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New Turkey Book Talk episode with Michael Wuthrich, chatting about “National Elections in Turkey: People, Politics and the Party System” (Syracuse University Press).

This really is an excellent book that overhauls much conventional wisdom about Turkish politics shared by right and left.

Unlike the deceptively boring title of the book, this episode’s title is stupidly ambitious. But we do cover a lot of ground. I’m really pleased with it – hope you enjoy/learn from it.

Download the episode or listen below.

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Here’s my review of the book in HDN.

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Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Andrew Cruickshank and Aaron Ataman.

Swimming against all economic logic, another new national newspaper appeared on Turkey’s newsstands last month. Karşı means “against” or “anti” in Turkish, and this new daily has a slogan declaring it “Against lies, the newspaper of the truth,” apparently channelling the spirit of Çarşı, (the Beşiktaş football club supporters group whose motto is “against everything”). Karşı has quite a varied team of people working on it, but in many ways it embodies Turkey’s chronic “opposition problem.” The fragmented opponents of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) comprise leftists, liberals, Kemalists, nationalists, communists, environmentalists, anti-capitalist Muslims, and now Gülenists. But together these forces not only fail to make up a majority of the Turkish electorate, they are also handicapped by their diversity; the opposition is so disparate that it can agree on little other than that the AKP is a disaster.

The anti-government Gezi Park protests that raged throughout last summer made this point particularly clearly. The protests were full of energy and ideas, but it was the kind of energy that can’t be channelled through traditional political channels. The variety that made the Gezi movement so strong and impressive is exactly what prevents it from being an effective opposition force in more formal terms. What’s more, all Turkish opposition has to contend with a highly cohesive and disciplined incumbent government, confident in the loyalty of its core conservative constituency and backed by a well-oiled media and electoral machine.

 

Karşı's first front page, reporting PM Erdoğan's call to hapless Habertürk  boss Fatih Saraç to cut a live broadcast in which Islamic theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk criticised the government.

Karşı’s first front page on Feb. 9. The headline reports PM Erdoğan’s order to hapless Habertürk controller Fatih Saraç, demanding that he cut a live broadcast in which Islamic theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk criticised the government.

 

In a recent Reuters piece about the durability of the AKP’s appeal, Hakan Altinay of the Brookings Institution is quoted as saying that there is “no political force to pick up the ingredients and cook a better meal, the opposition has no sense of direction.” Indeed, it is commonly assumed that the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is too clumsy and loaded with its own historical baggage to be effective. There’s some truth in this, but it’s hard to see how anyone could channel the disaffection of Turkey’s hugely varied opposition into a single coherent political party, while at the same time outlining a vision that can defeat the AKP at the ballot box. Similarly, Piotr Zalewski wrote last week that the CHP would “have to deliver more than just finger pointing for Turkish voters to entrust it with running the country.” That’s also true, but the party is paralysed by the fact that finger pointing is pretty much the only thing that unites those ranged against the government. A more constructive platform might target wavering AKP voters (however few they are), but that would likely risk losing the CHP’s own wavering voters. It’s an almost impossible balancing act. Of course, none of this is particularly new, but it has become particularly obvious in the lead up to the March 30 local elections.

The new newspaper Karşı – with its diverse but incoherent range of ideas about what is to be done – perhaps embodies the Gezi conundrum. As its editor-in-chief Eren Erdem has said: “The Gezi spirit excites us, and we are talking the same language as the people on the streets during the Gezi resistance. From our writers to our editors, from our printers to our correspondents, we all imagine a free world.” Of course, Karşı is a newspaper, not a political party, but its example does indicate the challenge facing any formal opposition hoping to capitalize on the AKP’s current problems.

On 23rd November the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, officially offered a state ‘apology’ for the massacre of thousands of Alevi Kurds that took place in the eastern province of Tunceli (formerly Dersim) in 1937-1939. Without wading into the rights and wrongs of today’s politicians apologising for yesterday’s crimes, well-meaning observers – including many in the Western media – have responded approvingly, citing this as the latest evidence of a democratising, self-critical Turkish politics in action. If sincere, Erdoğan’s words would have been a brave and commendable, but there are reasons to be sceptical.

The Prime Minister knows that he has nothing to lose from such an apology, (feeble as it was in any case: “If an apology is required on behalf of the state and if such precedents exist, I am apologizing”). The current Justice and Development (AKP) government will hardly be held accountable for events that took place whilst under single-party, Republican People’s Party (CHP, current opposition), rule seventy-five years ago. Whilst apologising “on behalf of the state”, Erdoğan used the opportunity to lay down the gauntlet to the CHP, declaring that it was the real culprit behind the events: “The party that should confront this incident is not the AKP. It is the CHP which was behind this bloody disaster”. Evidently, the primary motivation behind opening up this issue at this time wasn’t to have an honest, sensible debate about a difficult issue, but rather to launch the government’s latest attack on the opposition. Instead of using the opportunity to reflect modestly on some of the darkest days in the history of the Turkish republic, Erdoğan has cynically exploited a sensitive issue to score cheap political points. The spectacle is nauseating.

For a number of complex reasons Tunceli – with its predominantly Alevi population – has traditionally been a strong supporter of the secular establishment, and thus of the CHP. In the parliamentary elections earlier this year the province again voted for a CHP representative, making it something of a novelty in the Anatolian hinterland (consider this map: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/2011_Turkish_general_election_english.svg to see why). Could electoral calculations have anything to do with the Prime Minister’s opening up of the issue at this time, and in such a combative way? Political scientist Doğu Ergil reflected: “I wonder if Erdoğan would have done the same thing if the perpetrators had been close to his political views”, before going on to suggest that the debate “shouldn’t be limited to the Dersim killings. Turkey should also apologize for the 1915 Armenian killings and the Sept. 6-7, 1955, events, which resulted in the mass exodus of minorities from the country”. Don’t hold your breath.

Apparently it isn’t possible to stimulate an honest conversation about the darker episodes of the country’s history without seeking political reward; it isn’t possible to reform the judiciary without leaving a legacy of overbearing party political control; it isn’t possible to de-fang the military without simultaneously loading the police with your own supporters. Yet again the convenient narrative of Turkey’s steady democratisation is exposed as, at best, flawed.

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