“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion,
but to allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
– Noam Chomsky
On 28th May 2013 Turkey’s future took a violent and unpredicted turn. A country which has already been shaken by riots, coups and other political upheavals in both its recent and long history is now on the brink of a sea-change. Three-terms Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increasingly tightened his authoritarian grip over the country and his recent plans to demolish Gezi Park in Central Istanbul and replace it with yet another shopping centre was the last straw for the Turkish people. The recent uprisings and protests all over Turkey since late May were an allergic reaction to what the country sees as a stranglehold over its rights and freedoms. Not content with withdrawing alcohol for public sale past 10pm, banning its advertising, preventing air hostesses for wearing certain colour lipsticks, jailing 20% of his generals, selling the forests for foreign investment and planning to tear down the Atatürk Cultural Centre, Tayyip’s latest plan to remove one of the few remaining green spaces in Istanbul was just part of a frightening pattern. And one which the Turkish people were petrified could continue and worsen.
The West don’t get a very comprehensive picture of events in Turkey. In spite of the fact that the recent protests made mainstream coverage time and time again on the BBC, only the current events are reported. We’re lucky things even got that far after the Turkish government tried to force a media blackout, banning and fining TV stations from broadcasting the protests, with one now infamous example of the news channel CNN Turk hurriedly switching its schedule to show a documentary on penguins instead. This fixing of the press in Turkey has had a knock-on effect to NTV’s CEO resigning and the BBC cancelling its partnership with the channel. Most of the live broadcasting can now be found online, at UStream or DHA respectively.
Above: a peaceful protest is attacked forcefully by police in Ankara.
There is a lot of corrupt history as to the how the government ended up with such a strong opposing force in its populace. A history which is hidden from the Western media by the simple language barrier and underdeveloped reportage, and which thus only ricochets around the country, barely making it out with apt understanding or audience. These recent events are the tip of a large and ugly iceberg. And according to Tayyip, it is the minority that are making things very hard for the government indeed.
But this is not the minority.
Erdoğan gloats that he has 50% of the country’s support behind him won through votes in the last election, but things aren’t that cut and dried. For a representative to be elected in Parliament, the party has to gain 10% of the vote all over the country as well as 10% of the vote in each city. In the last elections, 66% of the country turned up to vote, and Erdoğan took half of those, therefore accruing up to 33% of the country’s vote. Subtract the smaller parties’ votes from this, and you’re looking at a figure much smaller than that 33%, and certainly not the grand 50% that Erdoğan peddles.
One of the main rebuttals to Turkey’s ending up in widespread revolt is that Tayyip was elected democratically and fairly for each term, so in theory Turkey doesn’t have much to complain about. Yes, the voting scales were tipped very much in Tayyip’s favour the third time round, but how those votes were gained is another story entirely. There’s strong evidence that the AKP, Tayyip’s Conservative and increasingly fascist party, went to the poorer areas of the country and bribed the populace with food and white goods to get their vote, a practice which the government dub “social policy”. In desperation, the poorer people of Turkey, suffering a wide gap between rich and poor, would do anything to help their own survival.
This video is a good example, showing boxes of food being given to the poorer communities, from a car whose black number plate designates an official vehicle. At the end of the video an older man speaks candidly about receipt of the goods: “They started from the town centre, giving tea, sugar, grains… many people brought their national ID cards. (Presenter: what would they need their national ID cards for?) They got their names recorded on paper. (Presenter: who recorded their names?) AK Party people, of course. There was tea, sugar, rice… in boxes.”
This isn’t the first time the Turkish government have done this. In 2009 they were also accused of giving out goods to the poor just ahead of election time. This is how you gain the vote of the underprivileged with left-wing values, by bribery. For the low-earning or destitute family, a cross on a ballot is nothing to protecting their own in the immediate future through handouts.
The level of opposition to razing Gezi Park doesn’t just relate to concern for the welfare of the park itself and what it represents though. The extent of police brutality shown in dealing with even the most passive of protesters has been horrific. When a sit-in protest in Gezi Park on 28th May led to a dawn raid by police who beat the protesters and set fire to their tents, it was only the thin end of the wedge. Tayyip has been known increasingly for his “no tolerance” approach in policing, which means beating everyone into submission for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have seen plenty of examples in the last two weeks of people being gassed in their own homes, en route to other parts of the city, or sprayed with mace and tear gas for just walking the city streets.
The people of Turkey have got to the point where they’re tired of being scared. Tired of authoritarianism, tired of a leader the minority of the country elected who is turning into a dictator. The latest calls for change are not just for the sustainment of Gezi Park but for a resignation of the tyrant Erdoğan. A man who increasingly imposes his arrogance and will on Turkey. Gezi Park itself, if it survives the upcoming referendum, has turned into a symbol for change and steadfastness. It is something far greater than the sum of its parts.
The referendum itself is, once again, smoke and mirrors. Once you have a government who is capable of manipulating and bribing its people to get into power, anything is possible behind the scenes. As long as the people feel they have power, they feel as if they have control. The result of the upcoming referendum may not be all that genuine though. As one Twitter user pointed out, how were the government able to accrue several thousand votes back in 2010 from a village with a population of 300? There have also been other cases where votes have been cast by people not even present, and some officers caught voting repeatedly. The government may not skew the votes in the larger districts but in the smaller towns and villages no-one has heard of, people are less likely to ask. This time round Erdoğan will use any means to accumulate support from his side, and has collared the public transport system for this own use and is using state money to transport supporters to his rallies, and public buses to move police around.
The clampdown on public rights and freedoms extends beyond the streets and into cyberspace. Heathen Harvest has obtained evidence of people in Turkey who have had their privileges, livelihoods and even academic scholarships revoked through speaking out against the government on Facebook. People are scared to voice their opinions anywhere lest they fall victim to further penance. In Izmir 30 Twitter users were taken into custody for supporting the protest movement. The Turkish government is an old hand at such tactics, even blocking the whole of Youtube back in 2007 because they didn’t like a few videos.
Erdoğan made great pains to point out that the majority of the trouble-causers in the country are nothing but villains and looters. Godless types who were making life difficult for the supportive majority. But the truth is that Turkey is a proud country who want nothing but their old lives back. People calmly singing and protesting and sit-ins in Taksim square led to TOMA riot-control vehicles being called in and the people being mercilessly water-cannoned away. The mosques opened their doors to treat the injured of all faiths, only for these makeshift hospitals to be tear-gassed by police. Over the period of these protests there are now six people dead and thousands injured. But the people keep coming back day after day, hardened in the face of such opposition. It got to the point last night in Taksim where the sit-in had turned to a piano recital in front of thousands. This is as passive as it gets for a protest. As the police watched in their phalanxes as song after song was played by volunteers, they could do nothing but wait for a resistance that never came. This “godless” people, who even broke the recital for the evening prayer chants, was nothing but respectful. If you were Muslim or secular, your space and belief was still honoured. This hardship has united the country more than ever. Even bitter footballing rival teams have had their fans side by side in unison.
The world needs to know what is really going on in Turkey. With print publications and media outlets giving nothing but current events and no historical backing, context and perspective are the most important orders of the day. Even though much of Turkey treasures its history and religious heritage, this is a nation desirous more and more of the freedom that the rest of the developed world enjoys. Now, revelations as to the true state of Turkey are not coming from the mainstream media, but social media, and the people involved directly in the country’s support: its citizens. This is the source and the spirit of Turkey, and if we paid attention to its people rather than the news bulletin boards, our empathy and our activism would be much more profound.
Written by Lysander