They came from everywhere in Turkey. Among them were students, engineers, doctors, teachers, housewives. Some were Turks, others Kurds. Women and men, young and middle-aged. What united them was their shared belief in co-existence and democracy. They were determined to protest over the escalation in the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants. They carried signs that said, “It’s Peace that We Need, not War” and “We Missed Looking Up at the Sky Without Seeing Blood Around”.
It was this peace rally in Ankara — the capital of Turkey — last Saturday that two suicide bombers turned into a bloodbath. The worst terrorist attack in the country’s history left 97 dead, hundreds injured, devastated families and a badly polarised country.
As every analyst will point out, Turkey has been visibly polarized in recent years. But now it is clear that its society cannot unite even in grief. The aftermath of the horrific attacks has not been a time of collective soul-searching and national unity — just the opposite. Pro-government papers covered the tragedy very differently from the rest of the media. They accused the Kurds of involvement. Meanwhile the Kurds accused the “deep state”. Conspiracy theories abound and there is mistrust on all sides.
What makes the situation in Turkey right now even more complicated is the juxtaposition of domestic and regional turbulence. The unrest inside Turkey has been affected by the general unrest beyond its borders. The country is home to two million refugees, mostly from Syria. Turkey is inundated by the influx. Yet at the same time the refugee crisis is Turkey’s biggest card at the moment vis-à-vis its relations with Europe. In yesterday’s negotiations with EU ministers the government played that card.
As a result of those negotiations, EU ministers agreed a deal with the president of this fragmented country, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to persuade him to discourage even more Syrian refugees from making for the EU from Turkey. They made huge concessions, financial and diplomatic, apparently oblivious to the likely effect this will have on the Turkish elections on November 1. Yet Turkey is not united under Erdogan; far from it.
The most widely used word in the Turkish lexicon today is “they”. The division between “us” and “them” runs very deep. Erdogan’s party, the AKP, has increasingly alienated itself from at least half of society.
There is still a considerable segment (around 40 per cent) who vote for the party, and will probably continue to do so in the elections. But there is an even bigger population that feels disappointed and increasingly frustrated. A deep sense of injustice runs through society. No one trusts the institutions and the gap between the pro and anti government factions is too wide to bridge.
The man at the centre of the debate, Erdogan, is the most divisive politician in Turkish history. “The master”, according to his admirers, “the dictator” in the eyes of his critics. The Turkish constitution requires the office of president to be neutral, constructive, above politics and non-partisan. Erdogan is anything but. Using incendiary rhetoric against anyone who dares criticise him, including the young people in the Gezi Park protests in 2013, he aggravated the existing divisions and created new divisions instead of trying to bring people together around common values.
Today’s gloom is far from the mood that was prevalent in the country after the June elections. In the last election four political parties entered parliament. This was an opportunity to build up a pluralistic, all-inclusive democracy, to restore the rule of law. But instead of working hard for a healthy coalition, the Government pushed for yet another election.
Everyone knows this was Erdogan’s wish. He wanted to increase his votes so that he could have enough MPs in parliament to change the constitution and introduce a presidential system. But the country was not ready for another election so soon. The economy, which had already slowed, was too fragile, the society tense and tired. Still the government insisted on repeat elections. Since then everything went downhill. The economy got worse, the polarisation was exacerbated and violence escalated. According to the daily paper Cumhuriyet, since June nearly 700 people have died.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that in Turkey we have the structure of democracy but not the culture. Democracy cannot survive without the rule of law, separation of powers and especially freedom of speech and free media. In all these respects Turkey has been sliding backwards fast. Opposition is stifled. The government made the crucial mistake of confusing “democracy” with “majoritarianism”. Having the majority in the ballot box was interpreted as an absolute right to absolute power.
Turkey is one of the leading countries in jailing journalists and suppressing the media. It also tops the list of countries asking for more internet censorship. An environment of fear has been created in which journalists have been intimidated and cartoonists sued. Every writer and journalist knows that because of an article, a book, a poem or even a retweet they could be sued or even imprisoned. There is widespread self-censorship.
The country’s liberals and democrats have never felt this demoralized and depressed. So many people are talking about leaving the country. The ultranationalists and ultra-religious are asking liberals and democrats to leave as well. But countries, if they are to be democratic, do not thrive on sameness. They thrive on diversity.
Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist.