2014

Media control: The biggest threat to fair elections in Turkey

Presidential candidates turkey 2014

There is a presidential election coming up in less than five days, and the winner will most likely be prime minister Erdogan. But there are many reasons why this elections can not be considered fair. Here are my 3 main points of concerns:

1. Erdogan runs as a prime minister

Despite a law that says that a public servant can not run for president, Erdogan still runs for president at the same time as he continues to be prime minister of Turkey. He is and has been using the full power and resources of the state apparatus throughout his campaign, while the oppositions candidates has barely been able to get a banner up – Erdogan is on the other hand everywhere.

2. TRT coverage of the presidential candidates

It is a fact that the majority of the Turkish population do not receive impartial and balanced information about the different candidates. The main news source in Turkey is television, and less than 50% has access to the Internet. Looking at the state channel TRT and their coverage of the campaigns, more or less all time has been spent on Erdogan, despite the fact that the state TV should be impartial. The impact of such an uneven coverage can not be underestimated: The only one that about 50% of the voters in Turkey hear and see is Erdogan.

3. Heavy self-censorship in the media

Media in general covering the presidential candidates very unfairly, and generally avoid to say anything negative about Erdogan, while the opposition candidates are heavily attacked and scrutinised. One example of how this is happening, is that many TV-channels repeatedly goes on discussing the arrests of the police officers recently, without nowadays mentioning the reason why they are arrested: they gathered evidence for corruption within the government. This is symptomatic for how self-censorship shifts the focus of an event and avoid to put the real issue on the table. It is deceiving and effectively manipulate voters into viewing Erdogan as a victim.

I am nervously waiting for Sunday…

What Tunisia and Ben Ali taught me about Erdogan’s future

What Tunisia and Ben Ali taught me about Erdogan's future

What Tunisia and Ben Ali taught me about Erdogan’s future

Two weeks after I came home from a touristic travel to Tunisia in early december 2010, the uprising against Ben Ali started. I was surprised, since I had traveled throughout the whole country and talked to many people, not the least students, asking them what feelings they harboured for the man in charge. Except minor complaints about the high unemployment, all they said was positive. Education was free, people were happy. I left the country with a totally wrong perception of Ben Alis popularity. I had been naïve, and the Arab spring came as a surprise to me.

Ben ali Tunisia Erdogan Turkey

Ben ali Tunisia Erdogan Turkey

But I would would fall into the same trap twice…

During my two years in Turkey, before the Gezi protests, politics was something that people smoothly avoided to talk openly about at dinner tables where not all guests where known. Only at closed gathering, in my predominantly secular circles of friends, did some anger and the dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s politics show. But this I only realised in hindsight and I was therefore surprised when the Gezi protests took place and grew to a national phenomenon. I could never have guessed they would occur one week before they started.

I came to draw the conclusion that in an environment, where critical opinions can´t be ventilated on a continuous basis, sudden, unexpected outbursts – such as the Gezi protests and the Arab Spring- will always be the way of change – BY DESIGN.

So, what can this teach us about the future of Erdogan, the feelings about him in his own circles now so celebrating, supporting and free of criticism against him?

Does the silence and acceptance within the AKP mean that no one harbours any criticism towards him?

Most definitely not.
One example: Bulent Arinc is by many looked upon as the reasonable voice of AKP, before so talkative on all issues. Why has he recently been so silent?

And what does the grass roots of the AKP think about the Soma accident where no secularists where victims, but instead people like the ones Erdogan says he is trying to help?

Does people close to Erdogan buy his explanation and his denial of any involvement in the company who manages the mine?

Do the AKP believe in the Robot Lobisi?

I have decided not to fall into the same trap a third time. The AKP keep silent, just like the liberals and the secularistic Turkey did before the Gezi protests, before they had enough, before it all had built up to being just more than they could accept. But I know better now.

I know that that silence harbours more criticism than thousand words are capable of.

Piece by piece Erdogan is building up a heavy pile sh*% that will eventually fall down on him, crush him, bye bye!

 

Part 3: Victory?

Erdogan victory akp

The day after the local elections I stood on the sidewalk with my bags waiting for a taxi. I was on my way to a friend where I would stay during my last days in Istanbul. It was clear that AKP had won, even though the votes were still being counted.

After putting my luggage in the backseat, I sat down next to a smiling taxi driver, who immediately, as most strangers asked about my nationality, after wrongly assuming I was from Germany.

The radio was playing loud. Every second minute, parts from Erdogan’s victory speech, in which he promised to crush all his opponents, was aired. Now and then, the radio station also played pieces of the song specially written for the local elections with the simplistic but telling refrain “Reeeecep Taaaaayyip Errrrdooogaaaaan!”

“How is it going in Ankara?” I asked the driver. “Have they counted all the votes yet?”

“AKP won!” he answered while taking his right hand off the steering wheel, raising his thumb up in the air.

“45% percent they got” he continued.

“So what do you think will happen to Fetullah Gülen now?”

He again lifted his right hand from the steering wheel, this time imitating a razor blade cutting against his throat.

“He is finished!” he said.

We continued to talk about other things, but as the taxi came closer to my final destination, I wanted to ask him one last question.

“So, do you think there were any corruption? Do you think Erdogan is corrupt?”

He did an upwards nod.

“No! There is no corruption!” he said with certainty in his voice.

I sat in silence for a while, watching the expression on his face. He looked friendly.

“But…” I started, discretely smiling. “… This is Turkey. Aren’t most politicians corrupt here in some way? The CHP also, I mean.”

His face changed somewhat like he was preparing to say something, but he remained quite.

“Do you really believe he is not corrupt?” I continued and smiled.

At this point his facade broke down.

“You are right. He might be! He might have taken some money” he said almost in a whispering tone.

“So what do you think about that?”

“Well, he is the best we have!” he continued after a while. ”I like him! He is doing great things for people like me!”

As I stepped out of the taxi, grabbed my luggage and said god bye to him, I thought about the fact that AKP has had constant wind in their sails since they came to power in 2002. And when they were faced with their first real challenge, the Gezi protests, they managed to ruin their entire worldwide reputation as a progressive democratic party in less than a couple of weeks. After the corruption allegations, they now only have the poor and uneducated people left to vote for them. This is enough to win the elections under todays political circumstances, but is Erdogan able to provide another ten years of economic success and reforms, that these poor voters hope for?

That is the burning question.

Part 2: Three gentlemen

Three gentlemen Turkey

One day before the elections I went to a classic Turkish fish restaurant together with some friends. The restaurant was located in one of the more wealthy parts of Istanbul. This is an area, where the main opposition party, CHP, always gets a very high percentage of the votes and where people on average aim for a westernised lifestyle.

But this night I would learn, that the political life still had its own distinguished features, specific to Turkish culture.

After ordering a bottle of Rakı – the national drink before AKP replaced it with the non-alcoholic Ayran – and after the first mezes had arrived to the table, I spotted three older men sitting a bit away from us in a corner. They were well-dressed, in suits, and with friendly faces. As our eyes meet, I raised my glass towards them and they saluted back.

“Where are you from? Are you from Germany?” one of the men said in broken English as I passed their table returning from the restroom a bit later.

I answered them and we started to chat. Soon they asked me to sit down with them.

“What do you think about the food? Delicious, isn’t it?” one of the men said.
“Excellent, It was very good. We are waiting for the main course. Do you know the owner?”
“Know the owner!” he exclaimed. “He is the little brother of my childhood friend. We go here all the time. We grew up not far from here.”

As the discussion unavoidably entered in to the area of politics, it turned out that one of the men, was senior local politician, working for the main opposition party, CHP. Glad to make his acquaintance we continued to talk, and after discussing the economic development of Istanbul, my mouth slipped – it must have been the Rakı – and I told them about a idea for a business based in Istanbul.

The politician immediately turned rather serious.

“We should talk” he the said. “We should exchange numbers and meet!”

I looked at the other men and they nodded.

“You should meet him, he can make anything happen” one of them said.

“Everything is possible.” the politician continued. “You can talk to me, and we can make a deal!”

He was saying all this in the way any old and powerful man in Turkey would do. But since he was a politician, there was no doubt about the meaning of his words.

From many friends I knew and heard stories about how knowing the right people, especially within politics and municipality, could mean the difference between bankruptcy and success. If someone within the system saw that your business was successful, they often wanted a cut. They would try to get it by pointing out problems of different kinds, mostly technicalities that at first seemed ridiculous. However, such a situation could quickly grow into a nightmare. Licenses could be withdrawn, deliveries could stop, police could come visit. The solution was always compensative one, meaning money under the table.

What the politician now offered me, was a shortcut. But of course it would not be a free one.

And I came to think: Even though he represented the opposition party, there was, in essence, little difference between him and e.g. Erdogan. They where of the same generation and in terms of attitude to corruption, they were soul mates.

No wonder why the voters did not punish Erdogan for being corrupt!

Part 1: The Taxi Drivers

Taxi in Istanbul

The taxi drivers

A couple of nights before the local election I was out walking. Outside one of the night clubs in the central historical part of Istanbul, where you will find many of the liberal Gezi youngsters partying and drinking, stood a group of taxi drivers, with their yellow cars, waiting for the night club guests to be in need of their services. I could tell, somehow, from the way they looked towards the entrance, that they weren’t happy with what they saw.

“How is business going?” I asked them.

Surprised that I spoke to them in Turkish, they asked where I came from, and after I answered we continued to talk about other things. I suggested that spring had come to Istanbul, they said it had been a warm winter.

After a while I cleared my throat.

“What are you going to vote for in the elections?”

A slightly noticeable discomfort spread among them, they started to look at each other, some turned aside and laughed nervously.

“I am going to vote for AKP” one of the short men, said, “I am voting for Tayyip!”, he continued in a louder voice, looking to the other men for assurance.

“Have you always?”

“Of course!” he exclaimed, like it was the most ignorant question on earth. “There is no one else than Tayyip Erdogan!”

The other men repeated “Tayyip Erdogan” in some sort of mumbly choir and laughed.

“So, You also vote for the AKP?”

“Of course” they all said.

A short moment of silence occurred.

“So, what do you think about the corruption allegations? Are they real?”

The men’s discomfort now became more evident than before, and one of them was just about to open his mouth, when a tall and rather well dressed man suddenly came in front of me.

“We don’t talk about this! AKP is going to win, we gonna vote for them, and Fetullah Gülen will be gone. Thats it!” he said in an aggressive manner.

I took a step back, and if the man had had a more rough look, I would have escaped the scene. But instead I stood silent observing how he seemed to spread fear among the men. He was clearly above them in the pecking order.

“We gonna win on sunday!” he continued now facing the men. “AKP will win! We going to vote! And after that Turkey will continue as usual!”

Then he hastily went away after someone had called on him from another group of taxis a bit away. All of us watched his back in silence as it faded into the night.

“Who was that?” I asked after a while.

“It is our boss!” the short man said. He organizes our taxis, gives us work…”
“From the municipality?” I said.

The short man smiled insecurely.

“Maybe!”

To me, this was a perfect illustration of how freedom of thought and expression in Turkey is a luxury that only can be afforded by the very few who are economically independent. One of the main reasons for AKP’s success is that they have managed to activate the grass roots of the society and make politics out of almost everything in their everyday life. In a society that is almost to an absolute extent already built upon friends, family, and social network, this has become a very efficient way to maintain support and silent opposition among the poor conservative, working people, who is in an overwhelming majority in the country. Especially occupations that in some way is under the government and municipalities control, have quickly turned into professions where only people who agree with the AKP is allowed to enter. This is valid for the professions high up in the hierarchy down to the very bottom, where even workers, are expected to agree with everything the AKP stands for. If you do not agree, you will face problems, likely get fired.

I said goodbye, and the group of men was dispersed. The short man jumped in to his taxi, started the engine and drove slowly towards a waving group of youngsters at the night club’s entrance.

 

 

 

Nothing changed… Or?

2.jpg650

After an even struggle in many of Turkey’s biggest cities, it is clear that little will change in formal terms as a result of the local elections. On average, AKP got about 45 percent of the votes, and kept power in the most important cities of Istanbul and Ankara.

However, the voting process, all the way from the opening of the ballot stations has been lined with incidents indicating unfairness and cheating. Electricity was cut while votes were counted in districts where CHP were expected to achieve a strong support. Ballots giving support to CHP and MHP have been found in trashcans throughout Turkey. In Ankara, ballot guards has been hindered by the police to enter the venues where the ballots were counted. And in some places, still at the writing moment, volunteers are guarding the ballots in districts where votes for CHP are expected to be high, to assure they will not come into hands of AKP officials or the police, before they are being counted by the YSK, the board responsible for counting the votes.

So, to sum it up, AKP has shown little respect for the ballot box that they so much have been praising ever since the Gezi protests.

However, it is still undeniable, that AKP has a very strong support in the country. The reasons for this have previously been discussed in this blog. But in my next post, I will give account for three personal encounters during my visit in Turkey, taking place both before and after the elections, that I think are symbolically important in order to understand the situation and the challenges ahead.

The question is: are people really supporting Erdogan, or are they just being pragmatic?

 

 

 

Electoral fraud cont.

Here are some articles that relate to my previous post about that AKP is planning to rig the elections. This is naturally very worrying…

http://turkishpoliticsupdates.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/biggest-electoral-fraud-ever-to-be-staged-in-turkey/

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/election-fraud-concern-grows.aspx?pageID=449&nID=63883&NewsCatID=409

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ruling-akps-demand-for-list-of-ballot-box-clerks-raises-election-fraud-concerns.aspx?pageID=238&nID=63935&NewsCatID=338

And to cheer you up – here comes my favorite local election poster. In the star on top it says “With us everything will cost 3 TL”. That is pure genius!

Yerel secim poster en komik funny

“With us everything will cost 3 Turkish Lira

Will the local elections in Turkey be fair?

Will the local elections in Turkey be fair?

Is it all about the ballot box?

The question posed above deserve some thinking. What is a fair election?

Erdogan’s answer would be that it is all about the ballot box, no matter what factors are shaping the final result. In other words, this represents a technical approach to fairness at democratic elections. It is about making sure that people are not hindered to vote for the party of their choice and that their votes are later counted accordingly. However, even Erdogan’s  kind of fairness seems to be under threat in today’s Turkey…

The most worrying fact is that YSK, the powerful organ that organize the elections, is a branch under the judiciary, that is now under the governments control due to the changes of the HSYK that recently was implemented.

In a letter to the European Parliament the liberal democratic leader, Cem Toker, has called the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to send neutral observers to guard the elections. In his letter he refers to an article, giving reasons why everyone should be worried on the 30th of March. One indication of possible cheating is that considerably more ballots than registered voters have been printed. The same was the case in the referendum 2011, and what happened to the ones left then is still unknown. Another indication that points towards cheating in both previous and upcoming elections, is that YSK has been very unwilling to provide transparency in a way that is crucial in a democracy… many things point to them being heavily controlled by the ruling party. Read Cem Toker’s very worrisome article here.

And even beside the technical ballot box aspect, there are many other things pointing towards an unfair election.

This week a report was released showing that 90 percent of the airing time from election campaigns on the state television was devoted to AKP. Only 5 percent of the coverage went to CHP. In addition, there are endless number of examples of how television and media in Turkey are working as propaganda machine for the government, rather than as a provider of information for people to make their own decisions upon. 

Now, remember that TV is the only news source for the big majority of Turks on the country side. Thus, many people are only reached by Erdogan’s version of everything that happens in the country… 

The questions boils down to: would people vote differently if there wasn’t any censorship?

If the answer is yes, can we really talk about fair democratic elections in Turkey at all?

2 scenarios: What will happen in Turkey?

What will happen in Turkey?

A poster for an ungoing campaign urging people in general to vote in the coming local elections.

The election campaign leading up to 30th of March is likely going to be the dirtiest in the republic’s modern history. The fight between the AKP and the opposition parties has already passed the point where civilized debate is possible. Ankara’s controversial mayor Melih Gökcek, has even suggested that he might be assassinated during the election campaign. I think that he is not alone worrying that the hateful climate in the country is going to lead to violent clashes, and even planned attempts on politician’s lives. Erdogan has effectively prepared a fertile ground for violence to emerge.

The reason why the tone in the campaign is hateful is that the outcome of the election will drastically influence Turkey’s future. In many ways it is a fight for life and death between the main opposition and Erdogan personally.

Here are two possible scenarios and their short and long term consequences:

1. AK Party gets ABOVE 40% of votes – status quo

In this scenario Erdogan will be able to sell that the population of Turkey agree to his narrative on the corruption probe. It will also continue the winning strike of the AK Party and make his ministers and party members stay loyal to him. Another, and more important consequence of this scenario, is that Erdogan will have plenty of room to continue restructuring the country’s institutions to his own liking. The biggest loser will naturally be democracy in general, and in specifics, the opposition, individuals, companies, newspapers and institutions that have been critical to Erdogan. Without any resistance, and with the full power of the police, the judiciary, MIT etc. behind him, he will  start a witch-hunt for everyone he considers as an opponent to his cause to stay in power. Turkey will quickly develop into a one-party-state, and any return from there will be a very long and slow process.

2. AK Party gets BELOW 40% of the votes – Ankara or Istanbul is lost

A result below 40% will instead be a blow to Erdogan, especially if Istanbul or Ankara is lost to CHP. Erdogan will, however, initially try to sell the election as a victory, pointing to the fact that the party still has a majority of the total votes in Turkey. But eventually discontent will grow, since he won’t be able to stabilize the country and restructure it to his own liking in the same way as before. Especially he will have a hard time to pursue his goal of a presidential system with himself as president. The struggle between AKP and the opposition parties will at the same time become more even, and together with the economic effect of the interest rate-hike in January and the weakening of the lira kicking in, people will get the impression that Erdogan is losing control. It is then  likely that the members of AKP  will start thinking of a future without him as their leader. How long this would take, is impossible to predict, since it depends on how much below 40%  AKP receives in the election.

So, which one of the two scenarios is the most likely?

In one way I am certain that even more incriminating voice recordings of Erdogan is soon to be released. But as I have already pointed out earlier in this blog, a big chunk of the population in Turkey only have access to government-friendly information about what is going on in the country; about 80% of the voters belonging to Erdogan’s core group does not have access to Internet. This group is additionally more occupied with making ends meet than to follow and question political issues they do not fully understand. In order for this group to turn away from Erdogan, something extraordinary has to happen, and I am afraid some files on the Internet are simply not enough.

Only one thing is certain. More political and economical turmoil is unavoidable in the near future!