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

Sunday Herald - - 19.03.17 THE WORLD -

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

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