Peace and authoritarian Erdogan – issues in Istanbul in Turkey’s 2015 autumn election

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Everyone was surprised by the result of Turkey’s second election this year, including, I suppose, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won an absolute majority. Erdogan’s gamble of stoking security fears by reigniting the war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) seems to have paid off and was ably assisted by Isis, IS, Daesh or whatever you want to call the gang that bombed two pro-peace rallies and apparently has cells planning more mayhem currently in the country. Just to prove that I, too, was surprised, here’s my account of my reporting assignment, which ended two days’ after polling day. I’ve already posted reports on RFI English and will include links to them.

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CHP supporters hand out leaflets in Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Istanbul 25 October 2015.

It appears that the president in his wisdom has decreed that Turkey’s clocks will go back one week later than Europe’s this year, leading to Turkish Airlines announcing the wrong time on arrival, my personal mobile and my work mobile giving different times and me being late for my first appointment.

A concerned Onur Öymen rings to ask if I’m having difficulty finding the address while I’m time over a Turkish coffee.

I arrive flustered but the former ambassador and MP for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) greets me charmingly.

He’s old-school CHP – while some party members admit it has alienated religious voters with its enthusiasm for Kemalist secularism and has watered down is hardline nationalism, leading apparently to a rapprochement of its youth wing with the pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP), he supports the government ending peace negotiations with the PKK, blaming the guerrillas for firing first.

If the election results in no party with an absolute majority, as looks likely, Öymen would like to see and AKP-CHP coalition but admits that the AKP is more likely to want the right-wing secular nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

“I believe that it is politically possible because, to tell the truth, what’s in common between AKP and MHP is much more visible than what’s in common between MHP and the CHP,” he says.

The MHP, whose members wished CHP campaigners good luck when I first met them both during the 2007 presidential campaign, seems now strongly attracted by Erdogan’s authoritarian turn, which has seen legal and physical attacks on opposition media, AKP links to mafia bosses connected to coup-plotters of the shadowy “deep state” and, of course, repression and a new military offensive against alleged and real supporters of the PKK.

After 7 June’s inconclusive election the MHP refused to join an AKP-led coalition, citing the then-still-extant peace process and Erdogan’s plans for constitutional changes as the reason. It objected to his plan to shift decisive power to the presidency and, perhaps more vehemently, proposals that would have left former AKP ministers off the hook in corruption investigations launched by magistrates, whom Erdogan accuses of being agents of his former ally Fethullah Gülen.

Now the peace talks are off and maybe the MHP could be reconciled with a string presidency, if it goes hand in hand with a clampdown on Kurdish nationalism and the left. In a move that can only have delighted Erdogan, its paramilitary wing, the fascistic Grey Wolves, attacked HDP premises during the election campaign.

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Koray Caliskan in his office at Bogazici University Photo: Tony Cross

The last time I met Koray Caliskan was outside the CHP headquarters on the night of the 2014 presidential election campaign. This time I meet him in his office at Bogazici University, a beautiful campus overlooking the Bosphorus that was once the American University of Istanbul.

He is dismayed by Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and supportive of the CHP’s shift to the left.

The MHP is right-wing but will probably not be tempted to support the AKP he says.

“They want rule of law in this country, they want checks and balances to be structured again and they want democracy to work. So there are three forces for democratisation, CHP, MHP and HDP, and the only political party that blocks this is Ak Party. The main division is between democracy and authoritarianism in the country right now.”

Caliskan has had his own brushes with authoritarianism and has three legal cases opened against him for “supporting terrorism” and “libelling the president”.

“In our penal law there is a clause that specifies one to four years for anyone who insults the president, which doesn’t exist in any democratic society.

When Angela Merkel was due to visit Turkey during the election campaign he and other academics published an open letter appealing to her not endorse Erdogan’s rule and giving 10 examples of government actions that, they said,  breach the European Union’s conditions for membership.

That earned him a disciplinary hearing in front of the higher education committee, whose president, he says, is an Erdogan appointee, for “libelling the president” but his university refused to open an investigation into the case.

Most of the students sunning themselves on the campus, several of them petting some of Istanbul’s thousands of stray cats, are too young to vote and don’t expect much change after the election.

Yaran would like to see a coalition but thinks the vote is a “waste of paper”.

“I don’t think there will be much change but the military operations against the PKK and also the other important news, like blasts in Ankara, will really affect the percentages but I don’t think there will be a single winner to govern,” says Volkan, a young man who expresses himself very clearly in English.

He would like to see the AKP win and rule alone, although he is unhappy that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu allows Erdogan to go beyond his mandate and dominate the country’s politics.

Özgur also expects no big changes but clearly dislikes the AKP.

“From a realistic point of view I’d like to see a working government to be established, wo that this turmoil after the elections will end we could have a ministry that can function,” she says. “Hopefully that will bring an end to all the social turmoil in Turkey right now, so that all these bombings and stuff would end.”

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AKP campaigners in Besikitas, Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

On my way back to the city centre from Bogazici I come across members of the CHP, the MHP and the AKP campaigning at a busy crossroads in Besiktas district.

The one English-speaker on the AKP stall, where voters can pick up a free sandwich, will not be interviewed without permission, there are no English-speakers on MHP stall but two members of the CHP are ready to speak, the head of the party’s youth wing in Besiktas, through an interpreter, and the vice-president, who turns up later and speaks English himself.

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CHP activist Seçkin Aybar Photo: Tony Cross

“The CHP is the only party with a lot of support that defends social democracy,” says Seçkin Aybar, the youth wing president.

With rousing music non-sectarianly attracting attention to all three parties’s activists, he and his vice-president Ugur Demirckan both slam Erdogan’s authoritarianism.

“The AKP mustn’t rule Turkey,” says Aybar. “Since the 7 June elections 600 people have been killed and there could be more in the next few days … AKP is trying to create a one-party system in Turkey, which can be very bad for secularism.”

“Now there is no jurisdiction,” says Demirckan. “There is no real police … It’s more like hunger for power.”

To read my article on the CHP’s campaign on RFI’s website, click here.

The next day I take to the streets for more voxpops, this time in Osmanbey district.

AKP supporters seem happy with the government’s handling of the economy and have no fears of a slide to Islamisation.

“He doesn’t force me to wear headscarves, for example,” says Zuleyha, a middle-aged woman who runs a lighting business. “Everything is OK for me. No problems.”

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Abdullah and Herdem, a Kurd and a Zaza, in Osmanbey, Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Herdem and Abdullah do have a problem with Erdogan and the AKP, however, and she, in particular, is keen to make it heard, dragging him to the microphone.

Herdem is a Zaza, a group that speaks a dialect of Kurdish, while he is a Kurd, and they pose for a picture flashing V for victory signs, having expressed their intention for the HDP, for “democracy, peace and humanity”.

“If the AKP rules again by itself nobody will be able to do anything,” says Herdem.

“We’re stalled and we don’t know why the international remains silent about what’s happening in the eastern part of the country,” Abdullah says. “I have seven family members who have joined the guerrillas. Eighteen have been murdered, we don’t know what’s become of them. I have a wound in my leg because in that region we get hurt. My mother was injured during the fighting in the 90s. But still I call for peace.”

Nihot, a middle-aged businessman, also wants peace.

He supports the CHP and believes the HDP are just PKK representatives in parliament but, reflecting war-weariness among much of the population, as well as the change in his party’s attitude to the Kurdish question, he wants peace talks to be revived.

“I believe that lots of PKK militants want to come to Turkey and live in peace,” he says. “So we want peace and we can do it by negotiation. I believe that.”

To read and hear my interviews with voters in Osmanbey for RFI click here.

 

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