Erdoğan and the Polarized State of Turkey

Here in the United States, we enjoy a relatively high quality of life and have the freedom to express our opinion in whatever manner we choose. While this is a concept that our country was founded upon and that we have worked, though not always succeeded, to maintain, this is not a shared belief across the globe.

Today, we have access to a thousand kinds of expression, both public and personal. There are a number of nations around the world where journalists are persecuted for expressing their opinion on a government or it’s policies. In Turkey, freedom of expression has been put in a box that seems to be getting smaller and smaller. Journalists in Turkey are increasingly harassed, threatened, censored and prosecuted. This is due to more conservative and sensitive policies on media provided to the public put in place by the country’s current leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who’s government leans more and more towards that of a regime and has created a deeply polarized standard amongst the population.

Turkey was first founded in 1923, by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk , who then became the first president of the Republic of Turkey. Taking what was left of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, pushing them to take action against Greek forces who aimed to reform the empire in the image of the Allies. Ataturk remained president of the Republic of Turkey until his death in 1938, and still remains widely revered today among the Turkish population.

Since then, Turkey has gone through numerous political changes and has had a rocky political history that includes four successful coup d’etats and one unsuccessful. This one unsuccessful coup occurred with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the President of Turkey during the second year of his first term in July of 2016. The military coup took place in Marmaris, a coastal town where Erdoğan was vacationing. The goal of the coup had been to capture Erdoğan, however he had received a tip of what was to come and quietly left the area, reappearing later in Istanbul, urging supporters on live television to fight back against the coup. And indeed, the coup was derailed by Erdoğan’s supporters, some of whom laid on the ground in front of tanks, others simply attacking them and some running straight into gunfire, which resulted in a total of 265 civilian deaths.

A crowd of people with Turkish flags flooding the Turkish parliament Photo by Ahmet Demiroglu from Unsplash

Previous to being elected president in 2014, Erdoğan had been prime minister for eleven years. Turkey is generally considered a parliamentary republic and, up until Erdoğan’s presidency, this was an accurate assumption. Previously, the position of president in Turkey was more of a position of convention rather than actual power, being more ceremonial than anything else. However, there is now no current Turkish prime minister. Upon election, Erdoğan began pushing for a more presidential republic than parliamentary one, a form of government that would solidify the president’s position in power, as well as ceremony, aiming to eliminate the position of prime minister altogether..

This doesn’t necessarily constitute anything bad, but that also depends on who you ask. A number of Erdoğan’s policies have come very, very close when put to a vote and are a good example of the split feeling within the nation. For example, when reelected in 2018 for a 5-year term, a referendum giving the president new constitutional values was also won - by a majority of 51%. This referendum gave him the ability to intervene in the country’s legal system and to appoint top public officials, such as the vice president, among other new capabilities.

Erdoğan’s power is largely challenged by the military who see themselves as the guardians of Ataturk’s vision for the Turkish republic. While Erdoğan and Ataturk are the two most popular political leaders in Turkish history, they have largely opposing political views. The times in which they live, as well as the needs and demands of the people are also vastly different.

Ataturk governed the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920’s and 30s, bringing people together to form a new way of life that would bring them into the fold of the growing global society. Ataturk encouraged a more modern and European lifestyle and established the country's educational and legal system with a more western style in mind, hoping to gain separation from the Middle East. Ataturk focused on building a democracy. However, he was a secular man with secular views, which led to consequences for certain groups within the growing nation. For example, headscarves were banned and could not be worn in public. This prevented conseravtive muslim women from going to school because they could not wear head coverings as dictated by their religion.

In 2013, Erdoğan banished this law and gained support from the muslim population within Turkey. While Ataturk’s goal was to move away from the Middle East politically and ideologically, Erdoğan’s basis for popularity seems to be largely connected to moving towards it. Erdoğan is a conservative muslim with political focuses in developing the economy and Turkish infrastructure.

Political polarization amongst the population continues to grow as one problem is resolved and another is born. Since the failed coup in 2016, Turkey has become the biggest “journalist-jailer” in the world while simultaneously expanding the middle class to shrink poverty. Grand infrastructure projects have taken place as well as numerous terrorist attacks. Syrian refugees flooded Turkey but the religious Turkish population no longer feels so segregated by the previously “elite” secular population. This rise and fall of obstacles the nation faces only increases the segregation between political views. 

Towards the beginning of his political career, Erdoğan expressed relatively democratic, pro-West tendencies. However, over time he has become increasingly viewed as an authoritarian figure with a goal of simply consolidating his own control over the nation.

More recently, Erdoğan has put limitations on alcohol and abortions and ignored protected environmental areas in order to carry out his vision for greater infrastructure. There were protests against these actions but there is now a zero-tolerance policy towards protesting after protests to protect the popular Gezi park in Istanbul, which were responded to with the burning of protesters’ tents, followed by the spraying of the protesters with tear gas. A man in a local market in turkey selling items Photo by Wei Pan from Unsplash Erdoğan has developed a habit of alienating his party members by having them sidelined or expelling them from the party; a habit common amongst infamous authoritarian leaders throughout history.

180 media outlets within Turkey were forced to close by executive decree under the state of emergency, a power given to Erdoğan by the aforementioned referendum. A third of the world’s imprisoned journalists are jailed in Turkey and more than two thousand Turkish journalists have lost their jobs.

You can be arrested for defaming the deceased on social media, defaming Ottoman sultans, insulting Turkey, Turkishness or Erdoğan himself. Simply using the Kurdish name for something is considered to be cause for concern and can be used against you. These offenses are all punishable with prison time.

New legislation was put through this past summer that increases the government's control information exchange through social media and became effective on October 1, 2020. Social media companies that garner more than 1 million users a day within Turkey are now required to establish a formal presence within Turkey or have a representative. These companies, such as Twitter, Google and YouTube would have to respond to complaints of violations of personal and privacy rights within forty-eight hours and all Turkish user data must be stored within Turkey. 

Twitter logo in front of a blurred screen Photo by Joshua Hoehne from Unsplash Failure to comply with these regulations is punishable by heavy fines of four million pounds and restraints on the company's bandwidth of up to 90%, which renders the sites unusable.

It is actions like this, taken against media giants and public opinion alike, that aim to control information spread through the internet, in order to muzzle opposition and negative feedback. This law does face opposition by Erdoğan’s opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) but could take years to reach constitutional court in Turkey, according to Professor Yaman Akdeniz. Akdeniz has taken previous cases against YouTube and Wikipedia to constitutional court and is an expert in cyberlaw.

While Erdoğan is currently a popular leader, his policies alienate a portion of the population in Turkey and offer an advantage to another, similar to the circumstances during Ataturk’s time, though arguably, there are numerous other significant external factors influencing these two political leaders that affect the global view of their policies and efforts. That in mind, the continued polarization within Turkey is an example of how grand the demands of a country can be and how the task of addressing them all can prove to be nearly impossible. 



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