On the 'Turkish Model': Neoliberal Democracy with Teargas

by Evren Savcı at Jadaliyya

On 28 May, upon awakening, alarming news from home flooded my screen: citizens were protesting the destruction of the Taksim Park, just outside the historic Taksim Square in Istanbul, which is to become little more than a busy traffic intersection featuring a shopping mall and a mosque if the city government proceeds with current plans. There were also reports of potential illegal sale of the Besiktas Ferry Station to Shangri La Hotel and the closure of the surrounding seaside to the public. Discussions of the brand new ban on alcohol sales between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m unfolded; and finally, a young woman detailed in a letter to a newspaper yet another instance of governmental indexing of women who get pregnancy tests at public hospitals, and (illegal) phone calls made to their male kin to report their test results. While it is the destruction of Gezi Park that has unfolded into protests across the country, these other news and much more are behind the citizens’ reaction to Prime Minister Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) government.

Most international news successfully reported on the documented police violence, and excessive use of tear gas and water cannons against citizens for a number of days. While outrageous, none of this is particularly surprising anymore to the citizens of Turkey, the much celebrated would-be model of “Islamic democracy” for the “Arab Spring.” The AKP government has made both its autocratic conservative preferences and its penchant for a security state clear since its sweeping reelection victory in 2011. Their record thus far has included the jailing of journalists, academics, and students without such niceties as due process, evidence, the right to a decent defense, and the rule of law. Turkey in fact ranked first in the world in the number of journalists jailed according to an OCSE report in March 2011. In addition to journalist and academics, Kurdish citizens, many of whom falsely accused of being involved in terrorist activities, have also been the victims of such mass incarceration. Held in jails without a proper trial for months, the Kurds went on a sixty-six-day hunger strike in protest, which only ceased with the intervention of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the outlaw Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It was partially in response to this hunger strike that the AKP is now negotiating with the Kurds to bring an end to Turkey’s twenty-nine year old counterinsurgency against Kurdish separatists.

Important as this attempt to end the war with the PKK is for the resolution of the Kurdish problem and for the further democratization of the country, other governmental policies point to a severe regression in Turkey’s democratic standards.  Examples abound. Academic faculty have lost their jobs because they mention the oppression of Armenians, Kurds or Alawis in their classes. The Prime Minister has ordered the destruction of public artwork that offends his sensibility. His government has also banned a book that documents the relationship between the Turkish police force and an opaque Islamist group strongly entrenched in state security forces before its publication. Finally, last summer, in an attempt to derail public protests in response to the Turkish Air Force’s mass slaughter of thirty-four village smugglers in the Uludere/Roboski region of Turkey in December 2011, Erdogan made a public statement equating this massacre with women getting abortions, saying “every abortion is an Uludere”. He then pushed for legislation that would severely limit women’s access to abortion, as well as caesarian sections.

Citizens have protested against this onslaught of anti-democratic moves. Most protests, however peaceful, are met with the police’s generous use of tear gas and high-pressure water hoses, in addition to other forms of violence. This process of protest and violence has been ongoing since the demonstrations on Taksim Square on 28 May and until today 3 June, across Istanbul and the rest of Turkey.

Just a month ago, on 1 May, when citizens attempted to march to Taksim Square for Worker’s Day, they were met with police firing tear gas canisters in abundance. But we did not need this spectacle to know that the government’s commitment to its people safety and wellbeing was less than stellar. According to one report an average four workers lose their life daily in work-related accidents in Turkey. The same day, a number of people, including teenagers, were severely injured and hospitalized, with two suffering hemorrhages from the blows they received in the back of their head, and one losing an eye.

This is the kind of cruel absurdity that governs the lives of the people of Turkey these days, just as the international news celebrates Turkey’s robust economy and its much acclaimed role as a “democratic model” in the “new Middle East.” For instance, one recent New York Times op-ed covered Erdogan’s recent visit to Washington, DC and his meeting with Obama on intervention in Syria. The terms of Erdogan’s positive evaluation were government’s ability to “progress toward resolving the Kurdish conflict” and its retention of “its impressive economic achievements.” The authors went on to warn that political instability in the region might affect foreign investment in Turkey, and adversely the country’s economic stability.

What is missing from such sweeping representations of “international relations and foreign policy” are the voices of citizens who dare protest the country’s neoliberal restructuring and the images of the violent police attacks on them. Also missing are the stories of fired teachers who dare speak of oppression and inequality, and the imprisonment of journalists who openly critique the AKP government. Finally, missing from such representations are those of us who aspire to a democratic society. We are ordinary citizens who see no end to the oppressive and abusive politics of the AKP government as Turkey’s democratic Western partners fiddle (or choose to look the other way in the name of “strategic expediency”).