Suave and sympathetic, Beyazıt Öztürk is known for making even his most troublesome guests feel at home. The veteran comedian was in the middle of his call-in talk show, the most popular program on Turkish TV, when he received an unexpected call. A woman’s voice, trembling but persistent, admonished him and his guests to remember the children. Are they aware that children are dying? Do they know what is happening in Diyarbakır as the armed forces hunt Kurdish insurgents and the civilians who failed to leave have become fair game? Öztürk thanked her warmly for her contribution, and many in the live studio crowd applauded.
But Ayşe Çelik was not yet finished. Those children have families, have loved ones, she said. And how can other teachers who left their students behind in the besieged city look into their eyes—that is, those who survived—when they return at the end of the war? Many in the crowd resumed their applause, and Öztürk again thanked her effusively. A few days later he would apologize even more effusively on a prime time news show for the feelings he had hurt by showing sympathy for the enemy. Expressing incredulity at his own behavior, he asked his hostess, “would anyone expect this from me, whose stance toward the homeland, the nation, the flag has always been clear?” Yet when her quivering voice invoked the children, he explained, his “brain stopped.”
From a distance, Turkey today looks like a country that has lost its mind. Almost two years into a state of emergency imposed on the heels of a failed coup attempt, purges in the military and civil service have cost the jobs of over 100,000 breadwinners. Yet every week brings more arrests and detentions of suspected coup accomplices, including anyone associated with exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen’s organizations—except for many government officials themselves, whose decade-long embrace of Gülen is so well-documented that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s cronies hardly bother to explain away the contradiction.
With unemployment high and the currency beginning to slide off a cliff, the government denounces phantom manipulators while the country braces for snap elections that could not come too soon for the ruling party. The victor will preside over a new presidential system, sealed by referendum last year, in which he can dissolve parliament, declare a state of emergency, make executive and judicial appointments without legislative oversight—including twelve of the fifteen members of the supreme court—and release decrees with the status of law: all while presiding in a palace several times the size of Versailles.
It was not supposed to turn out this way. For almost a decade after coming to power in 2002, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been a bright light in the eyes of many Western liberals. Not only did the AKP seem to be bringing an emerging Turkey into the world economy, but it was also changing the country’s political culture in ways that they welcomed. Disaffected with the statist monochrome of Turkey’s secular republican tradition, both Turkish intellectuals and Western commentators expected the AKP to democratize a state long captive to its military establishment and, as they saw it, in thrall to a top-down nationalist ideology that limited public piety and cultural pluralism.
The long-running violent conflict between the Turkish state and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was no exception to this general optimism. Having authorized a Kurdish-language public television station in 2006 and put up bilingual road signs, from 2009 onward the state held high-level talks with PKK leaders to negotiate an end to the thirty-year armed conflict. Yet by the fall of 2015 Erdoğan was prosecuting the war with Kurdish militants in the cities of Diyarbakır, Nusaybin and Cizre in broadly the same way that his sometime bête noire Bashar al-Assad was conducting his own war in Aleppo. After opening a corridor for civilians to leave, the armed forces declared anyone remaining a presumed terrorist who could be killed on sight.
A motley coalition of military, police, and militias made up of Islamic fundamentalists leveled most of the old city of Diyarbakır, clearing away whole neighborhoods. Seizing on any expression of sympathy for these cities as “propaganda for terrorism,” the government organized the arrests of leading Kurdish politicians and seized whole municipalities from their elected mayors, placing them in the hands of “trustees.”
Two and a half years later, a government that now sees its raison d’être in this resumed “war on terror” has taken the fight to Northern Syria, where for three years the PKK-inspired Democratic Unity Party (PYD) successfully fought the Islamic State (IS) with help from the US Air Force. The Turkish conquest of Afrin laid that city open to plunder and burning by Turkey’s jihadist allies. So far, Erdoğan’s threat to extend the zone of combat to Manbij in Syria and Sinjar in Iraq has yet to meet with any meaningful resistance from the United States, even though protecting Sinjar’s Yezidis from genocide was the original pretext for the US military intervention against the IS. Under pressure from Erdoğan the US has even arranged the retreat of the Kurdish forces from Manbij, putting the PYD’s project of an autonomous Rojava in jeopardy.
For years mainstream Turkish opposition to Erdoğan was hostile to Kurdish aspirations. Kemal Atatürk had put down rebellions from both Kurds and Islamists, and contemporary Kemalists have long seen the two groups as natural allies working to subvert the unitary secular nation-state. In the first decade of the new century, as the AKP pursued negotiations with the PKK and jailed countless officers for allegedly plotting a coup, the image of Erdoğan as an American puppet destroying the Turkish army at the behest of a US–PKK alliance was wildly popular among secular nationalists, including many who identified with the Left. In their eyes, the newly elected Erdoğan’s attempt in 2003 to bring Turkey into the Iraq War—foiled, it must be said, by parliamentarians in his own party—confirmed the picture of a treasonous government colluding with the USA for the sake of an independent Kurdistan.
To Erdoğan’s nationalist opponents, the autonomous Northern Iraqi Kurdish administration that emerged from the war looked like a forward post for American regional ambitions and a regional beacon for Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria who longed for an independent state. Though the crony-capitalist oil statelet in Kerkük has rarely been on good terms with the Marxist PKK, most Turks have little incentive to attend to such distinctions. The rise of a PKK-affiliated regime in Northern Syria that has collaborated militarily with the USA confirms Turkish suspicions of what Erdoğan himself now calls an American plot to “encircle and besiege Turkey.”
How Erdoğan came to embrace the nationalist position with its “anti-imperialist” rhetoric becomes apparent in the saga of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş. The rise of the charismatic 45-year-old human rights lawyer and Diyarbakır parliamentarian to prominence as leader of the pro-Kurdish left in Turkish politics has coincided closely with Erdoğan’s abandonment of the peace process for hardline nationalism.
Though the HDP’s opponents consider it and its predecessor parties an extension of the PKK, and some supporters do bring images of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan to HDP rallies, Demirtaş and other party leaders have been keen to emphasize the party’s independence. Throughout the “peace process” years, the government’s interlocutor was the PKK, with HDP politicians sometimes serving as message bearers to Öcalan in prison, but not as partners at the negotiating table.
Jailed since November 2016 on charges of membership in a terrorist organization, Demirtaş testified that AKP ministers had used Öcalan to shut down the HDP and its predecessor, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), as an independent political force. In 2010 AKP ministers had brought Demirtaş a note in Öcalan’s handwriting demanding that he and the BDP vote “yes” in that year’s referendum to amend the constitution, giving the government a free hand in reshaping the judiciary. That first AKP attack on the separation of powers passed with 58 percent of the vote, but without the support of the BDP, which boycotted, saying that an entirely new constitution was needed to reform the nationalist state. In 2014 the government similarly tried to use Öcalan’s authority to prevent Demirtaş from running for president. According to the HDP leader, the same government that now accuses him of being Öcalan’s mouthpiece brought Öcalan into Turkish politics in an attempt to sideline the party.
The AKP used the peace process to obtain Kurdish support for its political hegemony. Though publicity from the peace process helped legitimate the HDP, enabling it to gain its landmark 13 percent of the vote in the June 2015 parliamentary elections, a pro-Kurdish party helping to revive the Left nationwide was emphatically not what the government wanted. Having lost its parliamentary majority by a razor-thin margin on June 7, the AKP played for time, triggering a re-run election in November due to the fractious opposition parties’ failure to form a government. Meanwhile, the lame-duck cabinet dramatically escalated the war with the PKK and recommenced the criminalization of pro-Kurdish politics. As staunch nationalists joined the government camp and the HDP could hardly mount an election campaign, the AKP reconquered its parliamentary majority in November. It then began its push to amend the constitution, amassing in the presidency what Erdoğan openly described as “a harmony, not a separation, of powers.”
The Turkish economy has entered its most fragile state since 2001, when a public debt crisis drove a secular coalition government to the ignominy of an IMF loan, with its usual, punishing conditions, helping to bring the AKP to power the following year. After fifteen years of almost uninterrupted growth and much praise from the international business press, the fault lines are beginning to show.
Dealing with double-digit unemployment and inflation simultaneously, Erdoğan has blustered his way through a course of action better designed to maintain his base’s confidence than to satisfy international creditors. Flying in the face of basic economic logic, he has claimed that high interest rates cause inflation, only to acquiesce silently in rate increases when his Central Bank convinces him they are unavoidable. Brushing aside complaints that the arbitrary seizure of political opponents’ assets scares off foreign investors, he has pointed to his ability to stop strikes at will as proof that the state of emergency is good for business.
The business press has been quick to point to Erdoğan’s erratic authoritarianism and ignorant meddling in monetary policy as causes of Turkey’s current economic chaos. Yet these recent outgrowths of arbitrary rule arguably mask more long-term weaknesses of the AKP’s economic strategy.
Erdoğan spent his first term as prime minister administering the structural adjustment package signed just before he took office. Running budget surpluses while keeping headline interest rates high, the government attracted foreign currency to its banks, raising the value of the lira and making import goods affordable to a broad swath of consumers. Turkey could continue this game once the global financial crisis hit, lowering rates to facilitate borrowing while still enjoying a competitive advantage over the West, where rates were practically nil.
What economist Erinç Yeldan has called “speculation-led growth” was possible in part because of an intensified exploitation of labor, particularly in newly privatized industries. So long as avenues for productive investment in the slow-moving mature economies were lacking, Turkey’s extractive industries and some import-dependent exports like auto-parts remained profitable enough to secure loans in dollars from banks in the West where qualitative easing kept lending costs low. Meanwhile, state investment in housing and infrastructure stimulated rapid growth in construction, spinning off a real estate boom.
The result has been a handsome growth rate—though not an exceptional one, by comparison with republican Turkey’s historical average or with other “emerging markets” over the same period—along with an explosion of private-sector debt. While a retail boom and expansion of credit has left households in high water, banks and corporations have borrowed heavily in dollars, leaving themselves in ever greater danger as the lira bubble deflates. Indeed, the lira has now lost over 60 percent of its value against the dollar since May 2012, and 13 percent since Erdoğan’s announcement on April 30 of snap elections on June 24.
Economists have been warning for years that the Turkish economy was entering bubble territory. The government has been resourceful in finding ways to forestall the crisis. When the growth rate slowed to zero in the quarter just after the failed coup attempt, the government resorted to what had long been off limits since the IMF lending program: stimulus via deficit spending. Successive budget increases in the two years since the coup attempt have kept the economy growing while putting a definitive end to rating agencies’ willingness to certify Turkey as creditworthy.
Even in its best days, the AKP economy was hardly a boon to the working class: witness the skyrocketing toll of fatal “work accidents” that have occurred on Erdoğan’s watch. Mining catastrophes in particular afford a glimpse of the peculiar contradictions of the AKP’s political economy.
For several election cycles the AKP has been as committed to the distribution of coal for heating in poor urban neighborhoods as it is to rejecting the opposition’s calls for safety inspections of the recently privatized mines that produce that coal. When a mine collapses or catches fire, Erdoğan evokes religious concepts to normalize the crisis. When one such preventable accident cost the lives of thirty miners in Zonguldak in 2010, Erdoğan ascribed their deaths to “fate” (kader) and directed further questions to the state director of religious affairs.
When a fire cost the lives of 301 miners trapped in the Soma lignite mine in 2014, Erdoğan turned to the fıtrat (nature or lot) of the mining profession: also a term with religious baggage, commonly invoked to denote the distinct, God-given roles of men and women. Yet the coal continued to flow to the needy, helping reverse recent gains in air-quality and reinforcing the patronage system by which the Islamists have co-opted working-class resistance since even before they gained power.
Meanwhile, the windfall from foreign capital and the profits of increased exploitation enabled the government to expand welfare transfer payments and build mammoth public works projects. Though organized labor has never had it so hard, many workers in the enormous informal sector see material evidence of the AKP’s benevolence.
Ambitious urban-renewal projects have transformed sizable portions of city landscapes. One such development straddles the highway just inside the Ankara beltway on the road leading into the city center from the airport. With high-rise apartment buildings ringing the steep hillsides of a valley, the site provides a glimpse of the fantasy life of postmodern Islamism. On the commanding heights of the hill on one side of the road’s wide curve, visible for a long stretch to drivers coming from the city, is the largest of the site’s mosques, in a majestic collage of different architectural styles from the Ottoman, Syrian and even North African pasts. Lit by night in neon green, the vast complex now known simply as “North Ankara” bears witness to the AKP’s drive to remake Turkish society in its own image.
What leftists usually call the AKP’s “neoliberalism” may be better described as a religious corporatism. Having sold state-owned industries to its friends and allies, the government now seizes the businesses of political undesirables, and plans to pool the profits of industry through a sovereign wealth fund whose investments will benefit favored companies. Facing a patrimonial state that blocks proletarian agency while rewarding loyalty with favors, workers are encouraged to seek the party’s good will while accepting that ultimately their lives are expendable: playthings of fate. Appeals to religion cement this resignation, spiced with a resentful dig at the old professional and bureaucratic class, i.e. “the secular elite.”
The fact that the core condition of the poorer sections of Erdoğan’s base has not improved means that to some extent the party can continue to bank on their resentment. No matter how rich AKP-friendly mining and construction magnates become, the old secular bourgeoisie with its boathouses on the Bosporus remains the image of privilege on television and the silver screen. After more than fifteen years in power, the ruling party’s media propagandists continue to label the secular opposition “status-quo-ist” (statükocu). That this rhetoric is starting to wear thin at the same time that the AKP’s regime of accumulation reaches its outer limits partly explains why government increasingly relies on strongman tactics.
As in the referendum last spring, Turks will be voting on June 24 at a time when most independent media have been seized or closed and the police can shut down public meetings at will. With a general ban on demonstrations under the state of emergency in place since July 2016, even a routine gathering to announce the HDP’s candidates for the Izmir district on May 24 was surrounded by armored cars. After a decade of harassing leftist and secularist journalists with little notice from the West, the government finally crossed a line in 2014 when it began taking over media owned by followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania resident whose center-right profile, Atlanticist leanings, and rhetoric of interfaith dialogue have garnered much sympathy in US governmental and media circles. Over protests from the US and EU, the government last year pressured the owner of the largest mainstream media conglomerate to sell it to an AKP loyalist. Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other nation.
Throughout its first decade in power, the AKP could afford to contest elections honestly. Yet by the time the government could put its constitutional amendments to a vote in February 2017, the stalling economy and growing doubts even within Erdoğan’s conservative base about his drive to consolidate power had finally caught up with him, necessitating new electoral tactics. The referendum to amend the Turkish constitution took place with the cabinet ruling by decree, the opposition prevented from running any campaign worthy of the name, its propaganda invisible, its leaders either in prison or threatened with prosecution, and mainstream television news largely reduced to recycling government talking points and assertions that a “no” vote was tantamount to treason.
After all this, the “yes” camp scraped by with only 51 percent of the vote, losing Istanbul and Ankara, which had been in AKP hands since before the millennium. To reach this outcome, the High Election Commission had to change the rules in the middle of the game, announcing on election day that it would accept as valid ballot envelopes that had not been stamped by an election official. These unstamped ballots amounted to well over a million votes, arguably deciding the outcome. Judging by this precedent, the ruling party’s capture of the regulatory commission raises the question of whether the AKP will ever permit the electorate to vote it out of power.
With the peace process’s archenemies, Devlet Bahçeli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), now allied with it, the AKP faces an odd alliance of opposition parties including Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a MHP offshoot led by party dissident Meral Akşener, who objects to Bahçeli’s accommodation with Erdoğan. A number of smaller parties have also joined in, notably the Felicity Party, an Islamist party from whose ranks the AKP itself emerged in 2001. The oppositional alliance has been running even with the AKP-MHP block in some polls, with Akşener’s group poised to peel off some of its conservative voters.
Such multi-party blocs ensure that smaller parties do not fall prey to a law barring parliamentary representation to any party or alliance of parties failing to get 10 percent of the vote nationwide. If a party can find someone to partner with, it gets to have it both ways: field its own list of candidates without getting caught in the electoral “dam.” Not surprisingly, the predominantly Kurdish HDP finds itself without a partner. The ruling bloc has made clear that pushing the HDP below the barrier is an electoral priority.
Citing “security,” the government will open voting booths in the largely Kurdish provinces only in their capital cities. As presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş has been able to broadcast a brief election message from his prison cell, but in the last week Erdoğan has started declaring that a prisoner should not be allowed to run. Oddly, the ever more overt repression visited on the HDP may now be winning the party support from democratically-minded ethnic Turks. When a video clip surfaced apparently showing Erdoğan at a closed party gathering talking about “special projects” designed to ensure HDP failure by “getting control over ballot boxes,” messages of support for the HDP proliferated on the internet.
The largest component of the opposition is still the old-guard secularist CHP. Party chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and presidential candidate Muharrem İnce hope to attract foreign direct investment by restoring the rule of law, and propose benefits for struggling constituencies: a significant increase in the minimum wage (earned by about 40 percent of the work force), debt forgiveness for students, and subsidies for farmers, whose economic decline under the AKP has made Turkey for the first time a net agricultural importer. The party denounces the government’s attacks on democratic rights, including those of its HDP colleagues, but cannot bring itself to oppose the military operations against Kurdish forces in Northern Syria, restricting its criticism to the army’s collaboration with jihadists fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner.
From wildcat strikes to feminist marches and gatherings of villagers seeking to block the enclosure of pasture and forest by mines and hydroelectric companies, a diverse array of oppositions holds out against the government without their struggles translating into a path to power. With the parties deeply polarized over the Kurdish question, the left-wing oppositions have yet to find a common voice in parliament. If the CHP alliance wins the June election, a debt crisis may well drive it back to the IMF’s doorstep, in which case a new cycle of Islamist populism would likely begin. For all that, such a premature victory by the mainstream opposition is a risk worth taking for a country on which five more years of Erdoğan would surely inflict as much damage as the deepening recession that will come in any case.
Ayşe Çelik’s call to the Beyaz Show took place on January 8, 2016. Two days later, an investigation was underway. On October 2, 2017, the court sentenced the now nationally known “Teacher Ayşe” to fifteen months in prison. Soon afterward, her lawyer successfully applied for a six-month stay to enable her to give birth to and nurse a baby girl. On April 20, 2018, Çelik and her six-month-old daughter Deran took up residence in a Diyarbakır prison.
President Erdoğan says that he wants to “raise a religious generation.” It is unclear what Deran Çelik’s childhood will look like, and whether an electoral victory for the other Turkey will be enough to make it better. That such a victory is even plausible demonstrates how much has changed in the last two years.