The AK Party government of Prime Minister Erdogan banned Twitter and YouTube but nevertheless won the local elections last Sunday by a wide margin. Victor Argo spoke with Ceylan Özbudak, political analyst and executive director of Building Bridges, a non-governmental organization.
Victor Argo: How would you explain the current situation in Turkey to an outsider? Which powers and interests are colliding?
Ceylan Özbudak: The Turkish political scene has been dominated by conservative parties since 1950. Since 1946, the main opposition left-wing CHP could not get an electoral victory without a right-wing coalition. The Turkish electoral system and political scene is much different than England or the US. While the British and the American political scene is dominated by the two main parties, Turkey is home to 77 (yes that’s right, seventy-seven) political parties.
VA: Despite banning social media the AK Party and Prime Minister Erdogan did great in the elections on March 30. Do we see the country split in two? Is Turkey more divided than ever?
CÖ: The AKP has managed to win three successive general elections in 2002, 2007 and 2011, increasing its proportion of the vote on each occasion. The AKP’s victory was decisive in the latest election of June 2011, with the party claiming 50 percent of the vote, compared to its share of 34 percent in November 2002 and 47 percent in July 2007. This was a clearly exceptional performance by any standard, and clearly contradicts any notion of public fatigue of government, which typically leads to a decline in the electoral performance of political parties after many years in office. What makes the AKP experience unique is that center-right parties are hidden in the Turkish context.
“This was a clearly exceptional performance by any standard”Turkey harbors many groups of Muslim Jamaats (congregations). These jamaats have a considerable voter base, not only because of their members but also because of the relatively close circle of these members. The AK Party so far has shown a warm attitude towards these jamaats and has been supported by them. The primary opposition left party, the CHP (Republican People’s Party), is not popular among the jamaats, not because of the current party leader Kemal KÄ±lÄ±çdaroÄlu, but because of the CHP’s previous politics. Even though Turkey looks very polarized from outside, it is not as polarized as it looks on the inside. If we are referring to the separation between the Fethullah Gulen group and the AK Party, we cannot really call it a separation since the voter base of the Gulen group is not more than 0,2 %.
VA: The reaction of the outside world (EU, USA) to the recent events in Turkey (banning Twitter, YouTube) was rather lame and tame. Why is that so?
CÖ: The reactions to the Twitter and YouTube ban were rather discrete on the foreign diplomacy level because of the reasons of these bans. The reasons made it easier to consider them acceptable. What Turkey wants from Twitter authorities is nothing more than being treated the same way as England, France, Sweden or Spain. Turkey wants Twitter to take the decisions of Turkish courts seriously and act accordingly just like in the other countries. We should not forget that there is a very fine line between freedom of speech and violation of private life and while one is encouraged in advanced democracies, the latter is condemned. This is the same in Turkey too.
VA: When will the social media ban be lifted? For how long will the current state of affairs be acceptable?
CÖ: Well, let’s not forget that in the first hour of the ban, two million tweets were sent. I think that these sites will not be blocked for long. Turkey will not be China or Iran. I hope that in the future we will not see a total banning of any website. It was always about removing certain links, not about blocking an entire social media platform.
Turkey has 12 million Twitter users. Maybe this ban will make Twitter even more popular in Turkey. (Ed. note: the Twitter ban has been lifted).
VA: Economic success is important for any government (and its constituency). And I experienced the economic success of the AKP policies myself when I visited Turkey last year, enjoying an excellent infrastructure. But how much does a good economic record excuse any other acts and any other policies a government may conduct? Where are the limits?
CÖ: Economy is very very important for any country, not only for Turkey. Everywhere in the world, what affects voters’ behavior the most is undoubtedly the economy. Many ultra-secularists voted for the AK Party in the last elections because of the economic success the party brought to the country. Unlike its oil and gas rich neighbors, Turkey has not been able to use the short cut of one commodity. The AK Party established a strong free-market economy with all its institutions and rules, and recognizes the role of the state in the economy only in a regulatory and supervisory capacity. FIXING THE ECONOMY can be only a simple line for many analysts when they are referring to Turkey. However, it becomes a VERY SIGNIFICANT line if you are living in Turkey and you have investments to support, debts to pay, and children’s school fees to think about.
In the last 11 years, AK Party created a new middle class in Turkey and this neo-middle class has higher dreams and is looking to enhance its potential by making new investments. They are taking loans and getting into debts leaning on the well functioning economical wheel. You cannot simply tell these people to shake the economical ground they are standing on without putting forward a viable and compelling alternative. In terms of industrial development, Turkey advanced tremendously in the era of the three terms of an AK Party government.
Turkey now has a university in every city, 22 airports, 18,000 square km of double highways and the first domestically produced Turkish military helicopters, tanks, warships and drones. Turkey has paid off its 23.5 billion dollar debt to the IMF and is in a position to offer loans to that institution. It has also started paying fees for infirm patients and distributed free books and 75,000 free tablet computers to students. Unemployment is under 10% despite the recent influx of refugees.
VA: Many people say that PM Erdogan is destroying his own legacy. What is your comment on this?
CÖ: Please see my previous answer regarding the economy. This is the legacy of Erdogan and the truth is even though restrictions can never be considered acceptable, he is not destroying his legacy.
VA: Why does Erdogan act they way he does?
CÖ: We have to understand that this is Turkey. Turkey is a Middle Eastern country, situated in the most volatile region of the world. Turkey is not the Principality of Lichtenstein, situated in one of the safest regions of the world. Therefore, we cannot expect people to not take this (the volatile environment) into consideration.
If you take all 75 million plus citizens of Turkey, we can safely say that the AK Party is a melting pot of past and present social and ideological movements in Turkey. Dominated by a traditionally liberal-democratic-conservative mindset, Turkish society likes to preserve and practice the moral values of religion while remaining closely attached to the now-Western values of tolerance, freedom, human rights, education and the rule of law.