Turkey (see facts) has since 2002 been ruled by a government led by the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan . During this period, the country has made great strides in many areas of society – economy, education, health and the environment. The AKP has met several of the Kurds’ demands for rights, and religious minorities have faced a new tolerance.
At the same time, peaceful political demonstrations have become part of the street scene in Turkey. In foreign policy, the country has been a role model for the Arab world, and it has come closer to the EU than ever before. Erdogan is the country’s first democratically elected prime minister who has shown both the will and the ability to deprive the military of political power. But in May 2013 , Istanbul exploded in massive demonstrations against the Erdogan regime.
- How can we explain the demonstrations in May 2013?
- What has the Erdogan regime achieved?
- What are the characteristics of modern political history in Turkey?
- What role have the military played?
It began as a peaceful demonstration against the local authorities’ plan to rebuild a historic building – an Ottoman military base (Taksim Kislasi) that stood on the site from 1780-1940. The building was to be used both as a shopping center and a culture house. This would destroy one of the last green lungs (Gezi Park) in the city and was met with demonstrations by a small group of peaceful environmental activists.
Like lightning from clear skies, the police responded with a brutality that shook the whole community. The demonstrations increased in strength and quickly spread to other cities. Even with fifty percent of the votes from the last election in the back, Prime Minister Erdogan could not face the opposition without resorting to the use of force.
Only by a brief look back at recent history is it possible to understand Erdogan’s policies and demonstrations against him.
2: Erdogan. AKP and democratic legitimacy
In 2011, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the election for the third time, with a turnout of 49.9 percent of the vote. The parties in the next two seats were the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Party (MHP), with 26 percent and 13 percent of the vote, respectively. Turnout was high – just over 83 percent.
Critical voices have claimed that Turkey’s 10 percent blockade undermines the right to free elections. In 2003, two opposition politicians from the Kurdish Nationalist Party Democracy and the People’s Party (DEHAP) brought the matter before the European Court of Human Rights, but were unsuccessful. The court ruled that the Turkish authorities are the ones who can best decide what is the most appropriate barrier in Turkey. The court also pointed to the fact that in Turkey there is no bar to lists of independent candidates . This can partly offset (compensate for) the unfortunate consequences of the high barrier limit.
With a lower threshold, of four percent (as in Norway), only one party in addition to the big three, namely the Kurdish party Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), would have crossed the threshold in the last election. In the last elections, the BDP has nominated its candidates as “independent”. In 2011, the party’s “independence list” received 6.5 percent of the vote and 35 seats in parliament.
3: The rights of the Kurds
The Kurds constitute the largest ethnic minority in Turkey (approximately 18 percent of the population), but the lack of recognition of Kurdish rights runs as a common thread throughout the history of modern Turkey. Both the Republican People’s Party, the Nationalist Party and the military have seen the Kurds as the biggest domestic political threat to the Turkish state, second only to political Islam .
However, Erdogan has launched a peace process against the Kurds and met several of their demands for the PKK guerrillas to lay down their arms. Combined with the general welfare development during the period, the AKP also has great support in the Kurdish-dominated provinces in eastern Turkey.
It is not the 10 percent barrier, but the military’s lack of respect for the ballot papers that poses the greatest threat to democracy in Turkey.
4: The political role of the military
Ever since the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, the military has played a dual role. Not only will the military protect the country from external enemies, but just as important for the military has been protecting against internal enemies. But who is the inner enemy? In response, we must take a quick look back at the time when the Turkish Republic was ruled by the military and President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk 1923–1938. That was when the official Turkish identity was defined and written into the constitution.
WE AND THE OTHERS : Defining our own identity by pointing out what sets us apart from the others is common for both individuals and nations. A clear concept of who is “we” and who are “the others” makes it easier to move in the political terrain. The 1920s and 1930s were marked by clear ideological contradictions: the West versus the East, secularism versus religion, modernity versus tradition, nationalism versus multiculturalism, civilized versus uncivilized and city versus country.
Mustafa Kemal and his regime wanted to create an image of the Turkish people as Western, modern, secular and civilized bearers of a Turkish nation-state. In this picture, there was no room for either Islam or ethnic minorities. In other words: there was no room for the vast majority of the population.
Turkey has long been a one-party state , and Mustafa Kemal’s party, the Republican People’s Party, pursued an authoritarian and elitist policy that could only be implemented with the help of the military.
THE MILITARY AND POLITICS 1960–2008: In 1950, Turkey conducted its first democratic election, which was won by the newly established Democratic Party led by Adnan Menderes. The party received 53 percent of the vote. The Democratic Party broke with Mustafa Kemal’s planned economy, had a more extroverted foreign policy and a tolerant attitude towards religion. But on May 27, 1960, it was over. Turkey’s first military coup was a fact, and Turkey’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Adnan Menderes was executed. The party was banned. As a result of the coup, the constitution was changed, and a National Security Council under military command was created as a kind of parallel, non-democratic shadow government.
In 1965 , free elections were again held in Turkey. This time it was the Justice Party, led by Demirel, that won the election. The party was a direct descendant of the Democratic Party, but this time too the military intervened and ousted the democratically elected prime minister and his government.
The 1970s were a decade without political control. The country changed prime minister eleven times in ten years, and the general political landscape was marked by an extreme polarization between a far-left and an ultra-nationalist right. Street fighting became commonplace and civil war-like conditions characterized the country. All this brought the politicians into disrepute and thus prepared a reason for the military to intervene.
Record high unemployment, rising prices and large foreign debt formed the backdrop for a third military coup – in 1980 . The government was ousted, parliament dissolved and the constitution abolished. One million Turks were blacklisted, 230,000 people were put on trial, 14,000 lost their citizenship, and thousands were imprisoned and tortured. A new constitution gave the military even greater political power.
The Islamic Welfare Party , led by Necmettin Erbakan, garnered the most support in the 1995 parliamentary elections. Erbakan was forced to resign in 1997 , and the Welfare Party was banned.
Through its policies , the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has provoked the traditional power elite and their military supporters. In the presidential election in 2007, the AKP was threatened with military takeover. The warning was published on the military’s website and is referred to as the E-coup (cf. internet and electronic). It stated that if the AKP’s candidate Abdullah Gül became the country’s new president and his hijab – wearing wife became the country’s first lady, the military would see itself forced to intervene. Erdogan responded by speeding up parliamentary elections, winning 47 percent of the vote. Gül became president the same year.
5: Ergenekon 2008
In 2008, the left-liberal newspaper Taraf revealed coup plans by Turkish nationalists and officers from the far-right organization Ergenekon : Detailed drawings for the deployment of bombs in two mosques in Istanbul, a plan to provoke Greece to shoot down a Turkish plane over the Aegean Sea, mass arrests of Erdogan political opponents (who could thus appear to have been wrongfully imprisoned) and active use of the media to paint a picture of a society without governance were included in the plans.
The investigation became increasingly extensive and took a long time. Many suspects were imprisoned for several years before their cases came up. On August 5, 2013, however, the main defendants received their sentences, including former military commander-in-chief General Basbug, ultranationalist lawyer Kemil Kerinçsiz and journalist and television producer Tunçay Özkan.
Mr Özkan brought his case before the European Court of Human Rights without success. The court found that there was “reasonable cause for suspicion” based on the evidence presented. Among them were telephone conversations between Özkan and military members of Ergenekon, seized classified documents and explosives found in the journalist’s residence.
Parts of the Turkish and Western press have wondered whether Ergenekon actually exists and whether there were in fact coup plans, or whether it was all staged by the government to hit political opponents. Turkey’s modern history of repeated coups and military takeover weakens these claims.
6: Economic development and welfare policy
Turkey’s economic development was long and largely controlled by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). After the AKP came to power in 2002, they took control of the country’s economic development. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has tripled from 2001 to 2010. And inflation, which reached a record high of 150 per cent during the 1990s, was reduced to 7 per cent in 2010. In 2012, the British weekly magazine The Economist named Turkey the world’s eighth fastest growing economy .
Public expenditure has increased sharply in the period 2002-2013, illustrated by large investments in health, education and infrastructure . The budget for education has more than quadrupled during the period. Free upper secondary education for all and universities in all provinces is another part of the investment in education. The right to be professionally organized for public employees, free health care for everyone under the age of 18, massive development of infrastructure and conversion from coal to gas are other parts of the concrete improvements.
7: Freedom of expression in Turkey
So much has changed for the better for many under the AKP regime. But when it comes to freedom of expression , Turkey still has a long way to go . With reference to section 301 of the Penal Code (which prohibits insulting Turkey), the judiciary is used extensively by various actors from all political camps. There is a political struggle where freedom of expression must be avoided. Some personal examples can illustrate: Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan, Hrant Dink, Armenian journalist, Mehmet Uzun, Kurdish author and Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize winner in literature:
was indicted in 1998 for inciting religious hatred and sentenced to ten months in prison. The background was that he had read a religious poem at a political meeting. At the time, he was mayor of Istanbul, a job he had to leave as a result of the verdict.
- In 2002, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was charged with “insulting Turkishness.” The background was a speech he gave at a conference where he said “I am not a Turk, but an Armenian from Turkey”. However, a new indictment was issued in 2006, on the same basis. It was the leader of an ultra-nationalist bar association, lawyer Kemal Kerinçsiz, who brought the case against him. Dink was killed in an assassination attempt in 2007.
- The Kurdish author Mehmet Uzunhad to flee Turkey in 2005 after being given a name on a death list of 250 intellectuals. The Kurdish Liberation Army PKK was behind the list.
- In 2005, Orhan Pamukwas subjected to a smear campaign in parts of the Turkish media. The background was that in an interview with a foreign journalist he had commented on the mass murder of Armenians during World War I and all that the conflict between Kurds and Turks has cost. In December 2005, he was indicted on charges of Kemal Kerinçsiz (see above). Pamuk was accused of “insulting Turkishness.” Pamuk was acquitted after the government intervened.
Politicians, writers, journalists, Kurds, Armenians and Turks – the examples show that everyone risks having their freedom of expression restricted, regardless of political position and regardless of whether one is defined as an Islamist or a secularist.
8: White, black and gray Turks
According to sunglassestracker.com, the AKP’s policy has contributed to economic growth and increased living standards for the vast majority . This success story tears down the notion that a modern lifestyle, a modern social development and increased welfare presuppose a secular elite in management. This has led to an even sharper rhetoric from the AKP’s opponents who want to maintain the image of “we” and “the others”. Today there is talk of “white” and “black” Turks.
A white Turk defines himself as urban, western, secular, highly educated, and economically privileged. A black Turk is defined by others / whites as provincial, Arab, religious, poor and uneducated. The white Turks live primarily in affluent districts of Izmir and Istanbul, many in so-called “gated communities” – smaller, protected and secure residential areas with strict access control. Erdogan has publicly defined himself as a black Turk, in other words as a man of the people who would no longer accept and be dominated by a white minority.
Under the AKP, however, a third group of Turks has emerged, by some called gray Turks: They have a university education, actively participate in politics and social life, live in cities, travel on holiday to Europe and are practicing Muslims with or without a headscarf (hijab).
Making the political contradictions in Turkey a question of Islam versus secularism becomes too easy. It is also largely a question of who has or does not have political and economic resources. Under the AKP regime, these resources have become greater than ever before in Turkish history. At the same time, they have been distributed in far more hands than ever before in Turkish history.
9: Taksimplassen 28 May 2013
Who exactly were the protesters on Taksim Square, and what were the motives behind it ? Were they primarily dissatisfied with the brutal handling of the first protesters by the police? Was a seemingly innocent environmental demonstration taken over by opponents of the regime – that is, by groups that thought anything but the environment?
Was it an expression of dissatisfaction with an increasingly authoritarian prime minister? Could the dissatisfaction have been directed at Islam’s greater visibility in the public sphere? Or against the ruling party’s attitude to the Syrian conflict? Could they be due to dissatisfaction with the AKP’s attempt at a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question? Or dissatisfaction with the AKP’s restriction of the military’s political power? Maybe there is a dissatisfaction with the redistribution of benefits that the AKP has carried out? Or are the demonstrations simply an expression of “the dissatisfaction of the increased expectations”?
The group of protesters is composed and in retrospect it is difficult to see that this protest movement has taken root in a united political opposition. If the political opposition parties do not appear as a clear alternative in the next election either, there is a good chance that the AKP in 2015 will win the election for the fourth time.