The Crisis Boils Over: A Return to Gezi Era Protest

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The last week has been a flood of revelations, back biting and bluster. Tonight, the crisis has boiled over into anti-government protests in major cities, most notably Ankara and Istanbul. Many of the crowd are those who protested six months ago – middle class secular Turks rather than the devious Gulenist plotters or Mossad agents that Erdogan has railed against. Again, the familiar tanks, water canons and rubber bullets have returned, only this time used against people protesting in impressively arctic conditions. It was bound to happen, and yet many pundits, chastened by the broader public’s reaction to Gezi back in June, fear that the protests will only fuel Erdogan’s wild claims that the current corruption scandal is the product of malevolent forces bent on Turkey’s destruction (today he called them “spies”). During Gezi, I talked to people who believed that story sincerely, and I fear they will believe it this time round. Yet corruption charges will be harder for the government to navigate than controversy stemming from a threatened park. The scaremongering required to convince the public that they are of the same importance is impressively high octane.

Erdogan has cleverly created continuity by linking Gezi and the current protests, saying things like: “Those who tried to bring us down with the Gezi protests did not succeed; they won’t succeed this time, either.” His target voters will lap this up, rather chuffed at the thought that Turkey is great enough to engender such dramatic displays of jealousy, and emboldened by the PM’s promise that these plotters won’t succeed. Erdogan has played the part of a brave, beleaguered leader who weathered the storm six months ago, and will weather it yet again – the ultimate comic book hero, with a moustache to match. Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are so common in Turkey that many ordinary people will not be able to see the wood from the trees – whom to believe, those who talk of obscene levels of corruption, hoarded gold and dodgy tenders, or those who talk of foreign spies, plots and “dirty operations”? With so much drama to choose from, so many claims, counter-claims and vested interests, it might be hard to know whom to trust.

Let’s take a quick look at what might worry a moderately well-informed and democratically-inclined person in the PM’s recent statements:

Earlier today, speaking in the province of Sakarya, he said that “the CHP & MHP [the main and junior opposition parties] are contractors for foreign powers”.

A bold claim, but libel is the last thing on anyone’s minds these days.

Turning his attention to the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, who overturned a government decree intended to block the investigation last week, he said: “Who will judge the [Supreme Council]? Do you know who will do it? The people. I would like to judge them, if I had adequate authority.”

He also said that Turkey is entering its own civil war.

Last week in Konya, he complained that the separation of powers in Turkey was holding the government back from achieving what it wants to achieve:

“Bureaucracy blocks our path, or we face the judiciary unexpectedly.”
How refreshingly honest.

Erdogan may be forging ahead with his counter-smear campaign, replacing hundreds of police chiefs, removing prosecutors and doing his damnedest to halt the investigation, but there are cheering signs that the system in place is putting up some resistance. For example, exactly a week ago the government passed a hasty midnight decree that no investigation can proceed without police chiefs informing their superiors about it first. (If this rule had been in place two weeks ago, the now ex-Interior Minister would have been able to stop the investigation, and prevent the arrest of his own son – or at least give him a tip off.) Today, the Supreme Council ruled that this decree is illegal.

This is cheering. It is also cheering that AKP ministers and MPs, part of the “family” of which the Deputy PM boasted last week, have come out saying that the corruption is widespread and happens with the full knowledge of the PM. This is really quite inconvenient for Erdogan, as it doesn’t fit with his foreign plotters rhetoric. When he arrived at Atatürk airport today, he dealt with them as best he could, as cowardly traitors, referring to them as “those who betray us during our journey – those, we will throw out the door.”

Earlier today, my wise and worldly Turkish mother declared that Turks believe any conspiracy theory that happens to suit them and their personal interests. So, in the event that the lira continues to plunge beyond its current all-time low of 2.1531 to the dollar and affects the pockets of the ordinary Turk (we’re not talking those with Swiss bank accounts), perhaps they will tend towards the corruption theories after all, and Erdogan will be addressing only the most devout of his followers when he talks of nasty foreign plots and jealous powers. Perhaps he will call early elections, and if he does it is open to debate whether he would gain a majority. These are exciting times.