Turkish politics have entered a surreal vortex where every day produces evermore shocking developments in such a dizzying rate that yesterday's mind-blowing news is quickly forgotten.
Today is a perfect example: it started with with the unsettling sounds of a Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking at an election rally with a voice so strained that he sounded like he had just inhaled a balloonful of helium, moved on to the truly shocking news of the posting online of a recording of a high-level national security meeting where a possible false flag operation to allow Turkey to invade Syria was discussed, and then ended with the announcement that access to YouTube (where the recording was posted) had just been blocked by the government. In other words, just another day in today's Turkey.
Despite its citizens going to the polls in the wake of military coups, economic crashes and other crises, Turkey has managed to develop a strong record of running free and fair elections since the country ended one-party rule in 1950. But with local polls being held on Sunday in the midst of a particularly heated and deeply polarized political fight between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition, there are growing questions about whether this vote will end Turkey's streak of untainted elections.
Over the last few weeks and months, the amount of rumors and questions surrounding the sanctity of Sunday's elections has been quickly increasing (a good example can be found here). The reason for this is clear: the AKP and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after a decade of easy electoral victories are suddenly finding themselves fighting the most intense and complex political battle they have yet to face and have staked their legitimacy to winning big at the ballot box. Failing to score a decisive victory on Sunday, by losing in Istanbul or Ankara or by failing to win more than 40 percent of the national vote, is a scenario that Erdogan -- based on the level of invective he is using against his opponents -- is clearly not wiling to consider.
What does Turkey have in common with Iran, North Korea, China and Cuba? As of last night, the NATO member and European Union candidate had joined those four other countries with dismal freedom of expression records as one of the few nations to have instituted a total ban on access to Twitter. Turkish Twitter users have been quick to circumvent the block, but the move marks yet another disturbing anti-democratic turn for the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The block on Twitter access started late yesterday, just a few weeks after the government passed a new internet law that gives it enhanced powers to shut websites down and only hours after Erdogan vowed at a campaign rally to "eradicate" Twitter, which has been playing a prominent role in recent weeks as the conduit for links to leaked phone calls and documents connecting the PM and other official to corrupt activity. The Hurriyet Daily News provides some interesting background on how the new internet law was used to put the Twitter block in place through executive order, rather than a court action:
Twitter, the social media platform with 12 million Turkish users, has been blocked by the Communication Technologies Institution (BTK), working under the Ministry of Transport, Maritime and Communication.
Ever since Turkish Airlines introduced a few years back direct flights from Washington's Dulles Airport to Istanbul, the American capital and Turkey and have somehow seemed less far apart. Now, as the ongoing battle between Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the movement of Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen heats up, with both sides trying to pull Washington into the scrum, the two places seem even more closely linked, although in a way that could ultimately drive a wedge between Turkey and the US.
With Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan facing a mounting corruption scandal and the constant leaking of recordings of incriminating personal phone calls, which the PM and his supporters say are being orchestrated by the Gulen movement, Erdogan is striking back, accusing the movement and its leader -- who currently lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania -- of working to destabilize Turkey.
In a television interview last week, Erdogan said that he recently spoke to President Barack Obama on the phone and delivered that message to him. “The person who is responsible for the unrest in Turkey lives in your country, in Pennsylvania. I told him this clearly,” Erdogan said during the interview. “I said, ‘I expect what’s necessary (to be done).’ You have to take the necessary stance if someone threatens my country’s security.” According to Erdogan, Obama told him: "We got the message."
As described in a Turko-File blog post yesterday, the Tuesday death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan -- an Istanbul boy who spent 269 days in a coma after apparantly being struck in the head by a police tear gas canister -- has helped to reignite the protests that first rocked Istanbul last summer during the Gezi Park demonstrations.
One of the interesting elements of these new events has been the presence of bread loaves carried by demonstrators as symbols of protest, to commemorate the fact that Berkin had left his home on the day he was injured in order to go buy bread. (The Bianet website has a nice gallery of silent "bread" protests held two days ago after Berkin died.)
Writing on her blog, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci explains why bread is proving to be such a powerful symbol of protest in Turkey:
Bread is quasi-sacred in Turkey. In Turkey, it is the source of nourishment and it represents both human labor and God’s bounty through nature. If a piece of bread falls to the ground, my grandmother kisses it after picking it up from where it fell. Wasting bread is seen as a sin, and not having bread at a table will get you howls of protest from people who will tell you they’ll be hungry without bread. (Yes, in Turkey, people will eat bread with pasta, for example).
Berkin was buried today, in a procession that was attended by perhaps tens of thousands and which was soon forcibly broken up by police using gas and water cannons. Held aloft by many of the mourners? Loaves of bread.
A massive police crackdown may have put an end to the occupation of Istanbul's Gezi Park last summer, but it wouldn't be correct to say that it put a stop to the protest movement that was born during that occupation. Instead, the Gezi movement has been simmering slowly since last summer, with occasional flareups here and there, waiting for a spark that might reignite it.
That spark might very well have appeared, in the form of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy who died today after spending 269 days in a coma, brought about after he was apparantly struck in the head at close range by a police tear gas canister. According to his parents, Berkin went out to buy bread on the morning of June 16 and got caught up in the Gezi-related protests that were taking place in his Istanbul neighborhood. He never came home.
The massive Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, which helped send a large number of high-profile Turks (numerous generals among them) to jail on charges of planning a coup, were hailed by many as an important step in finally confronting the troubling history of Turkey's "Deep State" and in finally breaking the military's unhealthy hold on political life.
Those were certainly noble objectives, but from the beginning of those cases there were those who asked if the evidence in the trials really held up. Already in 2009, analyst Gareth Jenkins issued a highly critical report about the Ergenkon case, writing: "Despite its extraordinary length, the indictment produced no evidence that the Ergenekon organization it described even existed, much less that the accused were all members and engaged in a coordinated terrorist campaign to overthrow the government."
Economist and blogger Dani Rodrik (whose father-in-law was one of the generals caught up in the Balyoz (or "Sledgehammer") investigation) was also an early and constant critic of the cases and Istanbul-based journalist Alexander Christie-Miller produced some very good pieces noting the profound problems with the evidence used in the trials (take a look at this article in The Times (London) from 2011).
The release of a recording of what sounds like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan instructing his son Bilal over the phone on how to hide very large sums of currency has presented the PM with one of the most serious challenges of his twelve-year rule.
The leaking and the contents of the conversation, which appears to have taken place some two months ago, may have shocked some Turks, but Erdogan himself should not have been too surprised that his phone might have been tapped. After all, in a 2009 interview with the NTV television network, Erdogan expressed concern that his phone conversations were being listened to. "What do you think? Of course I am worried about it. Therefore I watch what I say over the phone. I'm not comfortable speaking over the phone," Erdogan told his interviewer.
"I tell people who want to speak on the phone to come visit me."
Erdogan's concern at the time was not unreasonable. Over the last seven years or so, wiretapping -- both legal and illegal -- has been booming in Turkey, with the release of secretly recorded audio and video now an integral feature of Turkish political life. Wiretaps were a major feature of the Ergenekon case and the online release of secretly recorded video of Deniz Baykal, former leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), having a liaison with a female colleague was responsible for the veteran politician's exit from public life in 2010.
As Eurasianet's Dorian Jones pointed out in a recent article, in response to growing domestic political strife and economic uncertainty, Turks are turning to conspiracy theories to explain things (with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan leading the pack).
The propensity to turn to conspiracy theories fueled by the belief that foreign powers are out to get Turkey is certainly not a new phenomenon. In fact, it has a clinical name: Sèvres Syndrome, in reference to the treaty the Ottomans were forced to sign at the end of World War I which led to the carving up of their former empire.
In a new paper released by the German Marshall Fund, pollster and political scientist Emre Erdogan takes a look at the syndrome's enduring legacy and its relevance to today's politics in Turkey. From his piece:
The Turkish political culture and education system have reproduced this anxiety over generations. A very simple battery of survey questions illustrates this: 60 percent of the Turkish population believes that “Western powers” aim to disintegrate Turkey, as they have in the past. Similar percentages agree that the reforms that the EU expects Turkey to implement within the framework of the accession process are similar to articles of the Sèvres Treaty, and that the attitudes of Europeans toward Turkey is based on the “crusader ideals.”
These levels remained the same in different surveys conducted in 2003, 2006, and 2012. While almost one- quarter of the Turkish population has been renewed through generational replacement, there has been no change in the intensity of Sèvres Syndrome, a clear indicator of the success of the education system and political culture in shaping people’s attitudes.
Back in 2011, during the height of what was then still optimistically being called the "Arab Spring," the Turkish press was in the habit of crowing that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was "one of the five" world leaders American President Barack Obama spoke to the most. Certainly, with Turkey's foreign policy at the time still showing promise and Ankara positioning itself to become a key and constructive regional powerbroker, speaking frequently with Erdogan made a lot of sense.
Things have changed a bit since that time, perhaps best reflected by the fact that Obama and Erdogan have not spoken on the phone since August of last year, following a turbulent summer that saw the Turkish government crack down hard on the large protests that rocked Istanbul and other cities for several weeks. But, after a long lull, the two leaders did reconnect, speaking on the phone yesterday about, as a White House readout put it, "a range of bilateral and regional issues."