Apr 14

A Ballot Monitor’s Tale

A woman casts her ballot inside a polling station during municipal elections in Istanbul

Deniz Derviş volunteered on Sunday as a ballot monitor in Okmeydanı, Istanbul. I interviewed him about his experience and his views on the elections – whether they were conducted fairly, what they show about the current state of the country and what they spell for the future…

“I volunteered as a monitor in Okmeydanı [a poor, mixed district of Istanbul which was the site of the Berkin Elvan funeral protests three weeks ago]. The ballot box I monitored had 120 AKP votes, 95 CHP [main opposition] and 53 HDP [leftist, pro-Kurdish opposition], while the ballot box containing my vote had 245 CHP and 25 AKP votes.

Yes, there may well have been vote rigging during these elections, in particular in Ankara. But I don’t think the total rigged votes could exceed 1% for the whole country. So we are faced with the fact that after Gezi and the 17th December corruption tapes at least 40% of people are still happy with the AKP. We should also note that the voter-turnout was 90%, whereas it was 85% in 2009. Erdoğan mobilized his voters by spouting nationalistic madness to secure his few percent above 40%; if he had less than 40%, it could be considered a decline in his votes.

So if you ask what is next: the first thing that we must do is stop expecting any help from the cemaat [Gülenist community] or any other actor, and stop hoping for opposition alliances (e.g. CHP-MHP (Nationalist People’s Party, the 2nd biggest opposition)) or any tapes that could shake the AKP. The only time the AKP were afraid was during Gezi. Erdoğan’s biggest fear, I think, is that his voters and dissenters start to empathise with each other. The tape that revealed his fears was the one in which he said to the then- Interior Minister in June: “Don’t let this be another Tekel resistance.”
[In December 2009 the AKP government privatized the state monopoly alcohol company Tekel and sacked 12,000 workers, who occupied a central park in Ankara in freezing conditions for over a month. These workers were widely supported by the community and the strike proved deeply embarrassing for the government.]
“During the Tekel resistance, there was huge societal empathy for those workers, so the government tried to humiliate the workers on the media before police brutally broke up the protests.

There are two winners in these elections, the AKP and the HDP/BDP (the pro-Kurdish party, aligned with the HDP). The main reason behind their success is that they do not change their course to get more votes. They both have their own consistent ways of thinking (of course there are some temporary or local differentiation from time to time) But the CHP [main opposition party] was socialist during the Gezi protests, capitalist with the TUSİAD [organization of the most powerful Turkish businessmen] and grey wolf [militant youth nationalist] in Ankara – the current CHP candidate for Ankara, for example, previously represented the MHP. They say they are social democrats, but they try to reassure their nationalist base by not supporting peace with Kurds.

The AKP and HDP/BDP are not shaping themselves but shaping their supporters. They started as radical groups and they became mass powers. They both get votes from the working class, from the poor. Kurds are one of the poorest social groups and the south eastern region of Turkey, which is densely Kurdish, is the poorest region in the country. In Istanbul, AKP gets votes from poor and crowded suburbs whereas the CHP has over 7%0 votes in rich coastal districts. It is normally expected that poor will support social democrats, but it is the opposite in Turkey.

But since the fall of the social democrats in the 1994 elections, the CHP has been shaping itself according to daily politics. Just imagine: six months ago, there is no way the CHP could have made an alliance with the [Gülenist] cemaat. Now it is the no. 1 party for the cemaat. If you had lived in Turkey during the 90s you would not have believed that the CHP and MHP could make an alliance (there is still no formal alliance between the parties, but there is a strategic alliance between voters). So, parties that are patient and grounded in their basic ideologies are winning. The CHP has not been doing this for a long time, in fact the CHP has not had an ideology for a long time.

Being an elections observer is tiring but very instructive: you can easily see that society is divided into half, not ideologically but merely socially and economically. Most people do not think their freedom is oppressed and feel safe in many ways under AKP rule. And yet many people feel threatened by a quasi-fascist government.

So what should we do? There is no obvious solution, so we have to make one and stop being critical – we have to rescue this country’s working class from the monopoly of the AKP and find a way to live together with Kurds and other minorities. A new constitution is desperately needed because the current social contract won’t held the country together for long.”

Photo above by Murad Sezer for Reuters

Apr 14

Post-elections update: Vote stealing scandal in Ankara

sleeping ballots

Following the municipal elections on Sunday, Ankara has been the scene of an extraordinary backlash against electoral fraud. On Sunday evening, Melih Gökçek, the AKP mayor who has held his seat for 25 years, claimed victory with 95% of the votes counted. The news then emerged that hundreds of thousands of the CHP (main opposition) votes had not been counted or had been transferred to other parties – it seems that numbers entered into the electoral computer system did not tally with the physical ballot papers. Bags of ballots were found binned in the vicinity of the polling centres (mainly schools), and after photographs had circulated on social media, over a thousand volunteers went to track them down and guard the remaining ballots until morning. Cheering images of people wrapped in blankets, asleep, with their arms around sacks of ballots have been circulating illicitly on Twitter (see above). Further confusion was caused by a widespread blackout in the early hours of this morning – the Energy Minister responded to outrage and claims that further electoral foul play had been conducted under cover of darkness by saying a cat had got into a power substation and tampered with the electricity flow.

As I write (15.30 GMT Tuesday), the CHP has lodged a complaint with the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) and hundreds of people are protesting outside the council headquarters in Ankara, despite heavy police intervention. Gökçek, the self-proclaimed victor, has vacillated between accusing the CHP and Gülenists of planning provocations and claiming that, if there has been a “mistake” with the vote counting, the blame lies not with him but with the YSK.

There is some concern that the results of the elections will be officially announced tomorrow at around the same time that the CHP’s complaint is processed by the Supreme Electoral Council, meaning that it could be too late to challenge the result.

Unfortunately, as a friend of mine pointed out on Twitter earlier today, this latest fiasco will fit into Erodgan’s victory speech rhetoric of opposition provocation, foreign plots and “dirty politics”. No matter that the dirty politics appears to be emanating very much from AKP home ground – the millions of Turks who will hear this news on pro-government media news channels across the land will hear it warped and twisted against itself: a perfect example of Erdogan’s special brand of moonshine.

Photo above from Hurriyet News.

Mar 14

Why the Corruption Tapes Don’t Matter: Turkey’s Problem

In recent months, the Turkish government has weathered an epic corruption scandal. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been at the centre of it, rebutting all charges and denouncing his accusers in front of cheering crowds. In any European country, he would not have lasted five minutes.

Imagine David Cameron dismissing multiple phone conversations in which he is heard apparently rigging tenders as “dubbed montages”. Imagine him admitting freely to conversations in which he bullies Rupert Murdoch into printing exclusively pro-Conservative news stories, describing this as “advising the media, as a Prime Minister is meant to do”. Imagine him quashing an investigation into corruption claims by firing everyone involved. Now imagine him painting himself the victim of a foreign coup attempt, the phone tapes its evil currency. Imagine that he is believed by millions of people, adored and respected as an invincible leader, come what may.

The above scenario is difficult to imagine because there is a common consensus in Britain that politicians are accountable for their actions and subject to the law. British politicians are rarely revered, and usually in retrospect (Churchill springs to mind). While they are in power, they have a rough time even from their own party. Leadership is not an easy ride.

In Turkey, leadership is the ride of a lifetime – literally. If you manage to convince enough of the population that you are powerful, and that you are on their side, they love you forever. You are exalted, a demi-god with apparently limitless authority, and you want to keep it that way. Of course, it would be an injustice not to mention the millions of Turks who do not subscribe to this form of government. They despair of the politicians currently in power; we saw millions of them during the Gezi protests, and we hear their views passionately expressed in (some) mainstream and social media. Unfortunately, they are not in the majority.

You only have to talk to Erdoğan’s supporters in Turkey to realise the extraordinary power this man has over those whose lives he has made better, those who see him as a personal benefactor. Yes, in the past decade of AKP rule, public services have improved, roads have been built, hospitals modernised. In many countries, these would be seen as much-needed reforms – any mainstream party would put them top of their agenda. In Turkey, they are seen as achievements of such unprecedented magnificence and beneficence that the religious working class will be grateful forever. Turks’ expectations of politicians are so low, unfortunately, that Erdoğan is a miracle-worker. He is “The Grand Master” and he can do no wrong.

I didn’t quite appreciate the strength of these pro-Erdoğan feelings until I tested them myself. For some time after the phone tapes started circulating on the internet, I thought: “People must not have heard them. The tapes are not on the news – it must be that. Otherwise there would be a nationwide outcry.”

So I went with laptop in hand to my local tailor, a devout and intelligent man in his sixties called Yahya, who is a staunch supporter of the AKP. I knew he had not heard the tapes. Our conversation went as follows:

- I’ve got the tapes here – do you want to listen to them?
- I’m not really interested.
- But you could decide for yourself whether they sound fake or not.
- I know they’re fake.
- Really? How?
- That man in America makes them all up!
- Do you mean Fetullah Gülen [Erdoğan’s one-time ally, now adversary]?
- Yes, but I won’t say his name anymore. Not after what he has done.
- OK – but just listen to the tapes and see for yourself.
- Why? Even if I heard these conversations with my own ears, I wouldn’t believe them. Even if I saw him stealing with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it.

This last sentence floored me. How do you argue with a man who trusts his prime minister more than he trusts the evidence of his own eyes and ears? If news channels were permitted to play these tapes (which they’re not), if nothing but these tapes played from morning til night on every news channel in the land, Yahya the tailor would remain unmoved.

His assistant, Mehmet Ali, shed further light on the matter when he entertained the hypothesis that the corruption claims might be true.

“Even if they are true, he will be called to account in the afterlife. It is not for us to judge him, but Allah.”

This kind of view reflects the status of Erdoğan as a demi-god in Turkey, a man who remains above mortal laws, a man whose overt religiosity convinces his followers that he has God on his side. For me, this was a profoundly depressing realisation, and it has made me reassess the future of the country and wonder how long it will be until road-building and personal charisma are not lifelong tickets to power. For the moment, however, they are. Accusations of corruption and authoritarianism may taint Erdoğan’s image abroad, but for many in Turkey, he remains above reproach.

In the words of MC Hammer: “You can’t touch this.”

Mar 14

Ahmet Misbah Demircan, the Pied Piper of Beyoğlu


A deafening AKP campaign cavalcade just passed through my street in Gümüşsuyu, Beyoğlu – a heartland of CHP (opposition) support. Intrigued, I followed it to find a huge crowd of men and women wearing orange AKP scarfs and carrying red carnations following two vans blaring out the campaign song. The AKP incumbent for Beyoglu, Ahmet Misbah Demircan himself led the way, like a silver-haired political Pied Piper, stopping occasionally to throw carnations into the air and pass them to bemused residents and shop keepers.

Footage below. First film shows from afar an enraged resident shouting from his window at the procession – “Stop that ****ing noise!” The next drama is the van getting stuck at a sharp turn.

The second film shows Demircan throwing carnations at a man who fails to catch them, and then going into a shop to pay his personal respects. Lackeys with armfuls of carnations stand at the ready to re-load his arsenal. Someone in the procession asks me why I’m filming and I reassure him that I am merely interested.

This procession shows just how determined the AKP is to win over as many people as possible, even in areas that are unlikely to vote for them. The AKP heartlands in Beyoglu are places like Kasımpaşa and Tophane, not middle class areas like Gümüşsuyu. Extraordinary persistence.



Mar 14

Erdogan Jeopardises Strongman Image

A spectacular testament to hours of shouting at pre-election rallies, the Prime Minister’s voice is now as high as a prepubescent boy’s. This, more than corruption allegations, Syrian jet shootings and Twitter bans, could crush his hopes of a landslide AKP victory in the polls on Sunday:

Or if the clip disappears you can find it here.

Mar 14

Erdogan Takes on 21st Century

Supporters hold a poster of Turkish PM Erdogan during a rally of ruling AK party in Istanbul

Just a week before hotly anticipated municipal elections, Twitter has been banned in Turkey by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister.

Or has it? Three hours after access to the site was blocked at midnight on Thursday Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara, tweeted a smiley face. Five hours later Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister, was tweeting about his upcoming rally.

And most surprisingly of all Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, broke a month-long Twitter absence to denounce the ban. Far from being silenced, tweets from Turkish accounts rose significantly over the weekend, making a mockery of attempts to block the site’s users.

Officially, the ban is a response to Twitter’s refusal to comply with Turkish court orders requesting the removal of unspecified illegal material.

“We will root out Twitter”, Mr Erdogan declared at a rally in Bursa, hours before the site was blocked. “I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of Turkey.”

Instead, we have witnessed impressive technological prowess from the millions of Turkish Twitter users who have managed to avoid the block. So too, we have witnessed the fact that Mr Erdogan is willing to risk international condemnation by placing Turkey in the same camp as North Korea, China and Iran so far as internet freedom is concerned. We have also witnessed a lack of cohesion within the ruling party, in particular, the direct opposition of President Gul to Mr Erdogan’s ban, voiced, appropriately enough, on Twitter.

The strain of a recent scandal is beginning to show. On December 17 an investigation was opened into alleged corruption in the prime minister’s closest circles. News outlets were prevented from publishing some details, but there was frenzied discussion online as there was during the Gezi protests last June. Almost daily, taped phone calls are leaked and dissected on YouTube and Twitter. In one, which Mr Erdogan says is a fabrication, he appears to be telling his son how to hide a large amount of cash. Two weeks ago Mr Erdogan threatened to close YouTube and Facebook This was interpreted as pre-election bluster, designed to bolster the strongman reputation that plays well with the prime minister’s core constituency of conservative, working-class Turks.

When Twitter was blocked on Thursday, social media exploded. Turks are savvier than most when it comes to sidestepping internet restrictions because they have to be. In a country where the mainstream media is often shackled by censorship, the urban, secular politically minded youth use Twitter as a lifeline. Glued to their screens, supremely well informed and lightning-fingered, they were unfazed by the block, swiftly changing their internet provider settings to sidestep it.

Since Thursday, authorities have retaliated by blocking the most popular IP addresses, only for their Twitter-using adversaries to find new alternatives. Watching this is like watching a grandfather taking on his grandson at a computer game – an inevitably pathetic battle of unmatched expertise and agility. It is not so much a question of age but of energy and outlook; Twitter users are typically news-hungry Turks who seek to find out more about their environment, who are comfortable in a forum of opinion and discourse. They innovate and adapt as a matter of course. The AKP, on the other hand, hardly used social media before the Gezi protests last June. Then, at last, they realised the importance of Facebook and Twitter in reaching out to a population of 76 million, but by that time they were already woefully late to the party.

Mr Erdogan has spectacularly miscalculated this fight, succeeding only in fuelling rumour and rancour. Wild hypotheses are flourishing as to why the ban was carried out so suddenly, so close to elections, with no apparent court order – what is Mr Erdogan afraid of? Sex tapes and assassination plots are the favourite theories, but it is an online free-for-all. Ironically, the very gossip and ill-will that the prime minister presumably sought to suppress has multiplied as users delightedly share their speculations on what exactly is going to be leaked in the next week to embarrass the prime minister before the elections.

Desperate measures are a sign that Mr Erdogan faces desperate times. Banning a social media site on the grounds that it contains disputed material is a tinpot move, and most internet users are convinced that an important leak is coming. Whether it comes or not, the ban was an extreme move and it certainly does not look like a vote-winner, although Mr Erdogan has addressed vast rallies of party faithful in recent days and says he is confident of winning against a weak opposition. Turks who use Twitter are unlikely to vote for the AKP. However, the prime minister has alienated swing voters with an action that reeks of oppression.

Mr Erdogan would not have taken a step that spells serious trouble for himself and his party if he did not believe the stakes were high. We do not yet know why he took that view. But Twitter users across Turkey are united in a frenzy of anticipation.

A version of this piece appeared in the 24th March edition of the Financial Times. Photo of AKP rally above from Reuters, by Murad Sezer.

Mar 14

The Twitter Ban: A Personal Protest


On Friday 21st March, the morning after PM Erdogan’s now notorious Twitter ban, I signed up under my own name and started tweeting.

After many months of parasitic Twitter use, during which I read other people’s tweets from a ghost account and refused to wholeheartedly engage in a social medium to which I had an old-fashioned aversion, I am now a fledgling tweeter, proud to be illicitly using the site along with millions of other Turkish Twitter users.

My fogyish dislike of Twitter does not seem important now; I still despair – in principle – of the compulsion to share the inner musings of celebrities as quickly as possible, but that is not the side of Twitter that I see.

In Turkey, Twitter is a vital forum for discovering the news that is often ignored by mainstream news outlets. It is a place where opinions and arguments are shared, challenged, corrected. It is the place where we find what the authorities try to hide from us. It is the very antithesis of trivial chatter in a country which is struggling to make sense of a democratic melt-down.

New account: @AlevScott