turkey. But I also believe that there are many lessons to learn about democracy from these protests in Turkey - even for North American and European "democracies".

Monday, June 3, 2013

Graffiti in Turkey Protests

    This is so awesome. Wonderful small stories all around.
    Some mosques are taking hurt protesters in to patch them up. Then I saw a tweet earlier from famous Beşiktaş fan group Çarşı who were calling all protesters entering mosques to remove shoes and drop stones, clubs, and beer bottles.
    Different soccer fan groups, but particularly Beşiktaş Çarşı group, were on the frontlines, cooperating with other fan groups. There was a tweet about a Çarşı member calling 155 (police hotline) to say that it is already noon and the police are late!
    There is constant ongoing twitter exchange about where there is heavy police existence, where they are doing body searches, where doctors are needed, and where voluntary lawyers should go to help out detained protesters.

    Here is another fun graffiti. It says "You messed with a generation who grew up beating up cops in GTA", referring to famous video game series Grand Theft Auto. Humor is really not lost to the protestors despite police brutality. Another graffiti read "I could not think of a slogan." One of my favorites though was: "With this much gas, the government can shit at any moment." To shit is commonly used as "to fuck up" in Turkish.
    Another graffiti reads "Rich protesters have higher quality gas masks. We are jealous." As funny as this one is, the gas mask situation is very important. I've watched multiple short videos about how you can make a gas mask with common house items. Apparently, many residents at Beşiktaş put up stands at apartment building entrances last night to provide lemon, vinegar and water for running protesters to help with the effects of the tear gas.
    Ah, I just saw several examples of one of the best graffiti. "Please don't come back!" clearly referring to Prime Minister Erdoğan who left for a trip to North Africa in the midst of all these protests.
    Another good one: "Enough! I will call the cops." Threatening to call the cops on the cops is the perfect irony. But we should underline the little hint in the joke: It reflects how this is not a revolutionary moment but a peaceful protest effort from within the system. The cops might be obeying the orders to contain the protesters brutally, but the graffiti artist calls for an imaginery better cop to deal with the cop abusing his authority. The protester is ultimately a law-abiding citizen, not "a marauder" or "a marginal".

    Here is another graffiti: "Tayyip, winter is coming." It is referring to famous TV series "Game of Thrones" based on George R. R. Martin novels. I am not sure if the graffiti artist intended it but it fits perfectly with the debate over whether this is the "Turkish Spring", reminding the "Arab Spring". Today, both the Prime Minister Erdoğan and the Minister of Youth and Sports Kılıç talked about how they disliked identfying the protests as the "Turkish Spring". Erdoğan even vaguely talked about how Turkey is in the brink of entering the "Turkish Summer." I think the discussion over the Arab and Turkish springs carries Orientalist tones with a Turkish flavor. There is a clear distaste here for being compared to Arab countries, which are supposed to follow Turkey's example. Regardless of the accuracy of the comparison, I find this Orientalist perspective particularly neo-imperialistic and disturbing. Superimposed on this background, I have to say I really enjoyed "Tayyip, winter is coming"!

    Another good one: "You shouldn't have banned that last beer", referring to the anti-alcohol ban.

    "Neither revolution, nor Shariah, just respect", underlining the composite and peaceful character of the protesters. Next one is a banner held by a couple of young protesters: "Would you like 3 kids like us?" This one refers to Erdoğan's repeated calls for families having at least three kids so that Turkey's fertility rate and youth population remain high. I will not delve into the Nazi undertones in this stance. But don't you like how the banner not only makes fun of Erdoğan's stance but also underlines the protest movement's main point?: There are different life styles in Turkey whether you like it or not. If you want minimum three kids per family, you will also end up with more protesters!

People like you and me

Originally posted at University of Washington, Jackson School of International Studies Correspondence website
Emails from Arda İbikoğlu, M.A.I.S/Ph.D. alumnus.
Insight from Istanbul, Turkey.
The following emails from Dr. İbikoğlu were reproduced here with his permission. Please note that they were sent to a friend and so the language is informal.
Message 1 (March 31): 
Hey, we are all fine. A long explanation would take pages. But, it started as an Occupy Movement couple days ago to protest and prevent government plans to uproot a small park in Taksim Square – Istanbul’s very central entertainment district. The police used tear gas, etc., to dissuade protesters, but more and more people have kept showing up over the past two days.
From what I hear, protesters are mostly people like you and me – not organized at all. Police violence brought more and more people and it completely got out of control last night. Even though just a few TV stations are broadcasting the real extent of the events, people heard about the massively disproportionate use of force online and hit the streets last night. People were on the streets all night. We are talking about thousands of people.
Why? Hard to tell really. The government’s Syria stand has been polarizing, but more importantly two recent events: 1) a new anti-alcohol law that bans selling after 10pm and restricts advertising and consumption in public spaces. 2) the ceremonious beginning of a third bridge on the Bosphoruswhich was named after Selim the Grim, an Ottoman Sultan known for his massacre of thousands of Anatolian Alevis during his conquest of Egypt back in the 16th century. Both of these (and the plans to change Taksim Square) were begun without any public debate.
I think the real cause is people’s anger in the government which received 50% of the votes in the last elections and now perceives itself above public debate. People supported Erdoğan and his party to overthrow the military’s antidemocratic control over the country. Having done that and having received 50% of the votes, now he sees himself as a Sultan-reincarnate.
I am still quite surprised with seeing so many people on the streets. It is an unlikely coalition out there at the moment. Socialist, Kemalists and whoever is pissed at the government are out there. I really do not think it can last. It would die out if the government comes back to its senses and avoids further violence on peaceful protesters. An economically prospering country and its historical capital out on the streets – really bizarre…
Even though I fail to understand it completely, it is overall pretty awesome. We got rid of the military’s anti-democratic control, and here people are on the streets when the popularly elected government seems to pursue increasingly authoritarian policies. This is gradual reform at its best.
Message 2 (June 1): 
There are rumors about Twitter and Facebook shutting down but nothing of the sort happened yet.
It is crazy here. While I am writing this, my street is full with noise – people blowing whistles, hitting pans together in protest.
There are pictures of 40k people crossing the Bosphorus Bridge on foot.
This is all very exciting for public dissent. However, as you can imagine, I have mixed feelings about this. The protests about the park are all right on; the protests about the government’s anti-democratic policies and procedures are all right on. However, the bulk of the masses on the street right now are the supporters of the political movements that I find the most difficult: the Kemalists.
Who are the Kemalists? The supporters of the old regime where a bureaucratic elite (mainly the military and the judiciary) ruled Turkey with an iron fist from WWI. It is the first time a truly popular government took office and undermined these traditional arbiters of power. So some of the people protesting right now are no more true democrats at heart than the ones they are protesting against.
But does the government deserve to be criticized? Hell yeah! They overthrew the old elite but they owe a great deal to them ideologically and they do not see any problems in utilizing the power and coercion networks of the old elite – as seen on the streets today with tear gas and other examples of disproportionate use of police violence.
On a more personal note: Is there ever going to be a political movement/protest that I will feel at home and not over-analyze to oblivion?
Message 3 (June 2):
That Tüfekçi post is great. [Here, Dr. İbikoğlu is referring to a Dr. Zeynep Tüfekçi authored blog post that compares Egypt and Turkey and asks whether there is a social media fueled protest style.] Very accurate observations and analyses. The self-censorship of the media is true and very disturbing. On the other hand, she is also right about the limitations of comparisons to Tahrir. After all, AKP is a truly democratically elected government. It is excessive even to call it authoritarian. Plebiscitarian or majoritarian would be more accurate.
Anyway, as things have changed, I’m now worried about you posting these emails. I’m worried about criticizing the protesters now because it has become so politicized. I would not like to be publicly critical of them now even if there might be things to criticize.
Yesterday and earlier today, Erdoğan talked about the uprisings. He upped his own horribleness. He was very critical of the protesters, called them names (like brigands and marginals), and linked them to CHP (the Kemalist main opposition party). All inaccurate. He is either completely unaware of the extent of the spontaneous nature of the public uprising or he is intentionally misidentifying it to his own electorate who won’t hear about the story from their own media sources because of the media blackout.
But then, I was outside just earlier and many people with Turkish flags were blocking the street, honking, chanting, etc. just as I was about to come back inside, a group about at least 500 people were slowly marching down the street.
I hate the use of the Turkish flag in this context. It is suddenly a nationalist event… so go ahead post my e-mails if you like. I don’t mind being a bit critical of some of the protesters because I am supportive of the cause of protesting too. It highlights many of the divisions here.
Message 4 (June 2):
I have read some accounts of the protests today. There are some quite simplistic ones that identify the conflict as a Muslims vs secular protest. I don’t think you can boil it down to that…
This started as a small protest of the environmental activists but when the disproportionate violence they faced was shared in social media, more people kept rushing in and it escalated into a scale that practically no one foresaw.
But as it stands, I think the composition of the participants differ from place to place. Those people at Taksim, those people who have been clashing with the police at Beşiktaş for the past 24 hours, and those people who were clashing with the police and were dispersed and/or taken into custody only an hour ago at Ankara, are mostly (socialist, environmental, human rights) activists in their 20s and some others who are trying to hijack the protests and turn them into even more violent clashes. However, those people protesting on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, or at other cities (like at my hometown Balıkesir) are somewhat older folks who are more likely to identify themselves as secular nationalists and CHP supporters. Here, we see lots and lots of waving the Turkish flag and singing nationalist marches. As I wrote to you earlier yesterday, I feel a lot closer to those people literally fighting for the ground they are standing on at Taksim and Beşiktaş than the flag-wavers at the Baghdad Street.
Anyway, I think what the Prime Minister Erdoğan is missing (or intentionally avoiding) in his outrageous remarks yesterday, and earlier today, is the composition of this unlikely coalition on the streets that quite literally he himself has forged. All these people are united against his majoritarian/authoritarian rule but he insists calling them as “birkaç çapulcu”, a few marauders.
These spontaneous protests may prove to be the undoing of Erdoğan’s own coalition within which he had successfully incorporated liberal democrats, including influential public intellectuals. Only very recently, he had enlisted the support of influential public intellectuals such as Murat Belge, Mithat Sancar, Baskın Oran and Yılmaz Ensaroğlu to render support for the government’s efforts in forging a peace with the Kurdish movement. I am quite sure, Erdoğan and his party AKP will lose such liberal-democrat support after these protests.
In any case, I think Erdoğan’s resistence to appeasing the protesters and adding more fuel to the fire with increased police brutality is forging a stronger coalition against him and it is possibly weakening his own coalition. These protests may yet prove to be the biggest opponent for a party who ended the military authoritarian rule in Turkey.
Arda İbikoğlu is an alumnus of the M.A. in International Studies Program. He also has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the UW and Middle East experts from JSIS served on his doctoral committee. He is an expert in Turkish and Middle East politics and his research focuses on Turkish political prisoners and changing state-society relations in Turkey from the Ottoman Empire to the present. He has published articles and book chapters on this subject, including an article featured in a Special Issue of Studies in Law, Politics, and Society that highlighted the “next generation” of interdisciplinary legal studies. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.
You can follow Dr. İbikoğlu on Twitter here.