Understanding Politics in Turkey (2)

Three years or so ago I wrote a post I called ‘Understanding Turkish Politics’. In the interim, I have become a little more politically aware – hence today’s title. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’m much the wiser about what’s really going on. Rather, I am confirmed in the opinion I expressed at the time: there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, and secret agenda are not the sole prerogative of the government.
Last week anti-government street demonstrations got under way again in various cities around Turkey. It was kind of expected. There had been talk of a resumption of protest activity in the autumn. Whether that was because many of the demonstrators were away on summer vacation I can’t say for sure. Whatever the case, the two-month layoff seemed to have thinned the numbers to a hard-core of barricade-builders, stone and Molotov cocktail-hurlers. The football season has resumed too, meaning that fans who swelled the ranks of June protests now have more pressing matters on their minds.
In Istanbul, Thursday was a particularly eventful night with police and protesters in Kadıköy carrying on the now familiar running battles. There seem to have been two reasons for that timing. One was the death of a young man in the southeastern city of Hatay. Some anti-government groups were claiming that 22 year-old Ahmet Atakan died from injuries received at the hands of police during a political demonstration. An autopsy, however, determined that his death was the result of a fall from a great height, and this seemed to be confirmed by a video captured by a reporter on the spot showing the young man falling several stories from a building to the street below.
Well, of course, we can’t be sure that police didn’t push him off that building – though given the current climate in Turkey, it’s hard to understand why they would – and investigations are apparently continuing. What has emerged, however, is that Ahmet and two others who died in the so-called Gezi Park protests were members of the Arab Alawite community in Hatay. Now I’m not denying anyone’s right to protest, having done a bit of it myself in my younger days. It is becoming increasingly clear, though, that green spaces and other issues of urban planning played only a small part in those explosive events back in June.
September 1980. From where to where?
Arabic is one of several native languages spoken in that southeastern corner of Turkey. I don’t know the history of the Alawite community (material for a future post?) but it would seem they are co-religionists of embattled Syrian President Assad. Evidently local tensions have been building up over the past two years as a result of the flow of refugees into Turkey fleeing the violence of the ongoing civil war. The count now exceeds 450,000, four times the number that brought UN Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie on a fact-finding mission two years ago. Not sure what she did with the facts she found, but that’s another issue, I guess. Certainly I’m not going to attempt to analyse all that, but clearly there is more to the business than tree-hugging in an Istanbul park.
Returning to the more recent action in Kadıköy, the other thing that brought protesters together, I gather, was that Thursday 12 September was the anniversary of the military coup that ousted the coalition government of Süleyman Demirel back in 1980. Well, it was a traumatic event in Turkish history, for sure. According to Wikipedia:
  • 650,000 people were placed under arrest.
  • 1,683,000 people were blacklisted.
  • 230,000 people were judged in 210,000 lawsuits.
  • 7,000 people faced the death penalty.
  • 517 persons were sentenced to death.
  • 50 of those given the death penalty were executed (26 political prisoners, 23 criminal offenders and 1 ASALA militant).
  • The files of 259 people, charged with capital offences, were sent to the National Assembly.
  • 71,000 people were judged on account of the articles 141, 142 and 163 in Turkish Penal Code.
  • 98,404 people were judged on charges of being members of a leftist, a rightist, a nationalist, a conservative, etc. organization.
  • 388,000 people were refused a passport.
  • 30,000 people were dismissed from their firms because they were suspects and therefore deemed unemployable.
  • 14,000 people had their citizenship cancelled.
  • 30,000 people went abroad as political refugees.
  • 300 people died in a suspicious manner.
  • 171 people are documented as having died by reason of torture.
  • 937 films were banned because they were found objectionable.
  • 23,677 associations had their activities stopped.
  • 3,854 teachers, 120 lecturers and 47 judges were dismissed.
  • 400 journalists were charged with crimes carrying 4000 years’ imprisonment.
  • Journalists were sentenced to a total of 3315 years and 6 months’ imprisonment.
  • 31 journalists went to jail.
  • 300 journalists were attacked.
  • 3 journalists were shot dead.
  • Newspapers were not published for 300 days.
  • 303 cases were brought against 13 major newspapers.
  • 39 tonnes of newspapers and magazines were destroyed.
  • 299 people lost their lives in prison.
  • 144 people died in a suspicious manner.
  • 14 people died in a hunger strike.
  • While fleeing, 16 people were shot.
  • 95 people were killed in combat.
  • A report of “Natural death” was given for 73 persons.
  • The cause of death of 43 people was announced as “suicide”.

 

The military junta ruled Turkey for three years, writing a new constitution (which is still mostly in effect) and eventually organizing an election contested by ‘approved’ parties. The army kept its grip on the nation’s throat, however, appointing General Kenan Evren as President for a seven-year term. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Republican People’s Party (the current CHP opposition) was permitted to resume political activity.
What I’m not sure about is whether the Thursday night demonstrators were holding Turkey’s current government responsible for those dreadful events of the early 80s, or whether they shared the frustration of some who, unable to achieve their aims through the ballot-box, would have liked to see Prime Minister Erdoğan’s government overthrown by another ‘Night of the Generals’.
The reason for my uncertainty here is that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, against formidable (non-parliamentary) opposition, has been little by little rewriting that 1982 constitution, pulling the teeth of Turkey’s paternalistic military, and making it possible for perpetrators of the above-listed crimes to be brought before the courts to answer for their actions. In my humble opinion as a foreigner, people in this country should be grateful for what the current government has achieved – truth be told, the majority probably are. Certainly, blaming Tayyip Erdoğan and his team for the actions of over-zealous generals back in the 80s seems a tad unfair.
A less political achievement, but nonetheless significant, was the opening, last weekend, of a system of underpasses aimed at turning Taksim Square into a pedestrian-friendly hub for the city. Once the buses and other traffic are redirected, the pedestrian area will cover close to ten hectares. One motorist interviewed said that he hadn’t expected the project to be completed so soon, considering that the Gezi Park protests had slowed down construction. I’m not an architect or a town-planner, but from a purely lay point-of-view, I have to say that Taksim Square has, up till now, been singularly unattractive and pedestrian-unfriendly, so I, for one, will not lament any improvements.
Still, despite the complaints you will hear from Istanbullites, traffic jams are not the sole cause of unhappiness among citizens of Turkey. Here’s a list of grievances I compiled from news media over the weekend:
  • Armenian writer Hrant Dink was shot and killed in January 2007 and some folks are complaining that justice has not been done. The European Court of Human Rights apparently agreed with them, adding fuel to that particular fire.
  • An organisation known as the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) has called on families to boycott schools as the new year begins to insist on the right to education in their native tongue.
  • Two of the top Istanbul football teams, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe, have been banned from participation in UEFA competitions in the current season because of match-fixing. The Turkish Football Association has lost its appeals against the decision but is so far refraining from punitive action of its own.
  • Students at Middle East Technical University have been protesting about the construction of a road through the campus, and have now turned their attention to female students wearing headscarves and claimed to be associated with the Hizmetmovement of Fethullah Gülen.

 

Well, as I remarked above, citizens should have the right to protest when they feel their rights are under threat. On the other hand, as the Governor of Istanbul pointed out, that right may not extend to all-night protests involving Molotov cocktails, ripping up roads to use the paving stones as ammunition, and other wilful destruction of property. It is also perhaps a trifle unfair to expect the accumulated ills of 90 years of republican history (not to mention 500 years of Ottoman rule) to be cured overnight.
The young kid who actually shot Hrant Dink and the guy who put him up to it have both been sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment. It may be true that so-called ‘deep state’ Gladio-type operators were behind the killing, but the courts were unable to make a definite connection. It is also true, however, that the courts have been doing their best to bring members of that organisation to justice – and European Union authorities have been expressing their doubts about that case too.
The government of Turkey has opened discussions and proposed ‘democratisation’ packages aimed at addressing the grievances of minority groups, especially Kurds. The Prime Minister has apologised, on behalf of the state, for a massacre of Alevi Kurds that took place after an uprising in 1937, and is proposing to reinstate the name (Dersim) of their province, changed to Tunceli as a corrective measure after those events. None of these measures could have been imagined in the Turkey I came to in the 1990s. As for the ‘right’ to education in one’s mother tongue, it is unlikely that the overstretched education system in Turkey could cope with such a demand, and not at all clear that the majority of Kurds in Turkey want it. There seems to be some question anyway as to whether the KCK has authority to speak on their behalf, especially since its members have suggested the use of force to persuade families to support the boycott.
Of course, no one likes to see trees cut, and university students the world over are known for their political awareness and activism. However, the ODTÜ campus is very extensive, and a good deal of it is covered with forest. I’m a bicycle man myself, but Turkey is a developing country, and cycling as a post-modern lifestyle choice hasn’t really caught on yet. Most people see owning a car, the bigger the better, as a sign that they have made it. So the country needs roads. On the headscarf issue, I have difficulty understanding why some Turkish citizens have such a problem accepting the right of others to dress, within reasonable limits, as they see fit. Besides, it’s a well-known fact that most religious beliefs thrive on persecution. ‘Leave them alone and they’ll get tired of it’ seems to have worked well with Christianity. As for Fethullah Gülen, as far as I am aware, the jury is still out. Despite criticism bordering on hysteria, nobody seems able to explain exactly what the guy has done wrong. Schools opened in his name seem to focus on academic achievement, have no overt religious instruction, and long queues of hopeful customers wait outside the front gate. Most private schools in Turkey would kill for that level of popularity. Maybe that’s part of the problem.
And then there’s football. I read a quote from one club official along the lines of, ‘Well, there was match-fixing in that game, but it didn’t affect the outcome.’ It’s a bit like the argument that says the coup-plotters shouldn’t be punished because they didn’t actually carry out a coup. FIFA has banned those two clubs from Europe for a year, but I think they are also looking to the local association to take some kind of exemplary punitive action. Some hope. A well-known Turkish saying sums up the attitude: ‘Hem suçlu, hem güçlü’, which means, essentially, ‘Even if you’re caught red-handed, brazen it out’.
I know I have been harping on the theme of democracy lately, and I know Turkey is not perfect – but it’s a relative thing. Most of us, Americans, Brits, New Zealanders, Australians, will admit that our own systems do not always produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Despite the presence of droves of artists among the Gezi Park protesters, I can say the art scene in Turkey has improved out of sight since I first came to the country. One measure of this is the cinema industry, where mainstream films are now free to deal with previously forbidden topics such as the 1980 military coup, and Turkish military action against Kurdish insurgents in the east.
Well, this time I’m going to leave the last word to someone else. The following is an article that appeared the other day in the English language newspaper ‘Today’s Zaman’ under the headline ‘A Memory about September 12’:
“The belief that it is a crime to overthrow a democratically elected government by force has been accepted by large segments of society. Turkey’s secular-Kemalist elites have lost their power. They have no faith in elections, as they lose consistently. These days they are trying to discredit the government and render it dysfunctional by creating an atmosphere of widespread violence through street skirmishes. Will they be successful? It is unlikely, but that has been their aim since the Gezi Park protests.
“The constitution drafted in the wake of the Sept. 12 coup is still in force. Parliament has failed to come to an agreement about drafting a new Constitution.
“I was jailed in Diyarbakır at the time and released in 1988. Now, I am a person in middle age. It saddens me to see that Turkey is still being governed by the constitution of the Sept. 12 coup. On every anniversary of the Sept. 12 coup, that sadness returns to haunt me.
“Before the coup, I was a literature teacher at a high school in Diyarbakır. From the books we read, we knew or thought we knew what would happen if fascism arose in this country.
“But the reality depicted in books and the events of real life are never the same. At the time of the military takeover, I had the chance to flee abroad. I was living in a city that was close to the border, and it was a piece of cake for me to cross the border and make for Europe. But I believed that I was innocent. My actions, apart from some participation in civil and democratic work, weren’t reprehensible.
“One day, the school where I was working was raided, and they removed me from class right in front of my students. I was tortured for three months in the interrogation center. Then, I was arrested and jailed in Diyarbakır prison, where I learned that fascism couldn’t be learned from books.” Read more:

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2 thoughts on “Understanding Politics in Turkey (2)

  1. Justice and Development Party rulers were the dedicated supporters of the Military Coup which was held by Kenan Evren and his Junta back in history.
    However Prime Minister Erdoğan and his Junta(!) turned out to be a real democratic politicians which are against coups but don't take any actions against responsible officers of 1980 Coup.

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