How to Lose Your Country

The New Turkey and Its Discontents BY Simon Waldman, Emre Caliskan. Oxford University Press. Paperback, 360 pages. $27.

The cover of The New Turkey and Its Discontents

It’s April 16, and Turkey is voting on a constitutional referendum that may allow its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to drastically increase his powers. It’s the most significant day in the modern history of my country, and I’m watching events unfold on my phone screen in Zagreb, Croatia, where I now live. (Rather than deal with the constant threat of imprisonment or of having my passport confiscated, I chose to get out a few months ago.) In Turkey, the streets are full: People know that this is, in effect, the last chance to prevent a dictatorship.

Already, anyone critical of Erdoğan risks losing access to basic services. They can’t be sure an ambulance will agree to take them to the hospital if they get sick; they can be sure that they will get no justice in court. In the run-up to the referendum, Erdoğan and his followers, from top officials in the so-called Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the lowliest minions, have been stigmatizing the “No” voters as traitors and terrorists. “No” voters are aware that if they’re defeated in the referendum, there will be nothing to protect them from the crowds ready to attack on their master’s orders. A video circulating widely on social media shows a disabled man, missing two legs, trying to climb the stairs of the voting station with his hands and shouting: “You cannot stop me! I will vote!” Clearly a “No” voter, otherwise they’d be carrying him up the steps on a palanquin.

Soon, the nail-biting hours of vote-counting start. For a Turkish citizen who does not support the AKP, casting your vote is the easy part of the process. The trickier task comes after that vote is stamped (to ensure it is real and valid): trying to make sure it is actually counted. In theory, any citizen has the right to monitor the count, so for the past three elections an NGO called Vote and Beyond has been placing representatives in as many voting stations as possible. During the night, people across the nation are counting votes, detecting inconsistencies, reporting them to civil-rights organizations, filing hopeless claims with the electoral board. Whatever they do, they cannot prevent widespread fraud. After the counting has started, the nominally independent electoral board makes the outrageous decision that, “at the AKP’s request” (as the head of the board puts it), unstamped votes will be considered valid after all. Now government supporters are free to produce as many “Yes” votes as they like. It’s still early in the night, but watching the chaos that precedes the usual Erdoğan fait accompli, or “victory,” I already feel exhausted.

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading Simon A. Waldman and Emre Caliskan’s The New Turkey and Its Discontents, a detailed account of what the country has been subjected to in the fifteen years since the AKP took over. It begins with a brief yet byzantine political history of Turkey that aims to explain the features that enabled Erdoğan to extend his powers over time: the upholding of a strong state as sacred from the very beginning of the Turkish Republic in 1923; the hollowing out of institutions, not least the once-independent judiciary, by the military coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980; the rooting out and silencing of progressive and critical voices in each successive generation, making for an increasingly submissive political culture.

Since the international media now tends to represent Turkey as a crazy dictator’s fiefdom where anything can happen, I wonder as I read who will be interested in such an involved, One Hundred Years of Solitude–esque family tree of Turkish politics, especially at a moment when both Europe and the US are enjoying their own political crises. But The New Turkey is an important and in some ways corrective addition to the conversation about the country’s recent history. It refuses to reproduce two extremely common political myths that have helped the AKP legitimize its rule in both the national and international arenas. The first is the idea that in the years before the AKP took power, the Turkish army had been enforcing the state’s secularism while much of the Muslim Turkish population yearned for pluralism and religious freedom, which they got at last with Erdoğan. As the book shows, this is false. After the 1980 coup, the army actively supported Islamist movements, such as the Gulen, and during the Cold War used them to help keep leftist groups in check—the AKP and its support base are in many ways the fruits of those years. The second myth the book helpfully demolishes is that the AKP was dedicated to participatory democracy in its first term, yet magically transformed into a brutal, dictatorial political machine during its second. The authors show that Erdoğan in fact gradually dismantled state institutions from the start, concealing his intentions through strategic alliances with so-called liberal democrats until he did not need them anymore.

What the book leaves out is when and how the abracadabra was performed. Turning the pages, I remember the series of paralyzing incidents Turkey has witnessed in recent years, not least the Ergenekon trials, in which hundreds of secular citizens were imprisoned based on manufactured evidence that they were connected to a planned coup. It was shameless, ludicrous: Suddenly, people from diametrically opposed political camps were being rounded up together, members of leftist groups indicted alongside the very paramilitaries the state had used against them during the Cold War. The situation produced a still-popular joke that aliens were running a massive experiment on Turkey to see what it might take to drive an entire human population to lunacy.

Supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Istanbul, 2016. Mstyslav Chernov/Wikicommons.
Supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Istanbul, 2016. Mstyslav Chernov/Wikicommons.

Yet the true turning point came during the first term, when it became fashionable in intellectual circles to legitimize Erdoğan. The book does not explain how such a political climate was created, or by whom. On the contrary, the authors choose to quote the same famous intellectuals who elevated Erdoğan, helping to cement his stature as a world leader and strengthen the narrative of his appeal to “real” or “ordinary” Turks. Meanwhile, they fail to cite the opposing voices of the time, who are here mentioned only in passing and in terms of their victim status—their firings and imprisonments. Thus the ideas of writers like Kadri Gürsel (still in prison), Nuray Mert (fired from her job), Can Dündar (in exile), and Hasan Cemal (fired and facing legal action) are marginalized all over again. Now those same intellectuals who legitimized Erdoğan in his early years are in Germany, England, and elsewhere, talking to the press about the unacceptable situation, while the “real” people and supposed champions of pluralist democracy in Turkey are committing electoral fraud. It starts to feel as if my face is permanently locked in a bitter smile.

As the first results come in, it’s clear that, despite the meddling, the three largest cities have voted “No.” Yet the electoral board is already declaring a “Yes” vote for Turkey as a whole—never mind that the math is highly questionable. Meanwhile my inbox has filled with interview requests. BBC, Euronews, Channel 4 News. Again I wonder, Who really wants to hear the particularities, the details of this Turkish mess?

On the morning of April 17 (“the first day of the new Turkey,” as Erdoğan loves to say), I go like a freaking machine gun on all these media stations. I forget that I should be afraid, that I’m probably burning yet another bridge. I try to explain that there has been no win, tight or otherwise, for Erdoğan, and that the international media spotlight should have been not on the early—far too early—celebrations of his victory, but rather on the massive vote-counting fraud. Premature, stage-managed festivities have been Erdoğan’s classic move after every election—just one of his tactics for bending public perception in his favor. It’s outrageous to see the international press falling for it: What good is it to do these endless panels and summits about journalistic ethics if journalists won’t protect the truth when it actually matters? I explain that I’m criticizing the international media first and foremost because Turkish citizens are depending on them (the media within the country have been completely silenced). I can’t help but see parallels between Waldman and Caliskan’s book and the foreign coverage of the referendum. Reporters mention the protesters and critics of the regime as a mere side dish, yet again dismissing Erdoğan’s opponents as victims with no serious role to play.

In every interview, I am asked, “What is going to happen to Turkey now?” There are two answers. First, things will not improve: Anyone hoping that Erdoğan will be content with his contested win and finally stop persecuting those who did not vote for him, becoming a ruler for the whole population, is naive. Regimes like his run on polarization and fear; they crave enemies. More than half the society will remain stigmatized as traitors. There will be no peace. Second, though, the opposition will take heart: For the first time in years, those who are against Erdoğan can see that they are not in the minority, despite the government’s claims to the contrary. People are still taking to the streets to show their rage. Sadly, whether there is a political movement ready to mobilize and organize these sentiments is another question, and the answer seems to be no. The sedate statement by the main opposition-party leader, Kemal Kiliçdarog˘lu, on referendum night and his silence the following day is totally insufficient. Of course, the political figures who could have been more effective, such as Selahattin Demirtas¸, leader of the largest Kurdish party, were imprisoned before the voting had even begun.

As night falls on the day after the referendum, I start blocking the hundreds of trolls raining their threats and insults on me on social media. Tired of all these “real people,” I turn back to the last pages of The New Turkey. After recounting the numerous grave challenges to Turkish democracy, the book seems, in an incongruous final paragraph, to embrace hope as some kind of moral duty: “However, Turkey has only recently entered a post-military age. The challenges are great, but if it rises to meet them, the new Turkey may be vibrant, dynamic, modern, inclusive, democratic and strong.” After what I’ve seen in the past twenty-four hours, this observation begins to feel almost absurd. My mom calls me from her house in Izmir on Turkey’s western coast: “They are saying AKP supporters here are attacking the protesters with dogs,” she says. After a long silence, I reply, “Be careful.” Now I’m the one who sounds absurd.

Ece Temelkuran is the author of Women Who Blow on Knots (Parthian Books, 2017). The Time of Mute Swans is forthcoming from Arcade Publishing.