North Africa, West Asia

Turkey’s local elections, Erdoğan and the spectre of Gezi

People in Turkey are being forced to see the world as a zero-sum game between Berkin and Burakcan, to embrace one and condemn the other.  Erdoğan is trying his absolute best to pull as many voters as possible into his nightmare where the "terrifying" presence of Gezi  is most deeply felt.

Halil Gurhanli
26 March 2014

On his way to the local bakery to fetch a loaf of bread in Istanbul, 14 years old Berkin Elvan was shot in the head with a gas bomb canister by Turkish police during the anti-government Gezi Park Protests in June 2013. Having dropped to just 16 kilograms by the end of a protracted coma of 9 months, Berkin’s fragile body lost the battle on 11 March 2014. Mass rallies joined by more than two million protestors erupted in 53 cities around the country. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the funeral march in Istanbul the following day, carrying Berkin over their shoulders for hours amidst furious chants that held the AKP government responsible for his murder and called PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to account. 

This fury crystalised in his mother‘s cry: ‘It wasn’t God but Tayyip who took my son.’ Far from offering any word of condolence, Erdoğan made the crowds before him boo the mourning family in a rally a few days after. Insinuating that the marbles Berkin’s father put on the grave as a remembrance of his son playing with friends were actually malevolent symbols, PM called the 14 year old boy a terrorist and blamed the family for what happened to him. Even more worryingly, he made a chilling contrast between Berkin and Burakcan Karamanoğlu, a 22-year-old man who was shot dead on the night of Berkin’s funeral under circumstances that are yet to be clarified. 

Moments after declaring a 14 year old a terrorist, Erdoğan called Burakcan ‘our son’ who was ‘martyred’ by terrorists that had been attending the funeral. The AKP Deputy Parliamentary Group Chair Nurettin Canikli even claimed that the 22-year-old was murdered by the ‘illegal soldiers’ of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader.

This is the most dangerous and depressing aspect of the current predicament of Turkish politics on the eve of March 30 local elections: Erdoğan and his staff play the extremely wicked role of provocateurs willing to sacrifice absolutely anything to maintain their power, including polarizing the society to such an extent that even its collective conscience and feeling of remorse is divided into two camps; Us vs. Them.

Spectre of Gezi

Berkin’s mother is not alone in her grief. Berkin’s is the eighth life claimed by brutal police oppression since the Gezi protests began on May 30, 2013. From day one, members of the government have connsistently employed a dangerously polarizing rhetoric rather than work towards reaching societal peace and reconciliation. While the protestors were condemned as drunkards, looters and terrorists led by foreign and domestic “dark forces” as part of a conspiracy to overturn the government, police violence was praised as heroic and its victims reviled. 

Besides his blatant admission that he personally gave the order to the police to suppress demonstrations by whatever means necessary, PM Erdoğan also did not refrain from threatening to unleash his own army of supporters who chanted for a “go order” to suppress the protestors gathered in Taksim Square. In fact, around the same time, there were several dreadful instances where the protestors were attacked and sometimes killed by unidentified groups of armed men 'fighting side by side' with the police officers.

Since the criminal investigations that implicate PM Erdoğan, his family and government in the biggest corruption scandal in Turkish history were unveiled on December 17, 2013, this polarising rhetoric has turned into a series of full scale hate speeches. On numerous occasions, prominent figures from the AKP have labelled the party’s opponents not just as terrorists or looters but atheists, Jews, leftists who are allegedly part of the same conspiracy of Gezi protestors to overthrow the government by supporting the probe. 

Zafer Çağlayan, former Economy Minister who had been forced to resign after being implicated in the scandal, stated that he would ‘understand if a Jew, an Atheist or a Zoroastrian’ were behind the corruption probe, but not a Muslim: ‘Shame on them if these things are done by those who claim to be Muslim. How can a Muslim do this?’ Most recently, in her address to the AKP’s election observers, Minister Ayşenur Islam took this religious terminology to a terrifying level. Reminding the observers of the importance of their job on election day, Islam urged them to be as alert and vigilant as ‘archers at the Battle of Uhud’ - legendary troops who had been assigned to a nearby hill by Prophet Mohammed to shield the vulnerable Muslim forces fighting against the much bigger army of invading infidels.

Actually, this borderline jihadist rhetoric is in perfect accordance with the AKP government’s traditional strategy of playing the sectarian card whenever the need to cement the loyalty of its grassroots supporters arises. On numerous occasions Erdoğan has unapologetically provoked the deep-seated hatred prevalent among more radical segments of the country’s Sunni majority against Alevis, an offshoot of Shiite Islam with around 15-20 million followers in Turkey. 

And many in Turkey have become used to Erdoğan’s habitual agitation of the crowds to boo the CHP leader for being an Alevi. This sectarian tone reached a whole new level on the eve of the Gezi Protests when the Prime Minister decried the deaths of ‘52 Sunni citizens’ and named the planned bridge over Bosporus after Sultan Selim I, also known as the executioner of Alevis.

In November 2013, the press published a leaked police report about the Gezi Protests which identified 78 percent of 3.6 million participants as Alevis, even though such information is neither in their ID cards nor recorded in census offices. Understandably, many in opposition saw this as proof that the AKP government, in harmony with the state’s infamous security reflex of profiling citizens it deems suspicious, has illegally kept records on the Alevis. The fact that all but one of the victims of police violence during Gezi protests, including Berkin, happen to be Alevis only strengthens these suspicions.

Further down the road of polarisation

In the face of crucial local elections, which are expected to serve as a litmus test for the government’s legitimacy, it seems as if Erdoğan’s confrontational rhetoric, his trademark quality that has so far been the key to the AKP’s popular appeal, has finally got out of hand and become a liability. But this is largely because he has cornered his government. Thanks to an extremely antagonising discourse that has long portrayed any and all opposition as part of a unitary, 'enemy image', Erdogan has dragged Turkish politics to a point of no return where the hope of any peaceful reconciliation between various political camps is almost entirely lost and the government has no choice but to follow its leader while he continues further down the path of polarisation. 

As the corruption allegations and the spirit of Gezi do not cease to haunt him, Erdoğan’s fight is not just about consolidating power but also about minimising the damage popular opposition has caused. Thus in order to secure the support of the most loyal segments of his electorate, he is forced to appeal further to the gut feelings prevalent in society.

2012 Turkey Value Atlas indicates that, besides standing at the rightmost end of the ideological self-positioning among 47 western countries, Turkey is also a deeply intolerant and conservative society. While 87 percent of the people do not want a gay neighbour, 84 percent are unwilling to live near a person who drinks. 68 percent of them do not want an atheist next door and unmarried couples are not welcomed in 66 percent of Turkish neighbourhoods. Also Jews (56%), Christians (49%) and members of other religions (38%) are not widely considered as acceptable neighbours, just like radical leftists (34%) and people whose daughters walk around in shorts (30%).

Increasing the confrontational dimension of his discourse to a whole new level, it appears as if Erdoğan has been deliberately trying to bring those faultlines to the surface. Especially since the beginning of his third term in office in 2011, the so-called “master period” (ustalık dönemi), Erdoğan’s rhetoric follows a discernable path whereby in which he actively incites societal fault lines through the construction of a peculiar discursive equation between those who have long been considered as unwanted “others” by a significant portion of the society and his own political opponents.

In this sense the Gezi Protests constituted a major opportunity for such a discursive equation to be established, and the culmination of a lengthy process, a point at which the opposition temporarily gained a more or less tangible embodiment with discernable features. Although millions of people from all ages, ideologies, genders, ethnicities, religions, and professions participated in the protests in 81 of 82 cities in Turkey, the dominant profile for the 'Gezi protestor' (hereafter Gezi-ist) has nevertheless emerged. 

Besides the obvious Gezi-ist=Alevi equation promoted by the government, in big metropolises such as Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, the protestors have mostly been profiled as liberal, young, educated citizens who felt that their identities and freedoms have been increasingly ostracised by the AKP government in favour of a set of deeply conservative values.

Various field studies conducted during the protests have strengthened this conviction. From alcohol consumption to abortion and co-ed student houses, in a short period of time, Erdoğan has made it clear that he will use all his authority to eliminate such practices in order to homogenise society in a way that puts in jeopardy the very existence, way of life and public acceptability of those who do not fit into the “moral fabric of Turkish society”. After many months these policies still remain largely un-implemented. Aside from a few incidents right after Erdogan made his intentions public, students still live in co-ed houses and people keep enjoying their drinks in bars and restaurants. But their real political function lies in the fact that they were threatening enough to provide people with a provocation, thereby enabling a peculiar sort of protestor profile to emerge.

Those who participated in the Gezi protests were frequently seen in mixed groups of young women and men, and often in solidarity with the LGBT groups in parks and public squares. During the carnivalesque period of the Gezi protests, there was even a massive but unprecedentedly peaceful Gay Pride march joined by tens of thousands along the busiest street in Istanbul; a first in the country’s otherwise shameful history of intolerance (Pearce & Cooper 2014). It is also quite possible, indeed it was observable, that during the long hot days of summer they occasionally drank a few cold beers when they had the chance. 

The government’s excommunicating rhetoric against those who consume alcohol has successfully turned drinking into  a sign of dissent. The pro-government media made sure that such news was widely broadcast and printed nationwide. One commentator even claimed that the protests originated from the desire to revert Gezi Park back to a ‘dirty hub of perverted encounters and homosexual harlotry,’ supposedly the norm prior to the AKP era. This effectively meant that the protests against the government’s threat to impose its homogenous, conservative moral codes on the whole of society inadvertently helped to delineate a fixed image of the Gezi-ist: someone who drinks; has no problem with homosexuality or girls walking around in shorts; someone who considers pre-marital cohabitation and/or (God forbid) pre-marital sex, acceptable. In short, someone the majority of people in Turkey would not want in their neighbourhoods, a persona non grata!

The AKP and pro-government media have also not refrained from using blatantly fabricated evidence in this systematic campaign to further equalise the figure of a Gezi-ist with an alcoholic, sexual pervert and atheist. While Erdoğan himself accused the protestors who took shelter in Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Mosque - in order to get away from police - of drinking alcohol, others went more than a few steps further, claiming that they could have even engaged in group sex. The fact that these allegations were unequivocally falsified not only by video proof but also by the Imam at Dolmabahçe Mosque had no effect at all on the claimants.

Another infamous case that surfaced in the media recurrently was the claim that a group of Gezi-ists in Istanbul had attacked a woman wearing a headscarf and her baby in public. In her astonishing statement to the police five days after the attack allegedly took place, the woman in question said that a group of 80-100 half naked men with leather gloves assaulted her in bright daylight among thousands of other people, urinating on her and throwing her baby off the stroller. Although none of the hundreds of witnesses questioned confirmed these claims and the footage from security cameras showed that nothing of that sort ever happened, Erdoğan and pro-government media insisted on accusing Gezi-ists of attacking ‘headscarved daughters and sisters of ours.’

Local elections as all-out war

The AKP government has made it crystal clear that it considers the 30 March elections an all-out war, akin to the Turkish War of Independence after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As mentioned above, this warmongering nationalism is also combined with a blatantly jihadist stance aired by others within the AKP government, giving it an Islamist twist.

This brief account of the Government’s post-Gezi rhetoric indicates that it has constructed a strategy not to overcome its legitimate opponents in democratic elections but to annihilate the 'enemy' within who has no right to exist. With its alleged role behind the graft probe and leakage of Erdoğan’s incriminating phone conversations, the figure of Gülenist, member/sympathizer of the Hizmet Movement led by a US-based Islamic preacher Fetullah Gülen, is the latest addition to this ever-extending chain of hostile refeernce points.

But since the threat the Gülenist poses is much more imminent and concrete (as the graft probe and online leakages have convincingly shown), on the eve of the elections AKP cadres have elevated this shadowy figure to the role of the puppet master who not only ‘hires’ Gezi-ists, all the opposition parties and media but also ‘blackmails’ certain business circles to impair the government. It is mainly due to this hierarchical superiority that Erdoğan has coined the term ‘parallel structure’ as a pseudonym for Fetullah Gülen and his followers, a name vague enough to incorporate any and all opposition under one amalgamated heading.

Many observers of Turkish politics have already noted that since the beginning of the Gezi Protests, the AKP government has increased the conspiratorial tone of its discourse considerably, labelling all opposition as part of an overreaching global conspiracy against its rule.

Not only the Gezi Protests but also university students opposing a motorway going through their campus, massive marches following Berkin Elvan’s death, or the graft probe - these all join the leaking of phone conversations implicating the highest-level politicians in an evil conspiracy against the party’s rule orchestrated by, among others, Americans, Jews, Israel, Germans, neocons, CNN, Financial Times, and international banks. In various speeches, Erdoğan has declared that his government is resolved to fight against all these various malicious lobbies: the “interest-rate lobby” of financiers who wanted to hurt the economy; “robot lobby” of social media critics; the “porn lobby” voicing concerns about internet censorship; “war lobby” and “media lobby” - all of them looking to destroy Turkey by attacking the government.

Most recently in a piece insidiously titled ‘The Snake’ (Yılan) in Takvim daily, one pro-government columnist wrote that all opposition, secularist CHP, nationalist MHP, pro-Kurdish HDP and Gülenists, knowingly or not, work in the service of a vast Jewish network of financiers who ‘own 485 of the 500 biggest global companies and work for the British Financial Empire behind the veil.’

Erdoğan’s psychotic discourse

In this impossibly polarised depiction of society, nothing is left but a frontier that divides it into two antagonistic, irreconcilable political camps whose identities are determined solely in opposition to one another. In this respect, an all-encompassing figure of the 'enemy' masterminded by the lobby of one’s choosing is contrasted against an equally vague figure of millet (the people) whose members are considered as bound to each other primarily through their unconditional support, loyalty and love for the AKP government and its leader.

Famously dubbed by Erdoğan and pro-government circles as the 50% —a rather optimist reference to the AKP’s share of the votes— millet is portrayed not simply as an electoral majority but as a virtuous, homogenous body with a common set of values, interests and expectations that finds its political incarnation in the government itself. Often spoken of in outlandishly respectful terms such as supreme (yüce) or mighty (aziz), millet is turned into a divine authority with a peculiar habit of expressing its will directly exclusively through elections, thereby justifying the deeds of its representatives prospectively and passing judgments on them retrospectively. 

This otherwise celestial entity has also been accorded a material, albeit ephemeral, existence at the “Respect to Popular Will” (Milli İradeye Saygı) rallies organised by the AKP a few weeks after the Gezi Protests broke out. Hundreds of thousands of AKP supporters chanted ‘let us go and crush Taksim’ as Erdogan urged them on so that the enemies of millet would ‘shake in fear.’ Accusing international news agencies of reporting a deliberately distorted image of Turkey during the early days of the Gezi protests, Erdoğan stated: ‘this millet is not the one you presented to the world. This millet is genuine, not those who throw molotov cocktails at the police, loot and vandalise. We are one with this millet and there is no power strong enough to break our bond.’

As in many other instances, Erdoğan pledged himself to the crowds before him, saying that he would, ‘protect democracy and millet’s will’ and bury those who do not respect them in the ballot box in the coming elections, just as they did to others who orchestrated earlier coup d’états in 1960 and 1997.

Of course such an assumption of absolute unity between the government and millet, combined with the godlike qualities attributed to the latter, brings the AKP’s discourse very close to a manipulative theocratic one whereby the political legitimacy of the government is derived directly from a supposed deity whose sacred authority becomes visible and recognised only insofar as it legitimises the said government.

This is particularly why the AKP government, not unlike the Catholic Church before the Reformation, is quick to denounce all political opposition as the enemies of millet, the deity who holds the monopoly to define and represent the Turkish sovereign will. Recent experiences have proven that this “divine law” holds true for all, not only for Gezi-ists but even members of the judiciary, who have unwisely attempted to take over the authority destined to be executed solely by millet and make the government account for its deeds by opening a graft probe. 

In this sense any opposition to the AKP’s unlimited rule, best crystalised in the figure of Gezi-ist, emerges as a heretic both in secular and religious terminology, refusing not only the Islamic faith but also the popular one.  This borderline psychotic discourse conceptualises both the material and spiritual universes as mirror images of the division between the self and its other. It imposes an impossibly polarised depiction of reality and beyond, in which the political division between the AKP government and its opponents crosscuts all the dimensions of human existence. And this is precisely the point where it becomes perfectly logical for Erdoğan, and others who reside within the limits of such a psychotic discourse, to be genuinely saddened by the death of Burakcan Karamanoğlu whereas showing no sign of compassion for that of Berkin Elvan.

In everyday life this leads to a disturbing reality for many in Turkey where all the formal and informal mechanisms are employed by the government to drag them into this psychotic universe. They are being forced to see the world as a zero-sum game between Berkin and Burakcan, to embrace one and condemn the other. As loss of power seems ever more probable, Erdoğan is trying his absolute best to pull as many voters as possible into his nightmare. We are only a few days away from the elections and he seems unyielding in his belief that March 30 will be the day he finally exorcises his ghosts, but only if he can make enough people share his deepest fears.

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