In May 2013, thousands of people staged a peaceful gathering to protest the bulldozing of trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. When police violently cracked down on the demonstrators, massive protests erupted in Istanbul and other major cities in Turkey. The demonstrations were the first in a series of events that has profoundly shaken Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Upset at the cracks in his power, the former prime minister has turned to conspiracy-laden rhetoric to rally his base. He has consistently accused nefarious international lobbies of stirring things up to sabotage the country’s economy and tarred domestic opponents as traitors and threats to the will of the nation.
Complementing Erdoğan’s diatribes is a calmer, more cerebral liberal intelligentsia. Academics and writers sympathetic to the government have misleadingly characterized major events of the past year and a half, including the Gezi Park protests and a major corruption scandal, as coup attempts against the AKP. In doing so, they have exploited the sensitivities of a country that witnessed four actual military putsches between 1960 and 1997.
As these intellectuals are fiercely opposed to the country’s secular nationalist elite and coup-happy military — the latter of which the government has taken pains to remove from the political scene — anyone unsympathetic to the ruling party has become scorned as a common enemy. The intellectuals have thus shrouded repression and served as apologists for Erdoğan’s authoritarianism.
A Movement and Its Detractors
On June 22, 2013, the pro-government Star published a column by respected historian and professor Cemil Koçak entitled “They played a similar game during the 70’s in Chile.” Koçak wrote that the banging of pots and pans (a neighborhood resistance technique that began at 9 PM through the bulk of the Gezi uprisings) recalled memories of the period leading up to the coup that deposed Chilean president Salvador Allende.
A week prior to Koçak’s column, Halil Berktay, another renowned historian, penned a piece that analyzed a clash between protesters and police from the balcony of his apartment in Istanbul’s posh Nişantaşı quarter. Berktay claimed that the protesters, in an environment of constant crisis and conflict, invited violence and betrayed a “mommy, the police beat me” attitude.
Nearly a year later, Berktay had not budged on the protests and those involved, saying: “Their inherent leftist maximalism, their overthrow-oriented adventurousness, their activistic exhilaration turned their hands and led them into an unlimited, no exit, no return confrontationism.”
Such statements typify the liberal intelligentsia’s function: to browbeat Erdoğan’s detractors and legitimize state repression.
The Gezi Park protests initially erupted in opposition to a plan to build a shopping center in the form of an Ottoman military barracks. More was at issue, however: it was a struggle against the excessive and non-consensual urban development projects that have descended upon Istanbul under the AKP.
In a city that has witnessed unprecedented growth in the number of hotels, shopping malls, and gated communities, Gezi Park, located just behind the centrally located Taksim Square, is a small patch of green amid an endless ocean of concrete. For demonstrators — a diverse group that included Alevis, Kurds, LGBT organizations, and an anti-capitalist Muslim organization — the commodification of public space had gone much too far.
Yet throughout the demonstrations, the anti-Gezi intellectuals excused the unbridled police violence and resulting deaths of a handful of youths, all Alevi. They also ignored the forums of participatory democracy that sprung up soon after the main wave of uprisings. These vitally important forums sought to reclaim urban space for public discussion, and began primarily in Istanbul’s Abbasağa Park before spreading to numerous parks throughout the city and country, at times comprising thousands of people.
Liberal intellectuals were also unconcerned with Erdoğan’s intransigence and provocation of his base. Following a brief trip to North Africa that coincided with the first week of the protests, Erdoğan bussed in thousands of supporters to Istanbul’s Atatürk airport upon his return. He lashed into the demonstrations as the crowd vowed to “crush Taksim.”
Moreover, they neglected to comment on a series of howlers Erdoğan uttered, including one false claim that protesters drank alcohol inside a mosque, and another alleging a group of shirtless hooligans attacked a woman wearing a headscarf. (The mosque’s muezzin said he had seen no such consumption, and was subsequently transferred to a much less desirable location for his refusal to lie. Video footage later revealed that the woman in question was never attacked.)
Erdoğan’s executive authoritarianism is a departure from the military authoritarianism that has long characterized the Turkish state.
Since the founding of the modern Turkish state, the military had acted as overseer, the guardian of the sweeping secular reforms introduced at the republic’s interwar advent. In 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997 it successfully squeezed out democratically elected governments.
But military tutelage effectively ended following a 2010 constitutional referendum that enabled the architects of the 1980 coup — Turkey’s bloodiest — to be brought to justice in civilian courts. The subsequent trials, while riddled with inconsistencies, were instrumental in ruining the military’s reputation and severely limiting its political agency.
Strongly supportive of this historic power shift, liberal intellectuals now frame any criticism of Erdoğan as a return to the days of periodic coups.
Corruption Probe or Coup Attempt?
The liberal apologias haven’t been limited to government repression.
On December 17, 2013, the sons of several then-cabinet ministers and businessmen close to the government were detained in what became the biggest corruption scandal in the republic’s history.
The crux of it: Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab was implicated for facilitating the shipment of gold to Iran as payment for Turkey’s natural gas imports. The trade enabled Turkey to skirt international sanctions imposed on Iran, and was aided by Zarrab chucking kickbacks to cabinet ministers (e.g., then-Economy Minister Zafer Cağlayan, to whom Zarrab presented a $350,000 Swiss wristwatch).
In addition, $4.5 million in cash was found packed in shoeboxes in the home of state-owned Halkbank’s former GM Süleyman Aslan, and tapes surfaced in which Erdoğan apparently told his son to “zero” large sums of cash that they had stored in various places.
In just about any other European country, such revelations would result in mass resignations. But while Erdoğan’s cabinet was reshuffled, the investigations dissipated. Erdoğan blasted the probe as a plot waged by a “parallel state” consisting of judges and police connected to the Gülen movement, which was formed by the followers of İslamic scholar Fethullah Gülen (who has resided in the US since the late 1990s).
Erdoğan and Gülen were allies for years, but they split over various domestic and foreign issues. Things came to a head when Erdoğan vowed to close down the country’s college exam preparatory schools, a large segment of which are owned by businessmen close to Gülen.
Liberal columnists close to the government glossed over the damning corruption allegations themselves, instead focusing on what they believed to be an attempt by the Gülen movement to overthrow the government. “For not accepting the influence of the Gülen Movement in bureaucracy and their appetite for intervention in politics,” Turkish-Armenian columnist Markar Esayan wrote, “Erdogan was finally subjected to a judiciary coup.”
Berktay approached the matter similarly, arguing in a 2014 column: “From the beginning I have been very clear regarding how I think about The December 17th ‘corruption’ (more correctly, the AKP’s dissolution and the government’s collapse) operation. One, it is said to be a coup, ok, that’s possible. I would prefer to use a term from own my own repertoire, an illegitimate abnormal political procedure.”
But it is simply poor analysis to suggest that a small group would be able to successfully overthrow the strongest political party since multiparty elections were introduced simply by exposing serious corruption. And even if Erdoğan had to resign over the affair, it is absurd to think that a powerful and influential civil society organization would be able to subsequently seize the entire state apparatus.
The intellectuals have to know this, yet they decided to spin the whole affair as a putsch, ignoring the severity of the charges. All the while, Erdoğan began reassigning and purging thousands of police officers and members of the judiciary suspected of having ties with the Gülen movement.
This process was smoothed over by an outpouring of analysis that attempted to paint the Gülen movement as the guiltier of the two parties, emphasizing that the corruption allegations were small potatoes compared to the “coup attempt” the movement had plotted.
Instead of attempting to single out individuals thought to be responsible for the December 17 “operation” and hold them accountable, Erdoğan led what he himself described as a witch hunt against the Gülen movement, culminating in the arrest of prominent Gülenist media figures last month.
The Settlement Process
The Kurds comprise 15–20 percent of Turkey’s population, and constitute a majority in several provinces in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country. Brutally repressed for decades, they were not even legally allowed to speak their mother tongue in private until 1991.
The government is currently in negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a pro-Kurdish militant group that has been fighting a bloody battle with the Turkish armed forces for over thirty years, and declared a ceasefire in 2013. The PKK’s initial aim was the foundation of an independent Kurdish state, but those in the group who seek autonomy instead of separation have recently gained the upper hand.
In an effort to grant more rights to the Kurds, the Turkish government has established a Kurdish TV station broadcast by the state-run TRT, a move unthinkable in the 1980s or ’90s (although critics allege that the station is a means of countering pro-PKK TV outlets). In September 2013, a reform package was passed that legalized private Kurdish-language education, and three elementary schools opened their doors last fall.
The settlement process is being conducted between jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and delegations from the government, as well as the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP). Although HDP members of the delegation recently asserted that negotiations are moving forward, discussion over the past few months have been tenuous and fragile.
In September, the PKK’s number two, Cemil Bayik, said in an interview that the group may resume its insurgency due to Turkey’s functional support for the Islamic State’s siege of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobanê. On October 6 and 7, riots (which Esayan described as a coup in a November 2014 column) broke out across Kurdish enclaves of Turkey between pro-PKK and rival Kurdish groups, resulting in several dozen deaths and prompting concerns that the settlement process was in danger of collapsing.
But the government has labeled anyone questioning the process as anti-peace, and, unsurprisingly, its intelligentsia support group has done the same. A group of intellectuals including Berktay and Esayan launched a campaign called “Look Toward Peace” essentially demanding that critics keep silent while the process is under way:
We can see the light of the peace, and feel its heat. We can touch it with our hands. It is that close and that real. But again there are those tossing stones in our direction. With attempts to topple the government, with street riots, provocations and smear campaigns they are trying to prevent us from reaching peace. Regarding the smallest flaw, they say “The process has collapsed, peace is impossible this way.” A small but powerful minority, they are trying once again to drag us into war.
Seen as threats to the military’s campaign against the PKK in the 1990s, advocates for Kurdish rights were silenced and repressed. Today, as Burak Özpek points out in a recent column, some of those same advocates are being muzzled for attempting to comment on the settlement process: “During the 90’s they said ‘Be quiet, we are at war’ while in 2014, the slogan ‘Be quiet, we are making peace’ has taken its place.”
These intellectuals are well aware that they can single out government critics and brand them as traitors or provocateurs, thereby painting a target on their heads. This is a technique that Erdoğan himself has used liberally in the past year, individually calling out journalists who were then inundated with death threats.
For example, Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink, who is based in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, faced seething criticism for writing a column entitled “A permanent ceasfire? Now? I’d be disappointed?” In the piece, Geerdink argues that the PKK is insurance for the Kurdish movement and that total disarmament must come after certain crucial demands are met. Columnist Cengiz Alğan responded with a piece entitled “The jackals that slit the Kurds’ throats” in which he reams Geerdink for her suggestion.
Three weeks later, anti-terrorism police raided Geerdink’s home and temporarily detained her.
The Future of Turkish Politics
Under the AKP, per capita GDP has increased by more than 60 percent in a decade. Nationwide access to healthcare has reached previously unseen levels. The death penalty was completely abolished and confiscated properties returned to the country’s small Armenian and Greek communities. Former taboos such as Kurdish identity and the Armenian Genocide that once caused journalists to end up in jail or murdered are more freely discussed than ever (although the state still resolutely denies genocide and most of the journalists behind bars are Kurds).
However, these reforms were implemented in order to fulfill requirements for Turkey’s European Union bid, which has been all but abandoned; they were enacted as a means for Erdoğan to consolidate power, and were swiftly tossed aside when they were no longer needed.
Indeed, since the 2013 corruption allegations surfaced, Erdoğan has gone on the warpath and passed legislation intended to strengthen his grip. The government temporarily blocked YouTube and Twitter last year as a series of damning leaked tapes circulated on the sites. He pushed through a law that enables the Telecommunications Directorate to block internet sites within hours, and another one granting significantly greater power to Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization. To describe all the heavy-handed moves that Erdoğan made in 2014 alone could be the subject of a book.
Meanwhile, last year was a disastrous one for workers. More than three hundred miners lost their lives in an explosion, the most severe accident in Turkey’s history. Erdoğan shrugged off the tragedy, comparing it to similar disasters that occurred in nineteenth-century Britain. Nearly two thousand workers died on the job in Turkey last year. With pitiful worker safety standards, a minimum wage of around $400 a month, and stubbornly high inequality, millions of laborers have yet to benefit from the country’s robust economic growth.
Yet Erdoğan and the AKP don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. The party has won each of the nine elections that have taken place since it came to power in 2002, and Erdoğan has now transformed the office of the president from a sinecure into a position of power.
The main opposition party is the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the staunchly secularist formation that governed Turkey for the first three decades of the republic. The CHP is split between a neo-nationalist wing and a more liberal-oriented segment that continually squabble. The party of Turkish republic founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, it has failed time and again to provide a substantial and appealing critique of the ruling party. In the 2014 presidential elections, it united with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), yet was still only able to win 38.44 percent of the vote to Erdoğan’s 51.79 percent.
The leftist HDP — which acts as not only the voice of the Kurds but also vows to defend the rights of other minorities, women, and LGBT people — fielded an exuberant and charismatic candidate in Selahattin Demirtaş, who earned 9.76 percent of the vote, unheard of for a pro-Kurdish party. (A significant portion of those votes likely came from the more left-leaning CHP voters who were displeased over their party’s union with the MHP.)
The HDP is unique in that it seems to be a genuine alternative on the left that isn’t only interested in Kurdish nationalism. It maintains a 50 percent quota for female candidates, and runs a male-female ticket for any office that allows co-leadership. While previous Kurdish parties have typically run as independents during the general parliamentary elections due to an inability to reach Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold, the HDP has vowed to run under the party umbrella during the 2015 general elections. While the HDP’s chances of surpassing that mark are slim, it would signal a relative threat to Erdoğan’s power.
However, the CHP-MHP alliance failed to prevent Erdoğan from reaching the presidential palace, and there have been rumors of a CHP-HDP alliance in the 2015 general elections (both have denied such suggestions). And while Erdoğan and the AKP seem secure in their power, its supporters in the liberal intelligentsia are not resting on their laurels.
“A coup is the abrogation of constitutional order with the aim of toppling a government. Like when the army or a junta within the army moves tanks into the streets, shuts down parliament, rounds up politicians and declares military rule. Just as it happened on May 27, 1961, and Sept. 12, 1980, in Turkey,” columnist Mustafa Akyol wrote in July.
These intellectuals know very well what constitutes a coup, as they themselves lived through such periods. They know the intrinsic power that the word “coup” holds in Turkey. They know the terrifying memories it conjures up for so many who lived under curfews, watched friends die, and experienced brutal torture.
Erdoğan has been successful in skewering his traditional opponents (the military), seeking revenge against former allies (the Gülen movement), and ruthlessly stamping out large uprisings. He isn’t above belittling the only tangible left opposition, continually pointing out during last year’s election that the HDP’s presidential candidate was a Zaza Kurd, a cheap attempt to polarize voters along ethnic lines. And he has taken the military’s place as the republic’s principal authoritarian actor.
Beyond that, he has a reliable team of liberal intellectuals and journalists defending his every move and rationalizing his frequently racist and patriarchal rhetoric, an intelligentsia that is seemingly unable to challenge dominant power structures and generate genuine critical analysis. For the democratic left, it’s an unsightly tableau.