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.
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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.
Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @IstanbulTelaviv.