Last June, I was in Istanbul with 30 MBA students from Boston when the protests began. What started with the protests of an opulent shopping mall being built in Istanbul’s Gezi Park has become Turkey’s reaction to an increasingly autocratic regime intervening in citizens’ private lives by imposing conservative rules and religious imperatives.
At the end of last December, some pro-government religious youth groups in Turkey were planning to protest Christmas at an event advertised by a poster depicting a young Muslim punching Santa. Instead, on Christmas Day, the Turkish nation woke up to the resignation of three ministers of the “mildly Islamic” Turkish government, one of them declaring the prime minister responsible for the ongoing corruption cases and inviting him to resign as well.
Since then, there have been many corruption allegations backed up by phone recordings uploaded to YouTube. Along the allegations: The prime minister, his son, daughter, several ministers, and media bosses, along with others are heard negotiating, scheming, and engaging in shady dealings and power grabs that make “House of Cards” look like child’s play.
Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s defiant response follows the extreme hardline he has adopted since the Gezi protests. He is threatening the media and all opposition with a major crackdown after the local elections scheduled for later this month. He is also targeting social media directly with threats of closing down Facebook, YouTube and Twitter entirely.
There is every indication that if Erdoğan’s party wins a victory in the coming local elections, he would see this result as a “mandate to dictate.” Many see the local elections as a vote of confidence for the current government. A movement toward an even more oppressive ruling style would also declare the clear failure of Turkey’s “Islamic democracy” model, once praised as a role model for other Muslim countries in the Middle East.
His ever more aggressive stance has escalated the stress level of the volatile Turkish economy. At a time when all the emerging markets are experiencing the painful effects of capital outflows, mainly due to more selective and cautious foreign investors, any internal turmoil that increases the country’s risk premium needs to be avoided at all costs. Why Erdoğan, who is known to be a shrewd and seasoned politician, continues to add fuel to the fire is a mystery. The speculative reasons range from mental illness, to power drunkenness, to foreign-led conspiracy theories, to calculated political maneuvers. None of them make any economic sense.
Last weekend during one of Erdoğan’s political rallies, his supporters wore Muslim burial shrouds and pledged their loyalty to the prime minister, stating they “are ready to die at Erdoğan’s orders.” On the same day, one of the most anticipated derbies of the Turkish premier soccer league had to be suspended due to extreme fan violence. The tension between government supporters and protestors has spread to all aspects of life, including sports and even arts.
As I write this piece, there is word from Turkey about fresh unrest and new clashes between riot police and large groups of people on the streets protesting Berkin Elvan’s death, which has quickly become a symbol of resistance to autocracy and corruption in Turkey.
Fifteen-year old Berkin Elvan, who was seriously wounded by a police gas canister during protests in Gezi, died last week in Istanbul. For the last 269 days of his short life, he was in a coma.
Eight days after Berkin was shot, Erdoğan praised the police brutality, claiming that the police had “written an epic saga.”
Many Turks, living in Turkey or abroad, who associate Berkin with their own children, are joining the protests on social media by posting their children’s photos side-by-side with Berkin’s.
There is fear that death and loathing may escalate as Erdoğan continues to increase the tension and violence in our country, instead of responding to the many serious corruption allegations against himself and his family. *Can Erbil, Associate Professor of Practice of Economics, Boston College