[The following is part one of a two-part piece on Tayyip Erdogan. Part two will be posted Monday, 3 September.]
Since his election to the helm of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2003, but even more so following the party’s reelections in 2007 and 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has played the darling of the proverbial international community. Gradually relinquishing their fear of an Islamist agenda, European and North American governments and think tanks made Erdoğan the linchpin of a “modern” Middle East. He became the embodiment of a benign Islam embedded in the kind of secular, democratic, and neoliberal economic structures the “West” yearned to see modeled in the rest of the Middle East. His wife wore a headscarf, yet he spoke the language of democracy and rights. He commanded a powerful army advancing the geopolitical interests of NATO, but promised to curb its extraordinary domestic political power and mitigate the draconian secularism that many found increasingly oppressive. To top it off, he spoke the language of neoliberal economics. With the war on terror drudging on and signs of a global recession on the horizon, he was a panacea for all Western woes.
For many of the same reasons, Erdoğan has benefited from unrivalled (although increasingly wavering) domestic support. Tired of military coups and dictatorships, human rights abuses, corruption, and economic stagnation, voters from all sides of the political spectrum saw the AKP as the agent of much needed change. In 2002, and even more so in 2007, the AKP garnered support from a wide and surprisingly diverse segment of the Turkish electorate. The party’s antiestablishment and anticorruption message spoke to politically and economically disenfranchised urban and rural populations; its social conservatism to the religious segment who felt silenced and oppressed during decades of militant secularism; its rhetoric of democracy, human rights, and Europeanization to young people, activists, and academics tired of quasi-military rule and hoping for a more open and egalitarian society. Erdoğan promised a deeper kind of democracy. He spoke fervently about the democratic opening, the Kurdish opening, and the Alevi opening; he expressed unbridled support for the Palestinian cause and took strong rhetorical stands against Israel (appealing to religious conservatives and leftists alike); he courted the EU, yet with a measure of antagonism that appealed to nationalists (left and right), anti-imperialists, and social conservatives. He spoke of the freedom of speech and academic expression, promising to dismantle the Higher Education Council (YÖK) that stifled intellectual freedom and the careers of critical academics and students. He spoke of human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights; he promised to reign in the military, put an end to corruption, and dismantle the “deep state” that directed Turkish politics from its shadows. He was the rainmaker.
It would be wrong to say that that the love affair has ended. The AKP was elected to a third straight majority in June 2011. Erdoğan is losing his luster among the “atypical” part of his original constituency (i.e. those who would not describe themselves as socially, religiously or economically conservative), but remains enormously popular both domestically and abroad. The international media hang on his every word despite the fact that the rousing words have rarely turned into action, and that many of his (especially recent) statements have sounded like curious echoes of sentiments expressed by leaders who the “international community” and media often do not take seriously, or of whom they are consistently critical. While his initial popularity can be accounted for by the confluence of circumstances and promises outlined above, his continued appeal is more difficult to explain. Although much has changed since the AKP arrived on the Turkish political scene, much has in fact stayed the same. Why, then, is Erdoğan not taken to task? How has he managed to escape the kind of domestic and international scrutiny that is his due?
The answer to this question is at least as complex as the set of circumstances that brought the AKP its initial success. Yet before attempting to lay out an answer, we might do well to chronicle some of what Erdoğan and the AKP might be taken to task for. First, the broken promises. The Higher Education Council continues to wield power over Turkish universities. In one of its latest efforts, in June 2012, it failed to endorse the rectorships of three candidates who received the highest percentage of votes at their respective universities. Instead – supposedly for reasons of national security – it conferred rectorships on candidates who came in second, third and fifth. This, unfortunately, is not an isolated case, with similar incidents recorded annually.
Little has also come of the much-touted Kurdish opening. Since AKP’s election into government, the main pro-Kurdish opposition party has been twice disbanded, first as the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP), then as the Democratic Society Party (DTP). In its current incarnation, as the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), it is forced to field candidates as independents due to the inordinately high electoral threshold of ten percent. Accounting for the threshold at the Council of Europe (it is twice as high as the highest in Europe), Erdoğan argued that it had “nothing to do with democracy,” and then that it “had to continue for democracy [emphasis added].” For his part, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay severed the link between democratization and the Kurdish question altogether, insisting that the AKP does not see a necessary connection between the two. As there is no “torture or extrajudicial execution in Turkey” (a claim that is not difficult to challenge), the standard of democracy has evidently been met, and the Kurdish issue solved. In a revealing statement, Erdoğan noted: “There is no such thing as the Kurdish issue. What exists are the individual problems of individual Turkish citizens of Kurdish descent.”
In November of 2011, speaking to members of the Council of Europe, Erdoğan touted the AKP’s commitment to rights, freedoms, and multiculturalism. "In the last nine years," argued Erdoğan,
we have taken unprecedented steps in the area of human rights and freedoms. We have tried to elevate…human rights in Turkey to European standards…We are building a Turkey in which people can articulate their ideas freely, write without fear of prosecution, and enjoy the right to publish. We have made sure that different languages are used in Turkey.
Yet Kurdish politicians are continuously harassed and repeatedly banned from participation in politics (thirty-five were banned in 2009 when the DTP was disbanded). Kurdish and pro-Kurdish politicians and activists continue to be intimidated, beaten and imprisoned for the public use of the Kurdish language, or participation in political protests. The law permitting the public use of Kurdish – which the AKP has time and again associated with the Kurdish opening, but which has in fact been in effect since 2001 – as well as the much extolled Kurdish language television channel have done little to stem censures and arrests for the use of Kurdish and the support of Kurdish causes.
Perhaps it is the remarkable regularity of this physical and symbolic violence against Kurds – its routinisation – that has made it more palatable. Perhaps it is the regional geopolitical and economic scenes that have made it easier to take Erdoğan at his word and turn a blind eye to the facts on the ground. Yet if one takes a close and honest look, it is clear precisely how little, despite Erdoğan’s continuous assurances to the contrary, has changed. A case in point: In 2007, a park constructed by the Municipality of Doğubayazıt in the city of Ağrı was named Ehmedê Xani, after a seventeenth century author. The mayor and twenty-three members of the City Council were sentenced to six months, and one month and twenty days respectively for contravening the law on the Turkish alphabet. The law in question, which renders illegal the use of the letters ‘x’ and ‘q’ (letters found in the Kurdish, but not the Turkish alphabet) has continued to make possible criminal prosecution for the use of Kurdish, notwithstanding its decriminalization in 2001. Lest one be tempted to argue that a lot could have changed since 2007, on 22 July, 2012 the inappropriate (i.e. Kurdish) names of nineteen parks in Diyarbakır were blacked out, and ordered changed.
Laws on the aiding and abetting of terrorist organizations are deployed for similar purposes, with individuals (from students to city mayors) regularly charged with promoting terrorist activities for attending rallies in support of Kurdish cases, or for speaking, singing, or making public announcements in Kurdish. Among others, Rıdvan Çelik, a student at Dicle University in Diyarbakır, is serving fourteen years and seven months in prison, accused of singing and chanting in nine political meetings held between 2007 and 2011 and found guilty of promoting an illegal organization and partaking in terrorist activity. Among those protesting the imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan in February 2011, thirteen were sentenced to a total of 104 years and sixteen days in prison. Among those celebrating Newroz (a Kurdish cultural festival), seventeen were sentenced to a total of twenty years in prison.
While Erdoğan promised to reign in the army and keep a firm grip on policing, excessive use of force, brutality, and subsequent impunity continue to be the reality, especially in the southeast. According to data complied by the Human Rights Foundation in Turkey, an average of two civilians were killed and five injured in the southeast every month in 2011. While statistics are not yet available for 2012, just last month, on 14 July 2012, BDT affiliated assembly members and the mayor of Diyarbakır were severely beaten by the police while attempting to assemble for a pro-democracy march. For the last three weeks, a battle of which very little is known has been raging in Şemdinli, in the southeast of Turkey. The few photographs that have appeared depict a war zone.
Yet the most talked about of these recent “incidents” took place in December 2011, when Turkish fighter jets killed thirty-five and injured three Kurdish civilians in Uludere, in the city of Şırnak, near the Turkey-Iraq border. Twenty-two of those killed were under the age of twenty. While many have called it the ‘Uludere massacre,’ AKP’s spokesperson Hüseyin Çelik referred to the event as an “operational accident,” promising that the “fight against terror [would] continue” – the civilians were mistaken for PKK fighters, although as many have pointed out, they were walking a well-known and often-used smuggling route, in possessions of sugar and diesel. While Erdoğan made a show of commiserating with the victim’s families, the closest he came to calling the Uludere massacre a crime was when he likened it to abortion. In what quickly became one of the most contentious (not to mention outrageous) of Erdoğan’s speeches to date, the Prime Minister argued that “every abortion is an Uludere,” and questioned why the citizens of Turkey were not as concerned with the massacring of unborn babies as they were with the operational accident that was Uludere. For a painfully long two weeks Erdoğan sounded like Ahmedinejad or Chavez on a (really) bad day. He inveighed against abortion, calling it a “Western conspiracy to depopulate the great Turkish nation,” and urged Turkish citizens to reproduce or perish. He repeated previous entreaties for Turkish women to have at least three children, arguing that only this would guarantee the continued development and economic prosperity of the nation. He warned of the “grave danger” abortion posed to a mother’s life. Ayhan Sefer Ustun, AKP politician and chairman of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee called abortion a “crime against humanity,” while others mulled over the possibility of presenting all fetuses with national identification documents.
With a strange slight of hand, Erdoğan then linked abortion with birth by caesarian section, arguing that both were part of a conspiracy to “prevent [Turkey’s] population from growing further,” as Health Minister Recep Akdağ proposed to draft a law that would severely restrict both. While the international media finally paid some attention (much of the Turkish media, civil society, medical establishment, and sections of the religious establishment were already outraged), Erdoğan’s international reputation seems to have remained intact. The story was dropped as soon as the sensationalism of the rhetoric had worn off, despite the fact that, while abortion and cesareans remain legal, all women seeking abortion are now registered in a state-run database, and stories of women dying during “natural” childbirth after being refused cesareans are already trickling out. Few commented on Erdoğan’s implicit equation of one fetus with thirty-four Kurdish lives.
While the state of the Kurdish opening should in itself suffice to demonstrate the state of the democratic opening, if further evidence is needed, there is plenty. Public criticism of Erdoğan or protest against government policies (generally taken as cornerstones of a functioning democracy) have been effectively criminalized. In addition to libel suits (Erdoğan is infamous for suing those he deems insulting, which generally means those critical of him or his policies), there have been an astonishing number of prosecutions for what usually pass for the exercise of fundamental freedoms, or worse, the thought of such exercise (see the case of Çağdaş Cergiz and Türkan Aygün below). A few cases from the past year (compiled by Human Rights Foundation of Turkey) seem sufficiently illustrative. On 27 January 2011 nineteen students were taken into custody for protesting Erdoğan’s educational policies. On 14 January 2011 sixteen members of a musical band were charged with insulting the Prime Minister through a song titled Tayyip Blues (the offending lyrics likened Erdoğan to a street vendor). While they were eventually found not guilty, the eight people protesting Erdoğan’s policies during the 2009 launch of the Eskişehir Speed Train were not so lucky. In 2011, they were sentenced to prison terms of eleven months and twenty days for the same offence. In February 2011 twenty-two people were charged with insulting the Prime Minister following a Tekel workers’ strike. Seven of them were sentenced to eleven months and twenty days in prison. Two students, Çağdaş Cergiz and Türkan Aygün, were charged with – although eventually found not guilty of – protesting during Erdoğan’s visit to Bursa University. They were cleared not because they were found to be exercising their democratic rights to freedom of speech, protest, and assembly, but because they did not actually protest. The charges were initially laid because they had apparently intended to.
According to data compiled by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, in 2011, 436 people were charged in freedom of expressions cases; 274 of those were sentenced to a total of 888 years, six months and twelve days in prison. In freedom of association cases, 558 were arrested and of these, ninety-one have thus far been sentenced to a total of 596 years and six days in prison. On charges of “membership in illegal organizations” (i.e. the KCK), 836 were arrested. Among them are DBP affiliated politicians, university students, journalists, members of human rights NGOs, city mayors, and university professors. Among the latter is Müge Tuzcuoğlu, in prison since 8 March 2012, accused of participation in a terrorist organization for publishing a book on the trauma experienced by Diyarbakır children, and initiating a project to help them cope with growing up in a war zone.
Between 2010 and 2012, 7,043 students have been interrogated; 4,602 have been detained and fifty-five have been expelled from universities (among them a student involved in an on-campus protest against Erdoğan). Currently, 117 university students remain on trial, and 2,824 remain in prison. Among them are five students from Ankara arrested in January 2011 and accused of “possibly (emphasis added) planning an attack on students with right-wing political views,” and Cihan Kırmızıgul, convicted of membership in an illegal organization – on evidence of wearing a keffiya in proximity to where a keffiya-clad gang attacked a supermarket – and sentenced, with the help of the anti-terrorism law, to eleven years and three months in prison. Three students who carried a placard demanding free tuition during a 2011 event attended by the Prime Minister were charged with membership in a terrorist organization and the promulgation of terrorist propaganda. Two were found guilty on both counts and sentenced to eight years and five months in prison; the third was sentenced to two years and two months for the second charge only. In addition to student protesters, at least 245 anti-government protestors remain in custody, as well as thirty-nine environmental and energy activists. Incidentally, protesting hydroelectric power plants is now defined as an act of terrorism.
By 2012, Turkey’s overcrowded prisons were host to, among others, forty-one lawyers, eleven human rights advocates, ninety-one journalists, eight assembly members, and thirty mayors. The government had banned 15,590 websites. The Press Freedom Index had Turkey in 148th place (out of 179), and Turkey had dropped ten places in the Reporters Without Borders ranking. It seems to me that Erdoğan has been cut a lot of slack.