Wednesday, November 1, 2017

'Be Careful': If You're Visiting Turkey, Don't Provoke the State*

Haaretz: "If Turkey hadn't directly provoked the U.S., reports of its human rights violations would be collecting dust. Now, with red lines being crossed and Americans targeted, Congress is upping the ante."

It's been more than two weeks since the United States suspended the issuing of all non-immigrant visas in Turkey, halting the travel to the U.S. of thousands of Turkish citizens. Tit-for-tat, Turkey announced it would stop issuing e-visas and airport visas to U.S. citizens arriving directly from U.S. destinations.

American sanctions on Turkey come as Turkish citizens working at the U.S. consular offices in Ankara have been targeted by the Turkish government’s expanding purge: two consular workers have so far been detained.

U.S. visa sanctions sent shock waves through Turkey, especially for those accustomed to frequent travel to the U.S. over the last decade. Turkish Airlines’ extensive U.S. flight schedule is testament to the Turkish demand for interconnectivity with the U.S. Thousands have had their plans put on hold or cancelled altogether.

Thus far, the damage has been limited. Since U.S. visas often have a ten-year expiration date, many still have no problem getting through; and, for those desperate to get to a U.S. destination without a current visa, they can also apply through a third country - though that’s certainly a costly and time-consuming process.  

Unlike in Turkey, in the U.S., the visa suspensions have barely made the headlines, and Turkey’s reciprocal act - while in line with diplomatic protocol - shortsightedly hurts its own interests far more. Turkish Airlines has reported a 45 percent drop in reservations from Turkey to the U.S.

But even if the visa issue hasn’t made much impact newswise for many Americans, Turkey’s image has already hit rock bottom, thanks to other events that have indeed made a media impact, not least Erdogan’s intemperate language towards the U.S., and the whole sorry episode of his presidential guards who beat up protestors in D.C. 

The complimentary image of Turkey I used to hear described in America has been replaced by one dominant take: Turkey as an authoritarian state. And, as the political situation in the country has worsened, the many students, colleagues and friends who once streamed to Turkey, slowly stopped going.

Now, those friends and colleagues tell me before I go there to visit: "Be careful."
Back in 2015-2016, "be careful" referred to one’s personal safety.

During those years, Turkey was struck by ISIS and PKK terror, one bomb coming a bit too close for comfort, hundreds of yards from a student group I was leading last in early 2016. Turkey has been able to bring back a sense of security to its streets.

However, following the 2016 attempted coup and the ensuing State of Emergency, which has led to the arrest of tens of  thousands, "be careful" has become a wider warning: "Beware of protests", and "beware of protesting". Americans saw firsthand how protesters in Washington D.C. were attacked by Erdogan’s guards.

It would be equally relevant to add further warnings to visitors: "Beware of journalism", after Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak was sentenced to two years in jail in absentia for an article she wrote that the government condemned as "terrorist propaganda".

And they also could add "beware of human rights activism", in relation to the members of Amnesty International, who were released last night on bail after spending almost 100 days in jail (Turkey’s Amnesty chairperson, Taner Kilic, is still in custody).

And "beware of working with NGOs of any kind", after the recent arrest of Osman Kavala, who has played a key role in promoting civil society and international art projects.

And "beware of just being an American who can be used as a hostage", after U.S. media coverage of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who’s been held for over a year on dubious espionage charges, went up a gear since fears were raised that Brunson is being used as a bargaining chip by Turkey. That was after Erdogan hinted that he could be exchanged for Fetullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric wanted in Turkey for allegedly masterminding the coup.   

The sad reality is if Turkey had minded the diplomatic niceties and worked to stay off the radar of the U.S. and had avoided unnecessary conflict, most of the overflowing and documented human rights violations in Turkey would have remained tucked away in reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

How many Americans realize (or care) that the co-chairs of the third largest political party, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag of the mostly Kurdish HDP, are behind bars, together with a long list of other MPs from the same party, effectively silencing the opposition?

As news of Turkey’s human rights violations become more mainstream, there is a growing bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress that Turkey has crossed all democratic and rule of law red lines.

Despite concerted attempts by Turkey to sideline Congress and State Department officials, Erdogan’s attempts to carry out a direct line of communication with U.S. president Donald Trump, for now, at least, seems to have failed as a strategy.

Just yesterday, U.S. senators sent a bipartisan letter to President Trump expressing their grave concern over the "continuing erosion of human rights and decline of democratic values in Turkey."

As Turkey repivots closer to Russia, and as more voices arise in the U.S. calling to rethink the historic strategic relations between the two countries, Turkey is on track to fatally tarnish its image in the United States, risking not only a key ally but also the chance of Turkey once again becoming a magnet for American investment and support. America is also paying a price, absorbing varied geopolitical losses as Turkey retreats.

This article appeared in Haaretz on October 30,2017. Click here for the link

'This Is 1940s Germany': Can Turkey's Revitalized anti-Erdogan Opposition Prevail?*

** This article is from July 2017 and was written in wake of the masive Justice rally held by the CHP in Istanbul. 

Haaretz: "This week, one million people in Istanbul demanded civil rights, law and justice. As Erdogan's purges intensify, can a fragmented opposition sustain that momentum?"

"This is the era of dictatorship. This is the era of 1940s Germany."

Such explicit fighting talk directed against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is rare these days in Turkey, not least in the heart of Istanbul. But they were the words spoken days ago by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, of the mostly secular center-left CHP party, at a huge rally rounding off a 25 day march through Turkey aimed at strengthening the democractic spirit in the country which has been under intensified assault for a year.

A year go, following the July 15 failed coup attempt, Turkey’s three main parties (excluding the mostly Kurdish leftist HDP party) came together at a massive rally held in Istanbul’s Yenikapi neighborhood. For Erdogan, having nationalist MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, and the main opposition leader, Kilicdaroglu, join the rally, together with his AKP party, seemed liked an impossible feat. Following the rally, a new term emerged on the Turkish political scene to describe this show of unusual unity: the "Spirit of Yenikapi."

However, this spirit was short-lived. With the government moving full steam ahead with its extensive purge, a clampdown that includes the arrest of critics of the government, such as journalists, academics and Members of Parliament, what seemed to some like a new dawn for Turkey, quickly turned into a nightmare for tens of thousands of people who have found themselves behind bars, not to mention the far greater numbers of family members affected.  

Fast forward a year. Turkey’s second massive rally, termed the “Justice” rally, held in Maltepe (also in Istanbul), highlighted the failed spirit of Yenikapi.  At this rally, over a million people joined Kilicdaroglu to chant in unison three words: Hak, Hukuk and Adalet: Rights, Law and Justice.

Never has Turkey seen such a huge and blatantly anti-Erdogan rally, nor has it seen Kilicdaroglu perform with such sharp, high caliber language to lash out at Erdogan, accusing him of implementing autocratic rule and using the attempted coup to enact a civil coup through the State of Emergency, introduced five days after, which has enabled the ongoing mass purges and arrests.

So how did Kilicdaroglu succeed in transforming himself from a predictable - and at times obedient - opposition leader to a level of popularity unprecedented since becoming party head in 2010?

The answer is by marching over 400 kilometers over 25 days from Ankara to Istanbul, and the massive rally for which he set the agenda. On the march he endured mountainous steep climbs, pouring rain, and burning summer heat, but endeared himself to many of those he passed. It not only didn’t exhaust the modest 69-year old politician, but he positively gained momentum with each passing step.  

It wasn’t only admiration for his determination that boosted Kilicdaroglu’s success. The march functioned as a process of renewal; by removing himself from Ankara’s petty politics and parliamentary hallways, he was no longer a secondary figure, trailing behind Erdogan, but transformed into a real leader.

Over 25 days even groups who were initially reluctant joined in. Their differences with the CHP and its secular and Kemalist legacy quickly dissipated once it was made clear that no party or organization would march with their own banners. The march had one title and one title alone: justice for all those who have been wrongly sentenced to prison, serving time waiting for trials, or fired from their jobs.

So, where from here? Will the massive rally in Maltepe transform into a new movement for the return of law and an independent judiciary?

In the short term, no change is in sight, and the purges and arrests will continue. What better proof of this than this week’s arrest of Bogazici University professor Koray Caliskan, on charges of possible links to the Gulen movement (a claim that seems absurd on the surface, not only due to his past leftist politics but also due to his ties to the CHP).

Whether there’ll be a longer term effect depends mostly on if Kilicdaroglu can convince his party to keep building coalitions, to push beyond his electoral ceiling of around 25-30%. However, the time is ripe for this approach. If the opposition learned anything from last April’s constitutional referendum, that is only by finding common ground and rising above their differences can they defy the odds; true, the opposition lost the referendum, however the margin of Erdogan’s victory was small, and the opposition took all the major urban arenas, including Istanbul, once an Erdogan stronghold. Elections are due in 2019.

The CHP will need to reach out to conservative and more right-leaning voters, while continuing to develop a dialogue with new emerging voices, such as with Meral Aksener, who is set on establishing a new party in the near future together with other defectors from the ailing MHP. As for the Kurds, few expect Kilicdaroglu to get their votes, but the HDP’s participation in the march was a positive step forward; however, without a transformative initiative to end years of violence, it is highly unlikely the CHP can reach the level of optimism needed to make real change, something once offered by Erdogan and the AKP.

So, for now, it is hard to declare that the Maltepe Justice rally was a turning point, and better to echo Kilicdaroglu’s own words: that July 9, 2017 was only the beginning of a movement. For now, the spirt of Maltepe is very real; whether it awaits the same fate as the 2016 spirit of Yenikapi remains to be seen. Only time will tell, but the almost impossible weight of Turkey’s future is riding on it.  

**This article appeared in Haaretz on July 12, 2017. Click here for the link


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Post Turkish Referendum Analysis: Its not Yet Game Over*

Haaretz: "It's too early to declare the Turkish Republic dead and buried. The president's popularity has maxed out at 50 percent of the population, and the anti-Erdogan opposition won't be silenced"

Walking the streets of Istanbul just a week before the country’s fateful referendum, from any and every point I could see the larger-than-life faces of the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or his Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, trying to convince voters to get out and vote “Yes,” for a ‘better’ Turkey. That entirely disproportionate number of “Yes” campaign posters filled the streets of even overwhelmingly anti-AKP neighborhoods; even there very few posters could be seen pushing a “No” vote.  

Nevertheless, I sensed hope among many “No,” voters, who believed that in the end, it was the Turkish people who would decide the fate of the referendum and not posters. Further, what might have appeared to some as a lack of organization among the “No” camp, was actually a strategy; the secular-CHP, the smaller, mostly Kurdish, HDP, and other fringe parties and civil organizations, maintained a significant measure of autonomy, presenting their case to their own constituencies, in place of opting for a unified campaign. Solidifying each voting bloc rather than attempting a one-size fits all campaign.

But it wasn’t only the Yes vote takeover of the public space that constituted an unfair playing field. The whole  referendum process itself took place under a State of Emergency. While the government had a free hand to do what it wanted, some of the strongest voices in the “No” camp were severely constrained: some are sitting in prison, such as the co-chairs of the HDP party, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, together with government critics, not least a slew of journalists, such as Ahmet Sik and Kadri Gursel. 

While the Turkish government claimed foul play in Europe, when some European leaders blocked Turkish officials from campaigning on European soil, ‘No’ campaigners ironically faced bans within Turkey itself. The Ankara rally of Meral Aksener, the rising voice among Turkey’s nationalists, was cancelled by the local authorities unwilling to provide her security. Aksener was not just aiming her opposition at Erdogan, but also her former party head, the nationalist MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, who repelled many party members with his support for Erdogan, seen as a desperate tactical attempt to hold on to power.  

Another ‘No’ campaigner, Tuna Beklevic, was prevented from holding rallies on the grounds that his party hadn’t been officially recognized, despite fulfilling all the requirements. Beklevic persevered, visiting numerous cities and using Facebook to hold a virtual rally which attracted almost 70,000 viewers.

Well, the government ended up with a huge surprise last Sunday when - despite some polls predicting an easy victory for them - the opposite occurred. The “No” camp gave Erdogan, and his weak nationalist ally, Devlet Bahceli, a run for their money, with Turkey’s three major cities, Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir (and many other urban centers) going to the “No” camp. Even if the “Yes,” camp won on bare numbers, the outcome of 51.41 percent to 48.59 percent was achieved only among serious concerns of mass voter fraud.

Since the referendum results were released, protesters have taken to the streets across Turkey demanding the Supreme Election Council explain its last minute acceptance of over a million “non-stamped ballots,” and address a long list of documented irregularities. However, the Council has flatly rejected their call, strengthening fears that it too has all but become a government mouthpiece. Unfortunately, the “No” camp has little power to enforce its demands and its attempts to bring it to the Constitutional Court will have a slim chance at best to produce results. However, its persistence stains the legitimacy Erdogan so longs for.  

So where from here? Some analysts have gone so far as to declare the end of the Turkish Republic, reiterating much of their pre-referendum coverage, which characterized the vote as a zero-sum game of dictatorship versus democracy.  

This dichotomy ignores the fact that even if the “No” camp had won the referendum, under the current State of Emergency, Erdogan and his AKP party which has a strong grip over Turkey’s bureaucracy and government offices, would continue to rule solely (and oppressively if they choose to do so) with or without a referendum victory.  

This dichotomy is also problematic due to the fact it transforms the AKP supporters into one unified group, and that their voting “Yes” is a confirmation of their support for a full-blown dictatorship. Admittedly, there are strong political and security arguments why someone might support the constitutional changes. However, in the current political atmosphere, the vote could only polarize the electorate.

On the flip side, this dichotomy robs the multiple oppositions of any agency whatsoever, as if their strong resistance to Erdogan is completely inept and that they are doomed to live under a fascist dictatorship, in which the only hope for them is leaving their homeland.

So, no, it is not game-over for those who oppose Erdogan. Yesterday’s Erdogan is no different than today’s Erdogan, save for the fact that he has received a strong message that, at least for now, his popularity has dwindled and that his popularity has maxed out at not much more than 50 percent of the population. This is not likely to change in the near future, and if Erdogan does make note of the dynamic changes within the Turkish electorate, he might even lose his bid for presidency in the 2019 elections, never having the chance to rule with super-presidential powers accorded to him in the referendum.

For the opposition, the arrests of protesters taking part in post-referendum protests, with one even being charged with “delegitimizing the “Yes” victory", the referendum is not a turning point but rather a continuation of “more of the same.” The victory of capturing Istanbul, where almost 25 percent of the overall Turkish population resides, together with the belief that the vote was stolen, has emboldened them for now, showing that they are very much alive. True, this most likely will not continue, in which case, silent resistance to Erdogan’s power will return, as the risk of arrest outweighs the urge to take to the streets.

Like Erdogan, who needs to reassess his base, the opposition groups need to as well. Will Meral Aksener be able to form a successful party that will replace Bahceli’s MHP, providing a new path for the nationalist opposition? Will a center-right party emerge from former AKP members challenging Erdogan? Will the secular CHP be able to reach out to new groups, create fronts, which will be able to break their normal 25-27 percent of the overall vote in parliamentary elections? Will these parties create a dynamic where the mostly Kurdish leftist HDP can remain a relevant party in light of the mass arrests that have taken place during the last almost two years? These questions are just a few of many pressing questions that could prove a challenge to Erdogan and his AKP party in the future. 

It is for these reasons that the referendum victory of the AKP should not be seen as a turning point but rather a continuation of the standoff between Erdogan’s AKP and different oppositional forces, one that unfortunately promises more instability, a continued sluggish economy, and frustration among those who do not see eye-to-eye with Erdogan and his hard-core supporters.

Nevertheless, one only need to look at Turkey’s shaky history to understand that just as its jails have revolving doors, new political systems, such as the post-referendum constitutional changes, can also be discarded over time. While many can predict what Turkey might look like in two years, what it might look like in a decade is still very unclear. While the path and determination of Erdogan is clear, the opposition could splinter further while the jockeying continues for its leadership, which may result in a force weakened even further and incapable of any real challenge to the newly empowered president.

This article appeared in Haaretz on April 24, 2017, under the longer title of: Wounded but Alive: It's Not Yet Game Over for Turkey's Democracy - or Its Resistance. Click here for the link. 




























*Wounded but Alive: It's Not Yet Game Over for Turkey's Democracy - or Its Resistance

Friday, March 24, 2017

Three Days in Lima Peru: A Photographic Journey*

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to accompany the Brooklyn College debate team to Peru. While Lima never topped the list of places I thought I'd visit one day, I have wanted to explore Latin America for sometime, so learning that I would be going there came as a nice surprise.

Lima's history is actually quite relevant to one of my classes, topping a section of my Shaping of the Modern World class. Therefore, once I learned I was going to go there, I was especially excited to have the chance to see the city up close, and to discover its rich history. Just last year, I was able to go to Dakar, Senegal, and even my short trip there allowed me to understand aspects of West Africa that I could never learn in a history book. Just like Senegal, by visiting I will now be able to teach it better.     

So, what happens when "@IstanbulTelAviv" (my twitter handle) goes to Lima? Answer: an amazing trip full of exploration, education, and taste for more! On this trip, I also took with me my Sony Alpha full frame, A7ii, and a 50mm Rokinon 1.4-16 lens. So, here are 16 photos of Lima that pretty much explain the exciting days I had there: 

The first question after I arrived was "where am I?," since it looked awfully familiar. Well, I stayed in Miraflores, an upscale neigborhood in Lima, which reminded me of a mix of Etiler or Suadiye (Istanbul) and Herzliya Pituah (Northern Tel Aviv). However, the main center of Miraflores was actually much more of a copy of Tel Aviv's Sderot Rothschild, with the pedestrian walkway shaded by trees surrounded by traffic on both sides. 


Image may contain: tree and outdoor
Av. Jose Pardo, Miraflores, Lima. 

From the above walkway, I hit the main square in Miraflores, right next to Kennedy Park, which is filled with restaurants and a department store. It was a Sunday, and the municipality had closed a main road to car traffic opening it to bicycles and skateboarders. This street would eventually lead me to the colonial quarters of the Lima. Following my google maps, I ventured along, Av. Arequipa, and walked for almost 3-4 miles, admittedly a mistake since I had no idea it would take me that long to get to the "sights" I had planned to see. However, on the way, I enjoyed the architecture and the atmosphere. I also ventured off on some of the side streets. In the end, one discovers a city by walking. And, this is what I did! 


A side street off the main Arequipa


After a few hours I finally reached Parque de la Exposición, where I wanted to visit the Art Museum. The park was originally opened in 1872 for the Lima International Exhibition.  Even if it was a park that seems that it had better days in the past, it was still filled with families, and plenty of young lovers. Upon entering I came across a crowd watching a singer and two dancers. A nice surprise, and the shade came in real handy. By then it was about 30c/86f. 


A break from the heat and some culture; Parque de la Exposición

From here I went to the Museum of Art of Lima, known by the acronym, MALI.  According to its website, the museum traces: "3,000 years of history from the earliest Andean civilizations until modern times. Known as the Palacio de la Exposición, the building that is now home to the museum is located at the entrance to the Lima’s historic center and is one of the earliest and most important works built using the new technique of cast-iron construction."

One of the many figurines found in the ancient section of the museum

In addition to the beautiful MALI museum, the park is filled with different types of architecture, which were built especially for the above-mentioned 1870s International Exhibition, such as the "Byzantine Pavillion," seen below.

Families and balloons-A beautiful Day in the Park

Once passing the park, I continued on and reached the historic colonial center of Lima, and it was as beautiful as I imagined. However, I found a side shop to sit down and relax, where they sell different fresh juices and snacks. After a cold mix of bananas and oranges, I was ready to move on.


One of the many small stores one can grab a fresh glass of mixed fruit juice

From here I continued crossing historic squares and finally reached the Main Square of Lima, the Plaza Mayor de Lima. Here I experienced the heavy Spanish influence, with locals mixing among the many tourists.

One of the many beautiful fountains in Lima

Here there were numerous of pedestrians avenues, where I was able to forget myself in the crowds; by this time I was dead tired (well I did literally cross a huge part of Lima) and was thinking about going home. 

Crowds of people walk just beyond the Mayor Plaza de Lima

However, before I could blink, I had already walked past the colonial architecture only to cross into a new sphere, a view of the Cerro San Cristobal, and view of the colorfully painted slums that hugged the huge hill, which serves as a lookout point for all of Lima. However, I opted out on venturing any farther. My day was done, or was it?


These waters coming from the Andes would turn into floods in just days. Cerro San Cristobal. 

The day was coming to an end, and as I was making my way back to the main square I took refuge in one of many churches for a few minutes, and then was back on my way. Before I knew it, there was a loud marching band, that bid farewell to me as I made my way back to the hotel. However, after walking the whole day for easily over 5 miles/11 kilometers, I hopped in a cab and made my way back to the beautiful Miraflores. What a day I had! 

A dance group on  a street in Lima, part of a festival of folklore put on by its municipality


The next day, right about dusk, I ventured out to the neighborhood of Barranc0, on about a two mile walk from Miraflores. What started off as a cool walk through a trendy neighborhood, ended up not so nice, with me walking along a traffic filled highway. However, after over an hour of following my google maps, I finally reached Barranco, what was described to me as the "Bohemian" neighborhood (equivalent to NYC's Williamsburg, Tel Aviv's Florentin, Istanbul's Cihangir, and Beirut's Mar Mikhail, or a microscopic Berlin). In the end, it was well worth the walk.  

Walking on Av. Almte Miguel Grau one can come across amazing wall murals, including by famed street artist Jade Rivera. Barranco district, Lima Peru.


I was so amazed by the wall murals and street art that I almost forgot the reason I came to Barranco, which was to see Lima's Bridge of Sighs, Puente de los Suspiros, built in the late 19th century. Both on the level of the bridge, and the small path under it, which leads to the Pacific Ocean, is home to small narrow alleyways, lined with small quaint restaurants. 


Lima's Bridge of Sighs, Puente de los Suspiros. Restaurants, bars, and plenty of people just hanging out.

From Barranco, I hopped on a "dollar bus" that was going back to Miraflores. Living in Turkey for years, I am use to hopping on this type of a transportation (Turkish: Dolmuş). It basically is a van or a small bus that follows bus lines quite closely but picks and drops people off often not at a stop, but the closest place one needs to get off or on. In fact, in Brooklyn, anyone that lives on Flatbush are familiar with the same type of transportation, where it is referred it to as a "dollar van."

Testing out my new Rokinon lens' bokeh on a Peruvian Dolmuş

Hopping on the dolmuş was not a bad idea. Before I knew it I was discovering a different way back to Miraflores, and suddenly hopped off when I passed the luxury mall, Larcomar, built on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. 


Don't like malls? Still, Larcomar is a must see,a beautiful view of Lima's coastline

The cliffs of Lima make it difficult to get down to its beaches, however they make for a stunning view!

From either way you look, the cliffs of Lima provide a stunning view
  
The last morning, before I left Lima, I had one more place on my to do list, and that was to see the ancient city of Huaca Pucllana, a city that was found by the Lima peoples between 200-700 AD. This pyramid that is made out of clay and adobe provides an excellent portrait of what Lima was hundreds of years before the Spanish arrived. Indeed, a spectacular site, which one day will be integrated into my Shaping of the Modern World class.

One of the sides of what is left from this ancient pyramid

I left Peru after five days (three days touring, the rest stuck in the hotel working on an academic article on Ottoman Palestine!) with a taste of I want more, not only of its history and culture, but also its mouthwatering foods and dishes. Hopefully, one day I will return, but if not, these photos will help me remember how great this short trip turned out to be. So, until them, chau! 


*Like the photography? Follow me on instagram @louisfishman; or on twitter at @istanbultelaviv

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Cultural, Political and Intellectual Hollowing Out of Turkey*

Haaretz: "The delegitimization, if not criminalization, of any opposition – political, media or cultural – by Turkey's ruling party coincides with a crucial referendum on expanding presidential power even further."

It has been just over a week since the police clashed with Ankara University students and teachers who were protesting the latest country-wide purge of 330 academics. In this round of expulsions, Ankara University was hit particularly hard: 72 academics were removed, in effect strangling its prestigious School of Political Science. Such protests are quite rare nowadays: Turkey’s State of Emergency, declared following the July 2016 Coup attempt and renewed twice since, affords the government the use of stringent measures against any protesters.

Only miles away from the protests, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, signed off on a controversial parliamentary bill that will go to a referendum on April 16. The bill, if passed by 50% of the Turkish public, will inaugurate a presidential political system. Among the changes, Turkey will no longer have a prime minister, the president will be able to appoint ministers, dissolve parliament, and also have the right to declare a State of Emergency. Armed with a ‘Yes’ vote, Erdogan could theoretically remain in power until 2029. Essentially, the new system would legitimize Erdogan’s already de-facto unitary hold on power, for the long term.

The holding of the referendum comes at a time when it’s clearer than ever that, in parallel to the AKP’s desire to weaken parliamentary power, the purges are weakening the explicit or incipient oppositional power of Turkish civil society.

The academics and others being arrested or sanctioned may be staunch critics of the government, but their removal cannot be seen in terms of the anti-Gulen narrative pushed by the government since the coup. A large proportion of the academics fired in recent purges were signatories of the pro-peace petition signed over a year ago. In other words, many of those purged have no connection at all with the Gulen movement accused of carrying out the coup, and certainly, signing a pro-peace petition cannot be parsed as a profession of support for the Kurdish PKK terrorist organization. 

Indeed, the Gulen movement had been deemed by the Turkish government as a terrorist organization, known as FETO, even before the coup attempt. The numbers of alleged FETO members now purged defy belief: over 100,000 people have been purged from state employment and tens of thousands detained and/or arrested.  

One of those government critics arrested is the well-known investigative journalist, Ahmet Sik, who was detained late last December on charges of disseminating propaganda on behalf of the PKK and FETO. While linking Sik to the PKK seems far off—simply he is perhaps one of the most independent journalists in Turkey—linking him to the Gulen movement is simply preposterous; in 2011, he sat in jail for a whole year, after being arrested for writing an anti-Gulen book (those were the days when the AKP was in a coalition with the Gulen movement, before parting ways in 2013). Sik’s arrest appears to be a blatant response to his ongoing, acute questioning of the government’s coup attempt narrative.

Then there is the arrest of fashion designer Barbaros Sansal, for a biting New Year’s Eve tirade attacking the AKP, exclaiming that one day Turkey would “drown in its own shit.” Sansal, a social butterfly with a sharp tongue who never shies away from confrontation, was deported from his home in Turkish Cyprus within 48 hours of releasing the recorded video statement. Once in Istanbul, he was brutally attacked by the airport ground crew and then detained; he remains behinds bars, despite the court rejecting the indictment of “inciting the public to hatred or hostility” made against him. It seems the courts are giving the state another chance to prepare fresh charges against him. 

Of course, Sik and Sansal are just two of many journalists, writers and artists in prison. Some of them are detained for hours, and others for months at a time, such as the renowned author, Asli Erdogan, whose release after four months was as random as her arrest. 

Then there are the members of Turkey’s third largest party, the mostly Kurdish HDP (and plenty of their activists) who are behind bars, such as its co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, due to alleged ties with the PKK. In addition to these two Members of Parliament, currently nine other MPs from the HDP have been detained or arrested. 

Of course, there are also those jailed for their ties to the former Gulenist media networks, who face a judicial process without due process; they are particularly lonely targets as they often don’t benefit from solidarity from some of Turkey’s anti-government journalists who are often staunchly anti-Gulenist as well. One example, is the 73 year old woman journalist Nazli Ilicak, who has been held pending trial for over six months.

With such a gloomy picture of the current and future state of Turkish democracy, the question arises: What will happen to those who oppose the referendum that could irrevocably centralize power in Erdogan’s hands?  And do they have a chance of blocking it? What public fora are left to discuss or challenge the ‘Yes’ vote campaign? 

Even newspapers once critical of the government, such as Hurriyet, recently refused to publish an interview with the Turkish Nobel Prize winner, novelist Orhan Pamuk, after he stated that he would vote “No.” The nation’s Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, constantly declares that “No” supporters are in the “same ranks,” as terrorists.

Simply put, even if the CHP and HDP, the major opposition parties, together with the numerous small independent groups working against the presidential bill, can muster up a majority of ‘No’ votes, there is still little hope that the current status quo will change. Even the failure of the referendum wouldn’t wave a magic wand that would cause the AKP and hardcore Erdoganists to relinquish their power. Nevertheless, even with the cards stacked up against them, these opposition forces have no other choice than to rally for a resounding 'No' vote, in hope that whatever vote they achieve will at least mark to the government that a significant proportion of the country is unhappy with the current state of affairs. Remarkably, despite these fears of retribution, there is a growing chorus of voices from different political backgrounds, calling for a 'No' vote.    

The government is building on fear to swing the vote in their favor. This contrasts starkly with the past, when the AKP gained votes by promising a better future. They’re hoping now that the ‘Yes’ vote will be propelled by a deep anxiety about what the future holds. It is likely that many could very well vote ‘Yes’ simply to avoid the chaos that could follow a victory by the opposition. Their vote would be backed by voters who believe a resounding ‘Yes’ victory will once and for all settle the political hierarchy and social unrest and put the AKP back on track to leading to a more peaceful future. 

The Turkish electorate is tired; since 2014, it has witnessed four election campaigns; one for municipalities (2014), then for the presidency (2014), and then two parliamentary ones in 2015, after the AKP was initially unable to form a coalition. 

With each election, the country becomes more polarized. At the same time, the electorate has to live through other critical strains and tensions, not least the threat of terrorism that has struck numerous times in the heart of its major cities. The war with the PKK has no end in sight, and the number of Turkish soldiers killed in Syria is growing. The economy is sinking. The country experienced a traumatic coup attempt, showing the fragility, or if you like, the resilience, of the state. The unity that atrocities and the coup attempt triggered have been notably short-term.

Risking unfounded optimism, clearly the best scenario for the next two months would be a peaceful period in which both ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ camps will be able to present their starkly different visions of a new Turkey, and that whatever the turnout of the referendum, Turkey won’t encounter the violence some are predicting. However, truth be told, if Turkey’s leaders are not careful then the serious difficulties and injustices of today will only be a foretaste of what’s to come. The worse-case scenarios are no longer so hard to imagine.

This appeared in Haaretz on February 19, 2017. Click here for the link.