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:
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.
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
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.
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.
In January, the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan arrived to great fanfare in Brussels to promote Turkey’s EU accession bid. After a five-year hiatus, he was there to assure the EU of Turkey’s commitment to democratic principles, such as the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers. On the same day, 96 Turkish judges and prosecutors were quietly “reassigned” from key positions, joining the thousands of police chiefs removed after the recent investigation into high-level corruption in Erdoğan’s closest circles. Two weeks later, the Turkish parliament passed a bill dramatically restricting internet freedom and privacy, despite widespread street protests and international condemnation. The bill has been widely viewed as an attempt to stop leaked phone recordings of the prime minister’s incriminating conversations with business associates circulating online.
Turkey’s rapid spiral into unashamed tinpot dictatorship has received a mixed EU response. During Erdoğan’s Brussels visit, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy professed himself “confident” that Turkey would address the EU’s concerns over its meddling with judicial powers and even added a paternal note of encouragement: “We know how challenging some of the issues are that Turkey is now confronting, but I want to state very clearly that Turkey is not alone in this, and we stand ready to support you.”
If it were not for the fact that Brussels officials rarely jest, one might have suspected Van Rompuy of heavy sarcasm. Turkey needs very little help in its particular method of confronting “challenging issues”; its human and civil rights record, never pristine, has been deteriorating steadily since the Gezi Park protests of last June. No one believes that Turkey’s EU accession is forthcoming, although it is diplomatically correct to pretend it is. Erdoğan, despite the sham Brussels trip, seems increasingly unenthusiastic about the idea. In November 2013, at a public meeting with President Putin in St Petersburg, he declared that if Turkey were allowed full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (an alliance involving China, Russia and Central Asian states), he would be “saved the trouble” of continuing EU accession talks. On the opening day of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin pronounced Turkey “Russia’s primary partner”, strengthening the impression of a power couple enjoying a heady romance. So why the EU charade?
Aspiring to the EU has been useful for Turkey. First, it receives €700 million a year as an accession state. Second, and more importantly, the accession criteria demanded by the EU have served as useful grounds to change the Turkish balance of power. When the comically-named Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, the military was a real threat to any government (especially theirs), and the EU supported the AKP’s efforts to minimise its political power through constitutional amendments. Now that the AKP has secured its power, it arguably needs the EU far less than before. It would not be wise to say that directly, however, hence the token Brussels visit.
The EU’s hollow paternalism towards Turkey is interspersed with occasional notes of censure, an awkward juggling act that just about keeps up the charade of Turkey joining the EU at some mythical future date. Last month Erdoğan received a somewhat chilly reception in Berlin from Angela Merkel, who was openly sceptical about Turkey ever achieving full EU membership; rather surprisingly, however, she did suggest opening new chapters for accession talks. The EU has traditionally opened chapters as a form of carrot-like encouragement, an attempt to coax Ankara into cleaning up its act. Once upon a time, it might have worked, but one look at Turkey today should be enough to convince anyone that drastic changes are needed before serious talks resume. The situation is getting embarrassing for both sides; unfortunately Erdoğan seems immune to embarrassment in these stricken times.
This article was originally published in Standpoint Magazine’s March edition:
The past few weeks in Turkey have been an absurdist’s lesson in how to create a tin pot state. Citizens have watched, appalled, as a problematic but working republic comes under ever-tighter, ever more blatant governmental control. Recently, this control extended to a hastily-passed Parliamentary bill to limit internet freedom under the guise of ensuring privacy. War-weary protesters took to the streets once again, only to be denounced by the Prime Minister as “the porn lobby” and blasted with water cannons. The resulting tableau: police firing water and tear gas into uptown restaurants as the Prime Minister jokes with President Putin at the Sochi games, the lira plummets and foreign investors turn tail while thousands of Syrian refugees pour in across the border.
For those who live here, Turkey’s topsy-turvy world is mentally and emotionally exhausting to process. Every day brings news more dramatic than yesterday’s, and we are no longer to surprised to hear of deportations, arrests, grotesque corruption details, media blocks – even parliamentary fisticuffs.
Yet I cannot help but appreciate the absurdity of it all; it is the only way to keep cheerful, and to keep a sense of proportion. My Turkish friends are visibly depressed, some are seriously contemplating emigration, others are protesting furiously on the streets, but there is a modicum of solace in treating the whole thing as a surreal invention along the lines of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”, or perhaps Aristophanes’ “Cloud Cuckoo Land”. Paradoxically, to make sense of Turkey today we are obliged to treat it as a work of fiction.
Firmly in centre stage is the Red Queen/Sultan, bellowing “ALL ways are MY ways!” as he personally orders the deportation of foreign journalists for tweeting anti-government news stories. “Twitter? A bed of lies!” he thunders to his 4 million Twitter followers, as he orders his friends to buy up newspapers. In the capital, Ankara, 6,000 young government pawns are trained in the delicate art of trolling anti-government posts on social media.
“What’s that?” demands the Red Sultan. “Someone’s leaked my phone conversations? The ones where I order the owner of a popular news channel to cut an opposition member’s speech mid-broadcast, and arrange the purchase of major newspapers? Off with their heads!!”
The Mad Hatter’s tea party committee obediently announces that all newspapers and TV stations are now banned from mentioning these conversations. A bill is passed in Parliament, allowing authorities to shut down any webpage with “inappropriate content” within four hours, and to keep track of internet users’ personal details. YouTube is nonetheless full of the taped conversations, which disappear and reappear again within minutes like a game of Hunt the Jabberwock.
The Red Sultan is majestically sanguine: “Turkey’s internet is freer than any EU country’s internet. We are making it safe. And more free.”
There are murmurs of dissent on the chessboard, and some white pawns dare to arrange themselves in clumps of two or three to voice their querulous reproach. “Stop the pawn lobby!” roars the Red Sultan, and strikes them off the board. White knights and bishops bravely square up to their red counterparts in Parliament, and are drop-kicked in the head by a rogue red rook. One is struck by a flying iPad, and another, who looks like he might be doing rather well, has his assets frozen and debts broadcast to the world as he is shunted off his square. Meanwhile, a mystic caterpillar-cleric sits on a far-off leaf across the Atlantic, puffing thoughtfully and addressing his millions of supporters in dense language shrouded in smoke…
This is Turkey. It defies both logic and the law. It is an absurd and tragic place. One particular phrase comes back to me: “Even if we tried, we couldn’t ruin the economy – it’s that strong.” Magnificently assured, the Red Sultan’s new economy minister could come to regret these words… And then the whole crazy world will come crashing down like a shattered looking-glass.