Special Report: the politics of Turkey (Part I)

DU Politics and International Relations Society hosted Ms. Sara Whyatt, Mr. Emre Çalışkan, Dr. Simon Waldman, and Dr. Ömer Tekdemir to discuss the 2016 coup d’état attempt in Turkey. The coup d’état attempt prompted the purge of more than 100,000 state officials and left the country in a state of emergency, more radically divided than ever. The meeting ended up in hours of deep talk on a wide range of issues regarding Turkey, including freedom of expression and the Kurdish political movements.

A Brief History of Freedom of Expression in Turkey

Our first speaker was Ms. Sara Whyatt, an experienced human rights activist who worked with organisations such as UNESCO, Amnesty International, and PEN International. Ms. Whyatt’s understanding of issues regarding the freedom of expression and her direct involvement in many incidents throughout recent Turkish history provided the audience with a solid chronological insight into essential cases of the past 20 years in Turkey. As a campaigner and researcher on freedom of expression, she expects the state of emergency to be further extended. This report wishes to provide you with several key insights into her speech.

Firstly, she reminded us that Turkey was no stranger to oppression, even before the AKP and Erdoğan. To illustrate this, our speaker explained the federal crackdown against government critics.(“Kurds and those who championed Kurdish rights” were particularly targeted). Ms. Whyatt explained that the anti-terror law has been used as the main justification for the imprisonment of journalists and writers. 

Secondly, our speaker marked  Turkey’s candidacy to enter the EU in 1999 as a turning point in its political history. The proposed harmonisation packages for the Turkish laws to match its European counterparts ended up with the issue of liberal regulations and amendments, in particular reduction of sentences for insulting the state and the abolishment of the death penalty.

This state of affairs was further adopted by the AKP when it came to power in 2002 and therefore had been maintained through the early 2000s. However, Ms. Whyatt highlighted that even this period was far from perfect, mentioning the cases against a musician Ferhat Tunç and writers Elif Şafak and Orhan Pamuk. She recited her memory of Elif Şafak’s trial where the writer’s supporters were confronted by ultra-nationalists who were wearing “extraordinary black clothes”.

Our speaker then continued by telling us about the reversal of the former EU adaptation process by the Gülenists who represent a transnational moderate religiopolitical Islamist movement started by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen (due to which he is often regarded as a spiritual leader). It started with the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink and the trials of Ergenekon and Balyoz (the arrests of Nedim Şener, Ahmet Şık, and Cumhuriyet’s Mustafa Balbay) by the Gülenists. Our speaker went on with telling about the KCK trials, along with the parting of Gülenists and the AKP.

As a conclusion, Ms. Whyatt emphasised that more than 1845 cases against people insulting Erdoğan have been opened since he became President in 2014. She touched upon the need to abolish the anti-terror law, and showed concern about the welfare of Kurds in Turkey: “Whatever the issue is, the Kurds always seem to somehow get tangled up in it”.

 “New Turkey”: Pro-Erdoğan or Anti-Erdoğan

Mr. Emre Çalışkan continued Ms. Whyatt’s focus on freedom of expression and gave us his personal experience in Turkey before becoming an academic. The highlights of his career involved working for two and a half years at the renowned newspaper, Cumhuriyet, as a prominent journalist under the editor in chief back then, Mustafa Balbay. Apart from his career at Cumhuriyet, which had a reputation for criticising the government, he also worked for the national public broadcaster, Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) until being “sacked by Gülenists”.

Mr. Çalışkan went on to assess Turkey’s contemporary political issues. Firstly, he defined the ruling party’s slogan and concept of the so-called “New Turkey” as a state with no alternative to the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule. Charismatic personalities, such as Menderes, Demirel, Ecevit, Özal (except Atatürk) have always dominated the political scene, explained Mr. Çalışkan.

Nevertheless, this dominance was somehow balanced by the military presence of “a self-appointed guardian” of secular Kemalist principles. Kemalism is the founding reformist ideology of the Republic of Turkey, implemented by the first Turkish president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who enshrined secularist government into the constitution of Turkey to reconcile the principles of Islam and democracy. When the AKP party came to power, the harmonisation process of EU laws was used as a way of undermining the military, which was recognised by many as a development for Turkish democracy.

However, this new hope that emerged with the democratisation process of the early 2000s has now mostly disappeared, as the checks and balances have been destroyed and the atmosphere of authoritarianism grew. Mr. Çalışkan explained the shift of the power structure in Turkey. Secularists lost control of the military, judiciary, and bureaucracy due to the alliance between the AKP and Gülenists, which in turn, enabled the Gülenists to seize thousands of state positions. As a result, the AKP repeated the past mistake rather than solving the problem with a system based on merit, since they replaced secular state officials with predominantly Sunni and conservative Gülenists.

One of Mr. Çalışkan’s main and concluding arguments was about Erdoğan. After explaining Erdoğan’s authoritarian ruling style, for example him refraining from consulting his parliamentary group while making decisions as the Prime Minister, our speaker also highlighted the president’s growing popularity after the coup. The mix of ideologies involved in the political scene of Turkey is diverse: there are Kurds, Alevis, liberals, secularists and Gülenists. Mr. Çalışkan’s verdict of “New Turkey” was that its political landscape divided between either ‘pro-Erdoğan’ or ‘anti-Erdoğan’.

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