TURKEY ‘ON THE EDGE’
DENOUNCING EUROPEANS AS NAZIS AND ISLAMOPHOBIC, TURKEY’S PRESIDENT ERDOGAN MAY HAVE SENT HIS COUNTRY’S EU MEMBERSHIP AMBITIONS INTO REVERSE, BUT IT’S HELPING HIM CONSOLIDATE HIS POLITICAL GRIP AT HOME, REPORTS FOREIGN EDITOR DAVID PRATT
MAKE more Turkish babies in Europe. As political clarion calls go it might seem like a strange call to action, but not if you happen to be Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan right now.
Embroiled as he is in a self-imposed battle for political survival, Erdogan is pulling out all the stops to win a referendum set for April 16 in which he seeks to transform Turkey from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency.
Speaking at a rally in the Turkish city of Eskisehir on Friday, Erdogan told his compatriots living in Europe that they should view success, and the creation of big families, as the best way to combat the swell in anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish sentiment across the continent.
“Go live in better neighbourhoods. Drive the best cars. Live in the best houses. Make not three, but five children, because you are the future of Europe,” Erdogan insisted. “That will be the best response to the injustices against you.”
For the past few weeks Erdogan has shown himself more than willing to stir up things in Europe as he goes fishing for the many votes that exist in the Turkish expatriate pool there. It’s all a far cry from the days when Turkey’s once pre-eminent diplomatic priority was membership of the European Union (EU). Where once Erdogan sought to woo European leaders, these days for shortterm domestic political gain he’s more than willing to get their backs up.
Over the past week, two of the EU’s most liberal leaders, Angela Merkel and Mark Rutte found this out to their cost. With a pool of more than four million ethnic Turks residing in Europe, many of whom are dual citizens with a right to vote, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) was keen to tap into this reservoir of potential supporters.
European countries like Germany, Austria and Holland, however, saw it differently, banning Turkish politicians from holding rallies. Cue Erdogan accusing European leaders like Merkel and Rutte of Nazism and Islamophobia. In a days-long tirade against Holland, and with less than 24 hours before Dutch voters headed to the polls in an election seen as a test of populism in Europe, Erdogan continued to stoke the row.
“We know the Netherlands and the Dutch from the Srebrenica massacre. We know how rotten their character is from their massacre of 8,000 Bosnians there,” Erdogan said in speech to healthcare workers.
THE Srebrenica massacre was the worst mass killing in Europe since the end of the Second World War. Serb forces rounded up thousands of Muslim men and boys and executed them, while a Dutch battalion of UN peacekeepers failed to stop the massacre.
Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, then in the midst of fighting his own fierce re-election battle called the comments a “disgusting distortion of history”. “We will not lower ourselves to this level. It is totally unacceptable,” Rutte said.
As the diplomatic spat between Turkey, the Netherlands and Germany continued, it eventually spilled over online when a large number of Twitter accounts were hijacked and replaced with anti-Nazi messages in Turkish. The attacks, using the hashtags #Nazialmanya (NaziGermany) or #Nazihollanda (NaziHolland), took over accounts of high-profile CEOs, publishers, government agencies, politicians and also some ordinary Twitter users. That Erdogan from the start was prepared to wade into such a vitriolic diplomatic row with Europe is perhaps a measure of how tough he is finding his own referendum battle at home.
While polls have fluctuated, they have broadly shown that Turkish voters are divided, with about 40 per cent in favour of the changes, 40 per cent against and the remaining 20 per cent undecided.
The proposed reform would mark one of the biggest changes to how Turkey is run in more than a century. Proponents of the referendum view the plans as a guarantee of stability at a time of turmoil, with Turkey’s security threatened by wars in neighbouring Syria and Iraq, and a spate of Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish militant attacks.
They argue it’s a chance to modernise Turkey’s constitution, drawn up in the aftermath of the military coup in 1980. Proponents also say it will improve decision-making because you would not have conflict between the president and prime minister or difficult-to-manage coalitions.
Critics of the referendum, however, see it very differently, branding it undemocratic and an Erdogan power grab that will have no checks and balances on his power.
“He will be head of state, head of government and have full power over the judiciary,” says Dr Esra Ozyurek, an associate professor and chair for contemporary Turkish studies at the London School of Economics’ European Institute. “He will have the power to issue decrees, which is huge, because it pretty much makes parliament ineffective.”
In Turkey, there has long been talk of a move to a presidential system. Finally, in 2007, the country embraced a semi-presidential system, putting the election of the president to a public vote as opposed to being appointed via a parliamentary poll. Erdogan thus became Turkey’s first directly elected president in 2014.
But there remained a desire to move to a fully presidential system and the failed coup attempt last year gave Erdogan the excuse he needed, experts claim.
Since that coup attempt last summer the state of emergency governing Turkey has had a chilling effect on public debate, preventing civil society and business associations from expressing their opinion on the referendum for fear of the government.
Some observers also contend that the vast majority of Turkey’s media is sympathetic to Erdogan after a crackdown on the press over the past year. Amnesty International recently reported that more than 160 press outlets have been closed since the coup attempt and more than 120 journalists are currently imprisoned, making Turkey “the biggest jailer of journalists in the world”.
“There is no press freedom in Turkey,” says Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest opposition party leading the campaign for the “no” vote in the referendum.
Erdogan, he insists, had brought the country “to the edge of the abyss”.
Some 40,000 people in Turkey, including judges, prosecutors and Kurdish politicians have also been jailed since the failed coup attempt last July, many of them on flimsy evidence. A string of reports by human rights and other monitoring organisations paint a bleak picture of Turkey’s current political landscape. A recent UN report accused Turkish security forces of torture, extrajudicial killings and disproportionate use of force during an offensive against separatist militants in the country’s Kurdish southeast. Another report, by the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe, concluded the new constitution that Erdogan is pushing for is a manual for autocracy.
Turkish officials routinely compare critics of the new charter to terrorists. Though protests are no longer brutally put down, that is because government opponents are now too scared to protest. “The people who can powerfully say no in the referendum are already in prison,” claims Ozyurek. “The leaders of the opposition HDP left-wing political party and a good number of MPs, democratically-elected mayors, party representatives, more than100 journalists and academics. At the moment Turkey has the best-educated prison population in the world.”
In a country in which opposition parties and groups have all but been neutralised and media organisations forced to toe the Erdogan line, dissent emanating from within other realms like coffee houses or social media and Facebook are more difficult to control. For several years the government has routinely urged elected neighbourhood officials to keep tabs on those in their local area. Increasingly, these calls have extended to ordinary citizens too.
A recent report in the Financial Times detailed how almost like the narrative of a dystopian novel, stories are emerging of friends, colleagues and even spouses reporting each other for a catalogue of offences.
“This has become a phenomenon in our society,” said one man, a doctor called Bilgin Ciftci, whose story was featured in the report. His offence was to share on Facebook a montage picture of Erdogan placed alongside Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings . F OR this he was arrested and charged with insulting the president, a criminal offence in Turkey, subsequently losing his job at a public hospital.
“There are people who are more royalist than the king. They become citizen informers,” was how Ciftci summed up the countless stories of unpaid, ordinary citizens who have taken it upon themselves to become a volunteer army of informers.
Encouraged by Erdogan’s government some have even boasted about their exploits on social media,
“In Turkey, it used to be considered shameful to give information to the intelligence agency or the police,” says Melda Onur, an opposition MP cited in the FT article and who recently shared the story of a taxi driver who reported a passenger for criticising the government.
“An informer – if known – could not easily survive in our society,” she says. “This government shattered that idea.”
In one case a man who claims his wife swore at president Erdogan while flicking between TV channels later recorded what he describes as “21 seconds of profanity” as she shouted at Erdogan. He took it straight to a local prosecutor and a criminal case was opened against her.
These stories of informers and those they target reveal the dark side of Turkey’s current political climate. But should the “yes” camp prevail in next month’s referendum, just what will it mean for Turkey both at home and in terms of its relations with EU?
ACCORDING to Brett Wilson an expert on Turkish history from the Central European University, it would mean Turkey’s parliament being robbed of its power.
“The strange thing about it is that the current situation means the president is basically doing whatever he wants despite the fact that theoretically there is a system in place to control him,” says Wilson.
“In some ways it’s a formality but in other ways it’s eliminating those potential checks on presidential power,” he adds.
“It’s short-sighted to restructure things in a way that will definitely make Turkey less democratic and they will have to live with the results of that for a long time because it’s very hard to change the constitution,” Wilson warns of Turkey’s future.
The changes, if approved, would come into effect in 2019, opening up the prospect of Erdogan staying in power until 2029.
As for wider relations with the EU, while the bloc needs Turkey in terms of its help with controlling migration into Europe, the country’s prospects of joining look increasingly unlikely.
It was as far back as 2005 that talks began with Brussels on Turkey becoming a member, but recent events have seriously soured that relationship with Europe.
Whatever the result of the referendum, the war between Erdogan and his domestic and international foes only seems poised to escalate. Defeat would be unthinkable for Erdogan, a humiliation for a man who feels he has never been adequately thanked by Europe for all Turkey’s efforts in giving sanctuary to millions of Syrian refugees.
Nearly a week after the diplomatic row erupted between Holland and Turkey, Erdogan continues what has become a daily ritual of hurling fresh antagonism towards Europe in front of cheering crowds of his conservative supporters.
Erdogan’s rhetoric has only been amplified by the Turkish media which is mostly supportive of the government.
On Friday, around the same time Erdogan was encouraging his European Turkish baby boom, the Turkish tabloid newspaper Gunes ran a front page cartoon of German chancellor Angela Merkel dressed in a Nazi uniform with the headline “Lady Hitler”.
Another paper, Takvim republished a photograph of a Turkish man in Rotterdam being bitten by a Dutch police dog.
To European eyes and ears, this all sounds like a horrible joke given Erdogan’s government is in no position to lecture anyone on democracy or human rights. But playing up anti-Turkish sentiment and attacking Europe is proving to be an effective way of stirring up nationalist sentiments at home. Erdogan senses this will translate into support for his referendum.
Indeed, as if to endorse his case, Erdogan’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, has now backed his recent denunciations of Europe.
His priorities right now are entirely domestic and short term. Most likely there are those in Europe too who will not be much bothered by Turkey’s self-imposed isolation as a result of Erdogan’s recent outbursts.
Turkish tabloid newspaper Gunes ran a front page cartoon of German chancellor Angela Merkel dressed in a Nazi uniform and, left, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on his compatriots to create big families Photographs: Alamy/AP