John Butler

Turkey’s climate of fear

President Erdogan’s increasingly tyrannical regime is suppressing the truth about its war on the Kurds

Turkey’s climate of fear
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Turkey is less and less a democracy, more and more a paranoid one-party state. If you don’t believe that, look at what happens to those who draw attention to the government’s failures and crimes. The editors of Cumhuriyet, a centre-left broadsheet, have been delivering their editorials from jail since November. A statement issued this month by the Izmir Society of Journalists claimed that 31 journalists were in prison while 234 were in legal limbo awaiting trial. Over the course of last year, they added, 15 television channels had been closed and 56 journalists refused accreditation.

Recently, a woman identifying herself as a teacher phoned in to a popular television talk show and asked the presenter, Beyazıt Öztürk, if he was aware of the terrible violence in the predominately Kurdish parts of southern and south-eastern Turkey. ‘Please, don’t let people die, don’t let children die, don’t make mothers grieve,’ she pleaded.

The next day, the TV channel — part of a group under intense pressure from the Turkish government — had to issue a grovelling apology for having aired this cry for help. ‘Doğan TV and Channel D have stood by the state from the first day to the present day,’ it read. Öztürk even delivered a personal apology on the day’s main news bulletin. But that wasn’t enough. He is now being investigated on charges of ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’, and it is unclear whether his show will continue.

It’s not just journalists, either: a business group, Koza İpek, was taken into state administration and its media assets butchered on the grounds of ‘financing terrorism’ through a closeness to one of the government’s political rivals.

Why do President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the political party he co-founded, the Justice and Development party (AK party), need to suppress free speech? The AK party was swept back into single-party power in the second general election of last year with 49.5 per cent of the vote. It is now in a position where it can do almost anything it wants with Turkey. Yet it lacks the supermajority needed to change the constitution. This is problematic, because Erdoğan is now campaigning to abolish the position of prime minister and consolidate his power as president — a move he recently regretted comparing to Hitler’s Germany.

The AK party is still 13 MPs short of being able to bring the issue to a referendum, and the three opposition parties in parliament have all tasted enough AK party power to know that it is not in their interests to strike a deal. To achieve Erdoğan’s wish, the AK party must now knock the Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP) — a coalition of Kurdish and leftist groups with 59 MPs — out of parliament, and that means controlling the narrative about the ongoing war in Turkey’s southeast.

So far, the government appears to be succeeding in defining how ordinary Turks see the violence between the state and the loosely HDP-linked Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which broke out again in July after years of peace talks. Those wanting to find out the facts often have to triangulate between highly unreliable Turkish pro--government news and equally unreliable, but less accessible, reporting from the Kurdish-movement press. Perhaps the most trustworthy figures are provided by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, which says that 1.37 million people have been affected by the government’s 24-hour-a-day curfews, which have been enforced since the violence restarted, and 162 civilians have been killed in the past five months.

Erdoğan now insists that Turkey will never again hold talks with any faction of the Kurdish separatist movement. ‘That work has finished,’ he has said. Prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, meanwhile, told a crowd outside AK party headquarters that the PKK were ‘trying to make young people the enemies of schools, of mosques and of the [holy] book… We’re up against a barbarian organisation.’

Yet the AK party is ambivalent in the way it deals with a more obviously barbarian movement, Isis. The government arrests on a whim Kurdish or Kurdish-sympathetic politicians for being ‘terrorist sympathisers’, but is curiously tolerant when dealing with actual Islamist terrorists. In the wake of an Isis suicide bombing in Ankara in October, for instance, Davutoğlu urged restraint: ‘If there’s a sleeper cell somewhere, you cannot simply round them all up and put them somewhere, hoping no one will notice. We have to behave in accordance with the law.’

Few AK party supporters hanker after the Isis way of life. Many in the party’s ranks belong to Sufi-influenced sects, which would earn them a death sentence were they to stray over the border. And the AK party could hardly ignore the bombings attributed to Isis last year in Diyarbakır, Suruç and Ankara — or the killing of 11 tourists in another bombing three weeks ago in Istanbul.

Rather than taking the dry puritanism of Wahhabism as a model, the AK party prefers the aesthetic of a new Ottoman era, an attempt to recast the most glorious days of that empire to fit their brand of political Islamism. If this approach were to be encapsulated in a slogan, ‘Making Turkey Great Again’ would not be too far off. It seeks to underline the strength of the Turkish nation, the public role of Islam, and the importance of strong leadership — and that’s where President Erdoğan comes in.

In his push for near-absolute power and his construction of a palace around three times the size of Versailles, including a bunker with direct access to police CCTV cameras, Erdoğan is clearly suffering some form of megalomania. He is neurotic about the threats facing his government, and increasingly paranoid about disloyalty within his party. He has started to replace mainstream activists with advisers who — judging by their public proclamations, at least — spend much of their time worrying about conspiracies involving sinister international financiers or telepathy. Perhaps Erdoğan’s accidental comparison of himself to the Führer was a Freudian slip.

John Butler is a pseudonym.