With voter's heading to the polls tomorrow, there is much more at stake in this election than just a change of government
Eighty-two-year-old Cumbhur Uzturk took a sip of diluted raki, the bitter liquorice flavoured liqueur which Turks often imbibe to help digest a heavy meal. As we sat on a patio down a narrow alley in the traditionally Republican Besiktas district of Istanbul, the chants of its local football club supporters, the Casi, could be heard echoing up from the main square. Just a few minutes ago I had been among them, snapping pictures as they spilled beer on each other and belted out a chorus of songs with terrifying vigour ahead of a match against rivals, Fenerbahce, later that night. Rowdy and full of liquid courage, many of them eagerly invited the attention of the camera. But as I snapped a picture of the snarling hooligans with the Turkish flag waving ominously in the background I felt a pair of bear-like arms reach around my shoulders and drag me from the crowd. The stench of body odour and overproof rum was overpowering as he slurred angry questions at me in Turkish.
After noticing my inability to understand his mother tongue, another slightly more sober Casi with a black and white scarf wrapped loosely around his neck pulled me out of the ogre’s arms and translated for me. He wanted to know why I was taking photos. When I insisted somewhat insincerely that I was just a tourist, the festering supporter with the unkempt stubble continued to snarl at me in Turkish.
“Don’t mind him,” the less inebriated translator said mater of factly. “He was just worried you were a spy for the government.”
The balding Uzturk squinted through his wireframe glasses and took another sip of raki as I recounted. the story to him. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Casi are vocal opponents of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s. The group’s leaders had been arrested and held without trial for allegedly orchestrating anti-government protests at Gezi Park two years ago. With Turkey set to head to the polls for the second time in the last five months tomorrow, Uzturk lamented the descent of his native country into a sate of Orwellian distrust.
“We can vote but we cannot say anything,” he said. “If we say something they take us away.”
It wasn’t the first time someone had expressed concerns that they were being watched by the Turkish government but Uzturk’s words were a telling sign of just how far people’s faith in their government has been eroded. The country has historically been a progressive country with strong secular roots but under the rule of Erdogan, it has succumb to a culture of fear and oppressive religious zeal. Using the police as an extension of his ruling AKP party, Erdogan has cracked down on anyone who dares to speak out against him, especially journalists and protestors. At the same time he has used religion to divide the country and pit secular Turks against devout Muslims, in an attempt to boost support for his part. The toxic environment that has been created is so bad that when the a moment of silence was called at a Turkish international soccer match after 96 people were killed in the country’s largest ever terrorist attack in Ankara earlier this month AKP supporters howled and jeered the whole way through.
“The level of polarization we are seeing Turkey right now is unprecedented,” explained Ege Seckin, Turkey analyst for political risk consulting firm IHS. “On the one hand you have the conservative pious segment of society and on the other hand a broad spectrum of opposition to the AKP which includes secular Turks, liberals, leftists and now the Kurds.”
The crystallizing moment for this fracturing of Turkish society came in 2013 when Erdogan and other party members were implicated in a corruption scandal. The resulting public outcry at the government’s denial of the scandal culminated in the Gezi Park protests, in which nine people died in clashes with police and another 8,000 were injured. At least 3,000 more were locked up and detained arbitrarily. Just last week 244 people were sentenced for up to 14 months in jail bars for crimes ranging from damaging a place of worship, protecting criminals, injuring civil servants and hijacking public transport vehicles.
Since 2013 the situation has continued to deteriorate. Today Turkey is considered one of the countries in the world to be a journalist. They are frequently beat up, jailed and held without legitimate reasons with little prospect of a fair and speedy trial. Leading AKP party members, including Erdogan himself have even been guilty of openly inciting violence against outspoken reporters. Indeed just a few weeks ago, Ahmet Hakan one of the country’s most famous columnists was reportedly beat up by thugs with ties to the ruling AKP party. The accused, who were arrested and released immediately, have since alleged they were paid off by secret service officers to carry out the hit. The most recent example of the government crackdown was a raid on 22 offices owned by the media conglomerate Koza Ipek Holding. The government is accusing the company of financial irregularities. But the reality is that this was likely just a thinly veiled excuse to disrupt the work of a company that has consistently tried to expose the corruption and hypocrisy of the government.
"Freedom of expression has always been a thorny issue in Turkey but what we're seeing at the moment is a very blatant war of propaganda,” said Alev Scott, a British journalist of Turkish descent who has been based in Istanbul for the past five years. “Foreign journalists have been deported in recent weeks, which is relatively unusual, and a Turkish friend of mine is facing jail time because of an article she wrote. This has become the norm. It's madness."
Indeed the arrest of peaceful protestors has become so commonplace that when I saw such an incident occur on Istanbul busy Istaklal Street, relatively few passersby seemed phased by the screams of women being dragged onto a police bus, with only a handful stopping to record it on their cellphones.
“People are truly afraid,” said a property developer, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from the government.
“Silencing the media is the only tool the government can use to counter people who are speaking facts,” said Seckin.
The country has certainly fallen a long way ever since the beginning of Erdogan’s presidency when he was seen as a moderate reformer. slowly reintroducing religious freedoms, such as the ability to wear a headscarf in public, which had been quashed by the country’s secular powers. However, as Erdogan became increasingly under fire for misspending money and for meddling with the central bank he has sought to consolidate his power, by using poisonous identity politics to bolster support amongst the country’s devout Muslims. The most obvious manifestation of this program is Erdogan’s preoccupation with building mega mosques in Turkey, of which the one currently under construction on Istanbul's Camlica hill is the most over-the top example. He has also reportedly spent over $1 billion for a 1,000 room presidential palace as part of a megalomaniacal obsession with his own power.
“As the socio-economic gap between the AKP elite and who they purport to represent increases they become more prone to use religion to bridge that gap,” said Seckin.
After losing his majority for the first time in the June elections, Erdogan is hoping that his bullying tactics will be enough to win him back a majority. However, early polls indicate that this is unlikely, and he will end up with another minority. According to Seckin another election is out of the question as it would completely erode the market’s faith in the country’s economy.. This means that Erdogan will likely end up having to form a majority with either the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) or the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), both of which have said they will seek to prosecute Erdogan and other leading AKP members if they win. But Seckin said it is almost certain that one of Erdogan’s conditions for forming a coalition with another party would likely put that issue off limits.
“The corruption scandal basically means that Erdogan and his close circle cannot afford to lose power in this country because the implication would be lawsuits, indictments and a complete destruction of their creditability,” he said.
While Erdogan may have more at stake in this election than ever before, it is the Turkish people and their constitutional rights which stand to lose the most if he is able to form a government.