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Turkey: What's Going On?

‘What on earth is going on in Turkey these days?’ It’s a good question. What indeed is going on in Turkey.

There are no simple answers because there is usually no clear grasp of the complexities of the socio-political-cultural anachronisms that make up Turks and Turkey. A ‘riddle inside a mystery inside an enigma’comes to mind and yet Russia is an open book when compared with Turkey.

Turkey is a one-man dictatorship, a police state.

On the day following the failed coup of 15 July, 2016 the recently elected president declared a state of emergency. This was illegal on two counts: first, the presidency does not assume executive authority until after the general election in 2019; second, constitutional law states that, ‘Extraordinary regimes (state of emergency) can be declared only in the case of widespread violence that cannot be contained.’The coup attempt of 15 July unfolded only in Ankara and Istanbul and was overturned within six hours at most.

What followed the declaration of the state of emergency and its renewal every three months since has had a profound effect upon the lives of every Turk. Over the past eighteen months the number of people sacked from the bureaucracy (armed services, police, judiciary, doctors, administrators, schools and universities, etc.) stands at approx. 125,300. 50,500 have been arrested, 169,000 are subject to legal proceedings. These people are not just without jobs, they are now unemployable. They have families who depend on them. Six news agencies, 50 newspapers, 18 television channels, 29 publishing houses, 20 magazines, 22 radio stations and 1,528 associations have been banned. 145 journalists have been arrested, and 2,500 journalists have been left jobless because of the closure of media outlets. Ten members of parliament have been arrested and are held in prison. Many elected mayors from the HDP and CHP political opposition parties have been removed from office and ‘administrators’have replaced them.

Dissent or disagreement is dangerous and can lead to assault, imprisonment and death. Illegal, armed militias such as Halk Özel Harekatı(People’s Special Security) and the OsmanlıOcakları1453 (Ottoman Hearths 1453) which are aligned with the ruling party are seen on the streets, dressed in similar style to ISIS and other Takfiri groups, ready to attack any protesters often in collusion with the police. This is their slogan: ‘Erdoğan means the nation. One dies for Erdoğan, one kills for Erdoğan. Those who tried to test this on 15 July saw it for themselves.

Social media is patrolled by paid trolls looking for deviants. A wrong word on Facebook or Twitter can result in a midnight raid by police and internment for months awaiting a hearing in a system purged of non-believers. Social media platforms are monitored nationally and controlled via regional throttling or ‘off switches’. Regardless of your ISP everything passes through just one state-controlled portal. The list of banned or censored websites is massive –from the atheistic views of Richard Dawkins to Wikipedia. A single word in a blog-post can see a site blocked.  The levels of control are what Big Brother’s wet dreams were about. Virtual Private Networks are the only way of avoiding censorship. Self-censorship is the most common way to avoid the all-seeing eye.

So, if Erdoğan and the AK Party divide the country almost exactly in half, as they do –what unites it? Nationalism and the symbols of nationalism. Turkey is a young country born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Back then there was no real concept of what a ‘Turk’might be or a Syrian or Kurd for that matter. Within the empire there were only Ottomans and as Ataturk set about creating the Turkish state (founded 1923) he was faced by a largely uneducated and indifferent population. His tool to weld these disparate peoples into one entity was his own brand of ultra-nationalism and personality cult as the saviour of the Turks. It served him and his successors well but as time has shown it is an explosive force on a very short fuse.

Turks have been raised on a diet of nationalism, first via their parents, then at school, the national football and basketball teams, flags everywhere –flying from flagpoles and houses, carved into the mountainsides along with Ataturk’s words in letters a mile high, ‘Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene’or ‘Happy Is He Who Calls Himself A Turk’. Then, for young men, comes conscription and ‘serving the nation’and the chance to become a ‘martyr’with a full military funeral and a flag flying over their grave. Conscientious objection has no status in the legal code. Money can buy the more affluent a reduced term at a ‘cushy’posting.

For the vast majority national pride is not an option –they have mostly been offered no other way of thinking. Turks are some of the kindest, most warm-hearted and generous of people. Self-deprecating, they are masters of making fun of themselves and yet if you insult their country or their flag, something they would never do, then you could well be facing your worst nightmare.

It is this characteristic that politicians like Erdoğan foster and exploit when the need arises. At the height of his popularity he began a truly constructive process of reconciliation with the Kurds. ‘Secret’negotiations were happening with Abdullah Öcalan from his prison cell. Whilst things were moving ahead on that front behind the scenes there were problems with the credit-bubble powered economy and deep levels of corruption within the regime, with their cronies and by Erdoğan personally. As the reality began to dawn on people he and the AK Party began to dip seriously in the polls –something had to give and that something was rapprochement with the Kurds.

A series of, probably, false-flag bomb attacks occurred including in Ankara. In what amounted to a civil war in the south-eastern provinces the army and paramilitary police were unleashed complete with tanks and helicopter gunships. Kurdish towns and enclaves were obliterated. Unknown numbers were killed and displaced before ‘peace’was achieved. The flags waved, the media cheered and every political party except the predominantly Kurdish HDP applauded the strength of Erdoğan. Then came another astute move. He invited into the administration the far-right National Action Party/MHP and thus cemented his nationalist credentials and shored up his falling popularity.

Finally, like a gift from the gods, on 15 June 2016 came the attempted coup followed by the declaration of a (permanent?) state of emergency and rule by presidential decree. This will probably extend beyond the upcoming election period and ensure that countless thousands of opposition ballot papers that disappear into rubbish tips at each election will not be the subject of any recounts. The rest, as they say, is history.

What does the future hold for this country? Whilst Erdoğan lives, he rules. That said there are persistent rumours about his health and there is no successor in sight who has his metal and political cunning. Many Turks speak of civil war, but not openly, of course.

A.N.