Category Archives: Ankara

Turkey’s divisions run deep as referendum result shows

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The result of Turkey’s referendum was a cliff-hanger, which I witnessed at the main opposition party’s HQ where accusations of fraud were flying. At the polls I saw the deep divisions in the country, No supporters’ disdain for government supporters, Yes supporters’ fury at European “crusaders” and adulation of President Erdogan.

Polling officials await voters in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

Friday 14 April 2017, Ankara

On arrival in Ankara, where I will report on the voting and the result, I meet the young man who is going to be my fixer, Cagdas Ersoy (without the diacritical marks and the knowledge of what Turkish ones mean you’ll never guess how to pronounce that first name).

It turns out he’s a story in himself.

He used to be a left-wing activist and was arrested, along with several of his comrades, on a protest at the death of a well-known teacher and activist, Metin Lokumcu, on another demonstration.

Prosecutors decided to charge them with membership of a terrorist organisation but they couldn’t decide which one.

So they left them in jail for six months while they made their minds up, eventually admitting defeat and releasing them.

The compensation was quite generous, at least, Cagdas says.

He has a nice line in prison anecdotes, especially since several of the common law prisoners were members of the Grey Wolves, the far-right militia associated with the nationalist MHP.

“If you’re a hired killer what do you when the work runs out?” Cagdas asks.

One explained his racist ideology by assuring him that the Turks are the world’s top race because they can shoot a bow and arrow on horseback better than anybody else, although the skill seems to be widely practised in modern Turkey than it was on the central Asian planes several centuries ago.

On another occasion a group of Grey Wolves were expressing their certainty that homosexuality is a sin that will be punished severely in the afterlife.

“That’s true,” one said. “But, let’s face it, who here hasn’t had sex with a tranny at least once ?”

The others were obliged to concede the point.

Saturday 15 April, Ankara

A No banner hangs on the front of the CHP’s national headquarters in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

 

The search for politicians ready to be interviewed on the referendum resumes.

It has proved especially difficult to find Yes campaigners to speak to us, the MHP being split on the question and AKP cadres apparently being reluctant for fear that they unthinkingly contradict the party line and bring their careers to an unplanned end.

But officials at the party’s Ankara headquarters are helpful when we turn up in their lobby and we end up speaking to the man in charge of the No campaign in the city, Nedim Yamali, in his spacious and well-furnished office.

Nedem Yamali Photo: Tony Cross

The claim that the constitutional reforms are a product of Erdogan’s megalomania is “a big lie”, he says, pointing out that they will allow for the president’s removal and prevent him standing again after 2029, although laying less emphasis on his proposed right to appoint the cabinet, issue decrees, declare a state of emergency and so on.

He also shares the Yes campaign’s distaste for coalition government, blaming previous ones for the country’s hard times before the AKP came to power and claiming that the reform would mean such a state of affairs would never be repeated.

We then meet a former AKP MP, Emin Dindar, in a more congenial setting, a charming café with art deco touches where he appears to hold court.

Dindar is a Kurd and a former mayor of Cizre-Sirak. Cagdas tells me his brother was killed by the PKK.

He takes an original line on the referendum, arguing that it will Erdogan a free hand to reopen the peace process and resume the improvement in Kurdish rights that the AKP started in the early years of its time in government.

He’s also not keen on coalitions.

As we leave, a man jumps up to greet Dindar, kissing his hand and engaging him in an intense conversation at a table on the sunny terrace.

CHP vice-president Telim Bingol Photo: Tony Cross

In another imposing party office, the opposition CHP’s national headquarters this time, party vice-president Telin Bingol says coalitions are getting an unjustly hard rap from the Yes campaign.

“Today we have unemployment, low-level economic crisis, lots of problems in our foreign policy and they have been ruling the country for 15 years by themselves,” he says. “There’s no coalition today and there’s no stability, either.”

On a precinct in central Ankara, sacked university lecturers Nuriye Gülman and Semih Özakca are staging a sit-in protest over their dismissal.

They have been here for about 100 days and have been on hunger strikes for 38.

To read my report for RFI Yes and No camps explain their cases click here 

Sunday 16 April, Ankara

Market traders start work on referendum day in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

Market traders are setting out their stalls as polling opens at Necla Kizilbag high school.

As the sun brings out the red in the rows of tomatoes, the green in a mountain of chillis, one of them explains the superiority of street markets to supermarkets – fresh, local produce, friendly service – to us.

This is a middle-class CHP-supporting area and the No voters are getting their disappointment in early, assuring us that fraud will deliver a Yes vote.

While the muhtar (mayor) Aydin Yasap, expects this area to vote No “because people are educated here”, journalist Nalan Aygun says she is pessimistic about the outcome because “we have a lot of uneducated people in Turkey” whom Erdogan knows how to manipulate.

This disdain for the “uneducated” is widespread among middle-class secularists and must surely impede the No campaign’s ability to win over the AKP’s working-class support base.

Opinion is more divided at another polling station, in Mamak district.

Here I am taken to task by Osman, a flashily dressed businessman playing with prayer beads, who takes my presence as an imperialist aggression.

“Do you think if I go to France and stand in front of a school, as you are doing, do you think I could do as you are doing freely?” he asks me.

He seems unconvinced by my assurance that he could, nor does my insistence that I am not personally responsible for the French or any other European government’s decisions cut much ice.

Like many AKP supporters, including Ankara party chief Yamali, Osman is enraged by the refusal of the Netherlands government and some German cities to allow Turkish ministers to address rallies on their soil.

The move worked for Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, so far as domestic politics were concerned, but it appears to have strengthened the resolve of many Turks to vote No and Erdogan has made the most of its potential.

Yasar Akalin and Zamazan Acar Photo: Tony Cross

At another polling station nearby, one AKP supporter refers to “crusaders” as muhtar Yasar Akalin predicts a 60-65% victory for Yes.

Having resorted to that venerable journalistic technique of talking to taxi drivers, we are surprised to find unanimous opposition to the reform.

Of course, it may be that some are telling us what they think we want to hear but the man who drives us back to my hotel has an interesting explanation, which may indicate that the AKP is losing its magic touch.

Taxi drivers and shopkeepers are feeling the pinch of a downturn in the economy, he explains, adding that he and his colleagues are also angry at hikes in petrol taxes and the government’s refusal to negotiate with their representatives.

The AKP “helps the poor”, Zamazan Acar told us at Mutlu polling station, citing free health care and other improvements in his life during the party’s time in power.

But some of the AKP’s support may evaporate if the economy continues its turn for the worse.

To read my report of polling in Ankara for RFI click here 

CHP spokesperson Bülent Tezcan claims there has been fraud at the party’s headquarters Photo: Tony Cross

And now the result!

At the CHP HQ journalists and party members gather around a TV screen.

As results come in from the east, where the polls opened and closed earlier, the Yes has a substantial lead.

But it declines as the hours tick by.

It’s an agonising process, the activists are on edge, cheering good results even when they’re partial but far from confident in their campaign’s success.

The impression that the CHP thinks it has lost is reinforced when party apparatchiks sweep into the lobby and denounce alleged vote fraud.

Another CHP vice-president Erdal Aksünger claims that the party’s own returns show a No victory and accuses the state-run Anadolu news agency of issuing false results to demoralise their supporters.

The activists explode in chants of “Mustafa we are your soldiers” and other rousing Kemalist songs of a martial tone.

But the Yes lead is still falling as Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara seem to be going for No.

Izmir is a CHP bastion but losing in the other two would be a big blow to Erdogan, who started his national career as mayor of Istanbul.

In another dramatic announcement, party spokesperson Bülent Tezcan slams the high electoral authority decision during the day to allow unstamped ballot papers to be counted on the AKP’s request.

After an agonising wait the official result is revealed.

CHP activists chant as the result come through Photo: Tony Cross

Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara have indeed voted No but the country, according to the television, has voted Yes by a wafer-thin margin of 51.3 to 48.7.

As it comes through, Aksünger is making another announcement, claiming that 1.5 million unstamped ballots have been counted, denouncing the official results as fraudulent and vowing to fight them.

Neither the electoral authority or the courts, run by a purged magistrature, are likely to back the CHP’s appeal but it keeps the indignation-fuelled adrenalin pumping and the activists chant their defiance again.

To read my report of the result and the CHP’s reaction click here

Monday 17 April, Ankara

Bearing in mind that the two parties who campaigned for the Yes vote won 60% in the last general election and the odds stacked against the No campaign, the result is actually remarkable.

It shows a decline in Erdogan’s support, possibly the result of the economic turbulence that has hit the country.

But it still reveals a country “sliced in two like a water melon”, as Cumhuriyet columnist Cigdem Toker tells me.

The narrowness of the margin is unlikely to restrain Erdogan, who has already said he’s ready to have another referendum, this time on restoring the death penalty, giving the political finger to his European critics and finally slamming the door on the admittedly unlikely prospect of Turkey ever joining the EU.

But this bitterly divided country has plenty of other challenges.

To read What now for Turkey after Erdogan’s narrow referendum victory? click here

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Turkey turns to Russia amid allegations of US coup complicity

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Turkey is executing a dramatic change in foreign policy, aligning itself with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in part because of the US’s and the EU’s reaction to the purge that followed the 15 July coup attempt. Ruling party leaders say the state of emergency will not last more than three months and that the Kurdish-based HDP will not be left out of national unity efforts. We’ll see about that!

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Atatürk’s mausoleum behind minarets and Ankara rooftops Photo: Tony Cross

Ankara 27-28 July 2016

Accompanying the mayor I meet on Wednesday evening is someone who’s introduced as an advisor to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim – another one who doesn’t want to give his name, but for different reasons to the others I’ve spoken to – along with a couple of gentlemen who apparently have something to do with intelligence and defence.

They say that a key Gülenist, whom they name as Adil Öksüz, was captured at the nearby Akinci airbase during the coup attempt.

Other Gülenists have apparently come forward to confess, including another prime ministerial adviser, known as Fuat Avni, and are spilling a certain amount of beans on the movement.

Avni’s statements led to the arrest of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military aide de camp Colonel Ali Yazici, they say, and that has led to other top aides, past and present.

However highly placed they are, the organisation’s cell structure means that defectors can’t name a lot of names, if the information I’m given is correct.

Cells are led by a “big brother”, who reports to a bigger brother, and they all use code names.

Given that the AKP worked with the Gülenists for many years, there must surely be many members in the party, I point out.

They agree and say that an “in-depth investigation” is taking place and that some have already come forward.

The party seems ready to forgive individuals who were attracted by the movement’s ideals but were not aware of the coup plot.

Gülenists ready to explain themselves to the media having always been in short supply – even more so at the moment – I am not in a position to say what those ideals really are.

AKP people say that Gülen claims to be the new Mahdi, who will redeem Islam, and that the movement is a threat wherever it has schools and other interests, ie a number of countries in central Asia, Africa and, as it happens, the United States.

Relations with US under threat

The government found that the US was slow to condemn the coup and this, combined with its criticism of the post-coup purge and its apparent reluctance to extradite Gülen from his Pennsylvania compound, has given rise to accusations that it was aware of and supported the coup attempt.

If Washington refuses extradition it will be taken as proof of involvement, the adviser says, and that will mean a complete change in relations between Turkey, a key member of Nato, and the US.

There were already accusations that Gülen is a CIA agent and my informants seem to believe them, one of them throwing in a claim of German involvement for good measure.

EU criticism of the Turkish government’s reaction to the purge have also been poorly received and there is already evidence of a major realignment of Turkish foreign policy, which would mean Turkey joining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to establish a bloc to rival the West on the world stage.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek on Tuesday announced that Erdogan would visit Russia on 9 August, while he himself was on a visit to Moscow along with Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci.

Russia is, of course, strictly non-judgemental about the reaction to the coup and has lifted a damaging embargo imposed when the Turks shot down one of its jets over Syria last year.

Even before the coup attempt there were indications that Ankara may normalise relations with Bashar al-Assad, a prospect that stunned Syrian rebel groups.

Is military weakened? Will national unity last? The AKP line

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Ak party vice-president Mehdi Eker Photo: Tony Cross

AKP vice-president Mehdi Eker refuses to “speculate” on what will happen if Gülen is not extradited when we meet him at the party’s huge headquarters in Ankara.

“We know, and are very sure – we have a lot of evidence – that Fetullah Gülen is the leader of this organisation, as it has been confessed by many members who were involved in the military coup,” he says. “We have conveyed these files to the US. President Erdoğan called [US President Barack] Obama and asked for the extradition of Gülen, and PM Yıldırım also had a phone conversation with [US Vice-President Joe] Biden and asked him officially.”

So “an ally and friendly country” is bound to “act according to international law and according to bilateral relations on this issue”, he declares.

Eker is defensive on defence.

The 8,000-plus personnel dishonourably discharged is a small percentage of the huge Turkish armed forces, he points out, but has to concede that then over 40 per cent of generals and admirals fired could be damaging.

“The Turkish army is traditionally very strong and powerful,” he says with masterly understatement. “Of course, as far as they get the support from the people and administration, they will recover. I have no doubt whatsoever about it. In previous coup attempts, for example in 1971 there was again a coup attempt, it recovered. It will again recover. No problem!”

He confirms reports that responsibility for the gendarmerie and the coastguard will be transferred from the defence to the interior ministry and that the polie may be given heavy weapons.

The Kurds – the elephant not in the national unity room

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HDP co-vice-president Saruhan Öluc Photo: Tony Cross

Like the CHP’s Tezcan, he is enthusiastic about the post-coup spirit of national unity.

“The people are all together, hand in hand,” Eker declares. “All the people from different statuses, different backgrounds, different parties all stay together.”

But one party was absent from Erdogan’s meeting with opposition leaders on Monday – the left-wing, pro-Kurdish rights People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

When I met HDP vice-president Saruhan Öluc in Istanbul on Tuesday, he was worried that this meant the formation of a nationalist bloc against Kurdish rights.

To read my interview with Saruhan Öluc click here

But Eker, who is himself a Kurd and represents a constituency in Diyarbakir where the conflict with armed Kurdish groups rages on, insists that the HDP will be involved in future talks.

“As long as they take a firm stance against coups and any other anti-democratic affairs, we are together. They are elected by people so they are legitimate.”

The gendarmerie being deployed in rural areas, their transfer to the interior minister may mean more involvement in security operations in the south-east.

Torture hasn’t happened but, if it has, it will be punished

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Human rights lawyer Sercan Aran Photo: Tony Cross

Earlier today lawyer Sercan Aran told us that soldiers detained since the coup claims to have been abused, tortured and even raped.

Some had been deprived of food for three days, others housed in stables or kept in stress positions for the same length of time.

A general said he had been sodomised by a police truncheon – one suspects an element of resentment from the lower ranks – but refused to file a complaint because of the shame he would feel if his family knew.

There was evidence of other similar cases, Aran said, and lawyers had faced obstruction and physical assault while trying to represent detained soldiers.

To read my report for RFI on torture allegations click here

“Everything is done under the rule of law,” Eker insists, describing Amnesty International’s report on the torture allegations as biased.

But the charges will be investigated, he says, and if any cases come to light “of course they will be punished”.

Prosecutors have been given exceptional powers, including the right to search premises, including lawyers’ offices, without a judge’s warrant and the right to seize documents from lawyers.

Plotters, including officers who tried to assassinate Erdogan, are still on the loose, Eker says, so exceptional measures are justified.

But, he adds in reference to France’s eight-month state of emergency, Turkey’s will probably not last more than three months.

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