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

Mar 14

Unlikely Hero of the Corruption Scandal


A rare piece of welcome news amid the torrid filth of corruption claims: a new tape has been leaked allegedly recording the conversation between Iranian-Azeri businessman Reza Zarrab (already heavily implicated in the corruption scandal for offering vast bribes to senior Turkish ministers for dodgy gold transfers) and his aide, Rüçan Bayar. During the conversation, Zarrab complains that his attempts to bribe a Turkish customs official with repeated offers of cash have fallen on deaf ears. This humble official – now identified as Teoman Çoşkun Dudak, deputy director of an Istanbul customs house – apparently refused the bribes, declaring himself a state official and giving the billionaire tycoon short shrift.

Dudak, who was effectively exiled to a new posting in the south-eastern city of Gaziantep after refusing the bribe, has emerged as a hero on social media (see photo above).

A sensible step for all or any of the opposition parties would be to claim this upstanding man as their poster boy and tout him as the antidote to governmental greed.

Incidentally, Reza Zarrab has also been (allegedly) caught on tape generously paying 352,000 lira for an AKP poll. His Azeri accent is inconveniently clear in the version I listened to.

Mar 14

Why Protests Are Getting Personal

Protesters carrying loaves of bread in support of Gezi victim Berkin Elvan and his family

On Tuesday this week, the familiar sounds and smells of street protests erupted yet again in streets and campuses across Turkey. The protests marked the death of 15 year old Berkin Elvan, who had been in a coma since June when he was shot in the head by a tear gas canister in Istanbul. The following day, after hours of peaceful protest on the streets of Istanbul following Elvan’s funeral, riot police began firing tear gas canisters on tens of thousands of people protesting a boy killed by a tear gas canister.

Already, two people have died in these new clashes – 30 year old policeman, Ahmet Küçüktağ, who suffered a heart attack after inhaling tear gas and 22 year old Burak Karamanoğlu, rumoured to be part of a group of pro-government activists involved in a fight with far-left activists during the protests. Meanwhile, politicians bicker about the coming elections and accuse each other (rightly) of manipulating voters by siding strategically with the various dead. This is the ugly side of Turkey’s so-called democracy.

As usual, anger has marked the protests – anger that nothing has been done to find or punish the police that shot the canister at a 15 year old boy buying bread for his family. Anger that tear gas was fired into the mouth of the hospital where Elvan died, merely because people were gathered there. Anger that his death has not received recognition where it should. After Elvan’s death yesterday, his anguished mother emerged from the hospital and shouted: “God did not take my son. [Turkish PM] Erdogan did.” The last part of this sentence was omitted with an awkward pause by an anchor who was reporting Elvan’s death on national news channel NTV.

Around 2 million people marched on Wednesday across the country, and over 400 people were arrested, many of them high school and university students in Ankara. As Istanbul and Ankara in particular descend into the familiar Gezi-era turmoil of arrests, injuries and death, Erodgan appeared on television handing out flowers at a political rally in Mardin, south eastern Turkey. Turkish opposition leaders, the President Abdullah Gül and even the America-based cleric Fetullah Gülen sent condolences to Elvan’s family on Tuesday and many members of the opposition chose to attend his funeral. From Erdogan, there had been not a word about Elvan’s death or the protests that followed until he declared on Thursday that the protests “would not negatively affect the economy”. Yesterday, he insinuated that the (then) 14 year old Berkin Elvan was involved in a terrorist group and defended the police who had shot the tear gas canister at him in June, dismissing his parents’ story that he had gone out to buy bread as “lies”. Conversely, he has called for sympathy for the two men who have died in the protests of the last few days.

It is deeply worrying that politicians have used Elvan’s death, and the deaths of those that followed him his week, as political tools, but not surprising given the corruption scandal-fuelled, pre-election tension ratcheting up by the day (municipal elections will be held on March 30th). On Wednesday, an MP from the ruling AKP party speculated on Twitter that Elvan’s life support machine was switched off on purpose to create chaos before the elections, prompting a direct rebuttal from the hospital in question. Another AKP MP directly blamed Elvan’s parents for his death because they let him out to buy bread during the protests. While mourners attended Elvan’s funeral, ex-EU minister Egeman Bağış tweeted that those who opposed the government were “necrophiles” (he later erased this tweet after an outcry). Finally, it seems to be the general consensus among MPs of the ruling party that this one boy’s death is causing an unnecessary ruckus considering the situation in Syria.

The grotesque response of certain Turkish politicians does not need spelling out. What is more worrying, and less painfully obvious, is the fact that the Prime Minister might well profit from the protests caused by this innocent teenager’s death. During the Gezi protests last year, Erdogan used the atmosphere of fear to polarise the Turkish public, to paint protesters as dangerous troublemakers and to galvanise his voting base into a frenzy of loyalty. Conspiracy theories are common fodder in Turkey, and the sad truth is that many of those created today will be widely believed tomorrow. An AKP MP claiming that Elvan’s life support was turned off strategically close to elections is not only not publicly vilified as he should be – he is given credence.

This is what we have in Turkey – unaccountable people in power, elected in an atmosphere of confusion and fear. While no police have been held accountable for Elvan’s death in the past nine months, thousands of police have been “relocated” after members of Erdogan’s circles were investigated for corruption in December. Retribution is selective and strategic, and that is just one of the many reasons why Turkey is a very undemocratic place right now.