North Africa, West Asia

The new apathy: emotional break-off from Turkey

Young people are experiencing a numbness and profound disconnect from Turkey. Strict policies of repression and totalitarian changes in the country's constitution threaten to undo Turkish society altogether.

Mehmet Can Öney
22 March 2017
Depo Photos/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Riot police detain a demonstrator during a protest against the dismissal of academics from universities following a post-coup emergency decree, outside the Cebeci campus of Ankara University. 10 February 2017. Depo Photos/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.While Turkey’s recent political and social events have received a lot of media attention and are particularly disturbing, it is important to remember that many of Turkey’s citizens have spent their whole lives under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and are in fear of its discriminatory attitudes towards passive and active opposition.

Young citizens are experiencing an emotional break-off from Turkey. They are becoming apathetic and distant from their country, bewildered by its politics and paralyzed by the feeling that they cannot change anything. They are slowly separating themselves from politics, from social life, and from the country’s problems.

With the recent economic slump and the failure of its policies abroad - in particular its policies towards the Syrian civil war - rising totalitarian mentality has shown its face in Turkey to anyone who opposes the government’s actions. Beginning in 2013, a strong wave of social opposition has shown the ruling party that their policies are not accepted by a big part of society; a realization that they have attempted to deny, beat down and repress.

Continuous terror attacks, a lack of transparency in government processes, insecurity in the judiciary system, the plundering of public spaces for the purpose of capital gains (most of which benefit foreign investors), and clientelist relations in state affairs have caused irreversible damage to a large part of society.

Terror and the refugee flow

The Syrian refugee flow to Turkey has raised the country’s population by approximately 3.5 percent, with the estimated number of refugees currently close to 3 million. Turkey is one of the first countries to carry out an open border strategy for refugees coming from war-torn areas in Syria and is currently the biggest host of refugees in the world, a massive humanitarian undertaking.

While European and western countries, who have agreed to receive a limited number of refugees, are heralded as bastions of humanism, Turkey has received criticism for having not done more - a criticism that is entirely unfair, given the limited financial resources and the near to nonexistent international aid.

According to the European Commision the number of refugees living outside of the camps is 90 percent and the total number of refugees given is over 3 million. The Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey has said that the total expenditure on refugee resettlement has reached $7.6 billion.

In addition to its economic effects, the Syrian War has caused a major security crisis in Turkey. While it is of course true that the vast majority of refugees are not terrorists or security risks, the same violent forces that destabilized Syria and created the flow of refugees are currently endangering and destabilizing Turkey.

Since June 2015 alone, Turkey has experienced many terror attacks such as suicide bombings and shootings, which have killed over 500 civilians. Terror, fear and political instability in Turkey have affected tourism badly, with the number of tourists falling rapidly from 41 million in 2015 to 31 million in 2016.

Giant investment projects

Istanbul is the biggest city in Turkey and is host to over fourteen million people, approximately eighteen percent of Turkey’s total population. Despite the common opinion that it would be best to stop investing in Istanbul and to invest in new and/or currently underfunded cities’ development in order to take some of the population burden off of Istanbul’s shoulders, the government insists on giant, Istanbul-based projects.

For example, they have proposed building Europe’s biggest airport, and have completed a third bridge crossing Bosphorus and a tunnel linking Europe to Asia under the Bosphorus. In addition to draining public funds, these plans come with massive environmental destruction, with particular damage to parts of Istanbul’s biggest forest, the Belgrad Forest.  

This process of stealing Istanbul from its people and selling it for capital gain has given rise to large public protests. One such example is the 2013 Gezi Protests, which were sparked by the government’s decision to tear down the park which gave its name to the protests, Gezi Parkı, and build a shopping center over it.

The process works something like this: first, they make public places inaccessible, such as parks, historical buildings, and culture centers. Second, they try to convince public that these spaces aren’t necessary anymore. Finally, by developing new construction projects, which include these public places, the process of stealing public space from citizens is completed. These places become nothing but nostalgic memories, leaving people with the paralyzing feeling that something has been lost, yet that there is nothing that can be done about it.

Post-coup attempt purges and patronage

Putting its destructive effect on society aside, last July’s coup attempt gave the government a golden opportunity to purge its opposition from education, the judiciary, government offices, unions and the media.

Since the coup attempt, nearly 4,000 academics have been purged from Turkish universities. In addition to thousands of people fired from police departments, judiciary positions, and high schools, the vast majority of academics who have lost their jobs are not related to the coup attempt. Their “crime” was signing the ‘’Peace Declaration’’, a letter to the government that can be seen as one-sided, but that clearly did not constitute any form of violence or crime. The stifling situation in academia, the unending purges and the lack of justice have left educated people and students in fear and doubt about the future.

The final hit: referendum for the presidential system

The possibility of transitioning to the presidential system has long been debated in Turkish politics. A debate that the ruling party has brought to a climax in the form of a referendum scheduled for the 16 April 2017.

Including major changes to the country’s current constitution, the new system would declare the president the strongest person in the country, giving him the ability to undercut parliament and take over its legislative authority. A lack of checks and balances, an elimination of transparency, the risk of dictatorial tendencies, and the suppression of parliament’s power are the main concerns among the opposition. In short, handing the president a legal right to rule for another two terms, if he is elected in 2019, does not seem appealing to a huge segment of society.

The president’s fear of losing the upcoming elections has dragged Turkey into irrational political moves on the international arena, such as the recent diplomatic crisis with the Netherlands, and a new wave of right-wing populism that has brought discriminatory discourse into society. With only a few weeks left before one of the country’s most important elections, the rising paranoia in the ruling party may bring more diplomatic crises to light, causing even more damage to Turkey.

Fully overwhelmed by all of this, young people in particular are experiencing a numbness and profound disconnect from Turkey. Students and college-educated individuals in particular are deeply concerned about their country’s future, and have unwillingly begun looking for a better life abroad. The rise in Turkish youth applying for masters degrees and jobs abroad is a sign of a new wave of brain drain, which must be paid attention to by the state - before it is too late.

What we urgently need, to stem the spread of apathy and hopelessness, are more inclusive policies. We need to put an end to the mainstream acceptability of discriminatory language in politics and in the media, and to give civil society, and minority groups in particular, a say in state administration.  

Strict policies of repression and totalitarian changes in the country's constitution threaten to undo Turkish society altogether.

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