Could Kiev come to the Bosphorus? Could the mounting frustration felt by much of Turkey’s young, urban population with the increasingly autocratic regime of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan spill over into widespread demonstrations even greater than last summer’s Gezi Park protests?
Probably not. For one thing, Erdoğan is much better at tightening the screws on protests and opposition views in general than his former counterpart in the Ukraine – Viktor Yanukovich. Where Yanukovich let things get out of hand, Erdoğan has kept a steel grip on any dissenting voices. The new law on the internet attempts to stifle publication of any more news or opinions regarding the serious corruption claims. The proposed law on the judiciary completely erodes the separation of powers and increases political control of the already fragile Turkish judiciary.
The less said about the media the better. All but a very few outlets and writers have been completed cowed into supporting whatever outrageous claims the government makes. It is getting worse as the date of municipal elections draws closer. The prime minister is going out of his way to make sure that any opponents of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) get as little exposure as possible. He has gone so far as to call a TV station demanding that it give less time to the opposition candidate for the mayor of Istanbul. AKP is also accused of putting pressure on some newspapers to publish false poll results to give the impression that AKP candidates remain in far in the lead.
Another reason is that Erdoğan has been very clever at playing the ‘Us-Against-Them’ theme. In this case the ‘Us’ is that segment of the Turkish population that remains highly xenophobic, deeply suspicious of all foreigners, and distrustful of the well-educated, well- travelled economic, cultural and educational elite based mainly in Istanbul and Izmir. This segment is easy prey for the hair-brained conspiracy theories of varied lobbies – interest rate lobby, unnamed foreigners, Jews, the European Union – all working to keep Turkey from growing. The prime minister constantly accuses the ‘Them’ of trying to suppress the rest of the population by opposing what he grandly calls the ‘National Will’.
Erdoğan’s constant, slightly panicky rants must be causing severe headaches for Turkey’s professional diplomats. How do they explain the irony – lost on Erdoğan – of sharply criticizing the Egyptian military for overthrowing the Moslem Brotherhood and then using the same techniques as that military for stamping on any dissent? How do they explain the prime minister’s often repeated love of democracy – or at least what he calls democracy – and his silence over developments in the Ukraine? Isn’t the overthrow of an autocrat something a real democrat should praise?
The reality is that Erdoğan has absolutely no interest in foreign affairs at the moment. He is mainly concerned with two things: keeping AKP’s 50% vote threshold in the upcoming municipal elections and preventing any further investigations into corruption in his government.
Respected veteran journalist Hasan Cemal said in a recent interview that “Erdogan’s only concern is how to cover up the corruption charges. In order to do that he is trying to keep a tight grip on the media; his next target is the Internet, and he is trying to silence the internet . . . In a desperate attempt to save his political life he is trying to darken the (corruption) investigation by saying there is a coup attempt against him and his government. However, he is making a coup d’état against democracy in the country.”
Cemal was forced out of one of Turkey’s mainstream papers under government pressure last year. He is the author of several books and now writes online.
One hope for the future is that much of the young generation in Turkey is no longer affected by the same ‘bunker’ mentality as previous generations. One of Turkey’s acclaimed novelists Elif Şafak wrote recently in The International New YorkTimes that “at the same time, this warped mentality (of the past) no longer entices. Times have changed. The youth are far more open to the world than the previous generations, and the people are ahead of their politicians . . . As much as we tend to buy into conspiracy theories we Turks have also grown very, very tired of them.”
Rather than accept that times have changed the Turkish government remains fearful of this development and is doing everything in its power to make sure the winds of change do not blow too hard. Ultimately, this approach will fail, just as it has failed in so many other countries. It is rather like using a fork to stop the tide from rising. It doesn’t work.
The good news is that this change is inevitable. The bad news is that a great deal of damage can be done trying to block the inevitable.