Talking About Dissent in Turkey? Hush, Hush!

With the successes of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi or AKP) in three consecutive general elections in Turkey (getting 34% of the total votes in 2002, 47% in 2007 and almost 50% in the 2011 general election), Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emerged as a world figure. From the Middle East to Europe to Africa and even to North America, Erdogan’s name has become known even beyond policy makers to ordinary people. His ‘mastership’ of the Prime Ministry has been remarkable for a Turkish leader: he made it to the cover of Time Magazine last month; he was applauded upon his arrival at Cairo Airport like a pop star; and he appears in the newspapers of the West almost every day.

Erdogan’s interventions abroad have been widely, and most often favourably reviewed: first against the Israeli government over Gaza; then against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya; and now, more explicitly and rigorously, toward the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria. All these incidents are well-known to the general public in North America, and the mainstream media has been quite prominent in promoting the AKP’s rule. Many of the right in the West have praised the AKP government as one of the strongest allies in the Middle East. But the AKP government has also come in for praise from the left for its support of the non-governmental organizations sending the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza in 2010.

But what has been going on in Turkey is quite unknown to the general public abroad. The AKP government’s hostility toward ‘enemies within,’ by which it has branded all kinds of dissent, has been severe and growing. The AKP regime maybe acting as pro-democracy abroad, but it is increasingly authoritarian at home.

Authoritarianism, Neoliberalism and the AKP Rule

The AKP has ruled in Turkey for almost a decade and has sparked wide debate among academic and political circles. The debates mainly focus on the established ideological dichotomies in Turkey – laicist versus religious, republican versus liberal, Kemalist versus Islamist, modern versus traditional, military rule versus civilian rule. These dichotomies are themselves debatable. In the laicist camp, there has been a consistent belief in the AKP’s ‘latent intention’ to bring in Islamic rules in society and state. In the republican camp the contention has been that the AKP aims to dissolve the republican state and also to marketize society and politics. In the liberal camp, the AKP has been regarded as enacting radical reforms toward the liberalization of economy and the restoration of individual rights and freedoms.

Although detailed examination of the question of Islamism and the AKP goes beyond the scope of this article, it is necessary to note that the AKP is neither the sole example of political Islam in Turkey, nor is it representative in that respect. Its relation to Islamist politics is all the more complicated because the party spokespersons, at least in their initial years in power, constantly disavowed that they pursued Islamist politics. The AKP still retains its discursive silence in regard to Islamist politics. Yet, it pursues a consistent socio-cultural policy fed by religious conservatism.

The AKP has, however, convinced many liberals that it is a neoliberal party. It has been successful in defusing the Kemalist republican challenge, with its historical emphasis on statist policies, with recourse to the well-established TINA (‘there is no alternative’) argument in Turkey. But there has remained a societal segment that the AKP has not been able to convince. These opposition blocs have not been incorporated into its neoliberal policy agenda. As the AKP has so far proven to be neoliberal par excellence in its overall political strategy, for both individuals and groups it has been unable to convince, it has relied on marginalization and intimidation.

In pursuing its neoliberal course, the AKP has appealed to the masses with a claim to be the representative of the nation [to occupy some of the space of Kemalism], and marginalized the discourse of opposition groups. Exemplary in this respect are the labour movement and the feminists, obstacles to neoliberalism and conservative politics respectively. Just over a year ago, workers organized a mass protest against the privatization of TEKEL (former state Monopoly of Tobacco and Alcoholic Beverages) to claim their already gained rights. They managed to raise widespread public awareness and support against privatization. The AKP government’s response was forged on two strategies. The government spokespersons presented the protestors as ‘the others’ of the nation at large opposing measures for the economic future of Turkey, and they resorted to authoritarian measures, including both threats and police violence.

With respect to feminists, the Prime Minister and a number of leading party members have referred to them as ‘a bunch of marginals.’ They have even disavowed gender equality as a desired goal, and dismissed warnings against feminist concerns of violence against women in Turkey. Although confusingly, the AKP governments has been attentive to forge a public identity that recognizes women’s rights and that is supportive of the measures against gendered violence. The point has been to marginalize feminists who either oppose the party’s neoliberal mindset or who claim a say in the gendered policy making process. The party’s gender policies are meant to be incorporated within a neoliberal order of things under the monopolizing political stance of the AKP that aims at reserving agenda setting, policy-making and implementation to itself.

If opposition forces challenge the governmental agenda and gain popular support through cooperation with other local, national, international and transnational governmental mechanisms, then the AKP government has been willing to turn to intimidation. The process of intimidation by the AKP has been continuing for a number of years. A number of ‘operations’ have had different names, though they have tended to share the same feature: state defense against terrorist acts and/or organizations. Large numbers of people from various societal segments have been taken under custody and/or arrested with reference to the same Anti-Terror Law. Due to the exceptional status of the law concerned, people who are taken under custody or arrested are denied individual rights and liberties during the trial process. The preparation of court files can take years through which the affected ones are subjected to public smear campaigns by the institutional power circles. According to an Associated Press report, 35,117 people worldwide have been convicted as terrorists in the last decade. Turkey alone accounted for an astonishing one-third of all convictions with 12,897 (see As interesting is that this number was estimated at only 273 in 2005 (the AKP first elected into office in 2002).

There is no doubt that the neoliberal transition in the country under the AKP’s rule has been realized through its fusion, as elsewhere, with conservatism in social values. Although this conservatism is identified with Islamism in Turkey, it is clear that the AKP’s conservatism is about removing all kinds of dissent in the way of neoliberal economy-politics.

One example of this kind of policing of dissent relates to one of the neoliberal energy politics of the AKP, with respect to Hydro Electric Power Plants (HES in its Turkish acronym). This project involves the rivers on the north coast being enclosed within huge pipes that run alongside, thereby destroying the surrounding habitats. The villagers living around the river and using the water for their land are being left without water. Protests against the HES have gained popular attention, as those involved in the movement are poor villagers themselves. On May 31st, 2011, in the protests against the HES in Artvin, Hopa, a north coast municipality, a high school teacher, Metin Lokumcu, died due to a heart attack caused by a gas bomb thrown by the police over the protesters.

The news spread and a protest meeting was organized in Ankara the next day. The police brutally attacked protesters in Ankara, too. In total, 37 people were arrested in Ankara and Hopa. Of the detainees, 22 were held in prison since June 1st, 2011. They were forced to wait to appear in the courts for more than six months. Most are university students. The evidence listed in the charge sheet includes trivial things like a scarf, a broken umbrella, and some books (ones legally sold in bookstores). These students are accused of being members of a ‘terrorist’ organization of the 1970s (a group which no longer even exists). After 6 months, on December 9th, 2011, the court decided to release all of them, largely due to popular support mobilized for the students.

Yet, a week after their release, a new case has been filed against the same students. This time they are accused of breaking the ‘public meeting law’ and harming public property. This is but one example of the criminalization of political resistance and protests in Turkey.

Kurdish Repression

On the ‘Kurdish Question,’ the AKP government has not had a focused political strategy. Until 2009, the AKP had a ‘softer’ approach to Kurdish demands for national recognition. For the first time, the AKP government made it officially possible to speak about Kurds and their problems. For example, in June 2008, the parliament accepted that TRT (official national TV channel) would start broadcasting in Kurdish. The legal prohibitions targeting Kurdish publications were removed. The AKP became the second party in the Kurdish regions after the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (Baris ve Demokrasi Partisi or BDP), in both the 2007 and 2011 elections. They adopted a discourse of ‘democratic opening’ toward Kurdish issues suggesting, for the first time, the Turkish state is moving toward a peaceful settlement.

But this approach was abruptly shifted with the AKP’s attack on the Union of Kurdish Communities (Koma Civakên Kurdistan or KCK) in 2009. The KCK is an umbrella organization, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan or PKK). It was founded in 2005 as an association to pursue unarmed political struggle in the cities. Since 2009, over 3,000 people have been arrested with the accusation of being KCK members under the Anti-Terror Law. Among those arrested are academics, mayors and parliamentarians of the BDP, trade union organizers, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and of course university students were detained. The KCK operations are much like a ‘witch hunt’ with respect to accusations and the violation of civil rights of the accused.

There have been 29 judicial hearings related to the KCK held since the first hearing on October 18th, 2010 in Diyarbakir (where part of the KCK trials are being held). The procedures are jammed with delays, as evidence has not been presented and all interrogations have not been done. Up to now, many defendants have not been able to present their defense. The charge list, of over 3,000 pages, does not include any obvious violent crime. The evidence, included in the list of charges relies on unidentified eyewitnesses, secretly and illegally recorded phone conversations of the defendants and other secret sources not made public. The lawyers for the defendants contend that mistaken and incomplete translations of the original Kurdish documents have been done by the police officers. They have then been presented to a court whose members do not know Kurdish.

Büsra Ersanli is a Professor of Political Science at Marmara University, Istanbul, and a pro-peace feminist activist who had worked as a member of the Association for Supporting and Training Women Candidates (Kadin Adaylari Destekleme ve Egitme Dernegi, Ka-Der). She is also a member of the Party Assembly of the BDP, and is only one among hundreds of others who have been arrested within the scope of the ‘KCK operations.’ She was arrested in Istanbul on November 1st, 2011 along with 22 others. She is also a member of the Constitutional Commission of the BDP, formed by the BDP as a party with parliamentary seats, as part of the process of the parliamentary discussions on the drafting of the new Constitution of Turkey. Under the rubric of the Anti-Terror Law, Ersanli’s case has not been clearly stated by the Turkish state yet. Her lawyers cannot access information regarding the grounds she was taken into custody and arrested, although it is clear that she is accused of involvement in terrorist activities, in one form or another. But the evidence upon which this accusation is being made is anything but clear. At one point after her arrest, the state used the ‘public smearing channels’ of the media to leak information that at the BDP’s Political Academy where she lectured she spoke in favor of the PKK. The same media smears leveled personal attacks on Ersanli for a past marriage, her leftist political stance in the 1970s, her sister’s past marriage, and what not!


Political dissent in Turkey that makes the case for fundamental changes to pursue ‘structural peace’ has been consistently attacked by the institutional power centres of the state. This has been so since the 1980 military coup d’état that also began to introduce neoliberal reforms into Turkey. The military coup also radically cracked down on political dissent, and closed down the political space for the left in the country. The AKP government today puts forward a discourse against coup d’états, and against the dominance of the military (which was fortified in the 1982 Constitution). But it does so only to further widen the political cracks in statist Kemalism, while actively taking advantage of the economic crisis to deepen neoliberal policies. This includes marginalizing and intimidating the dissident circles that defend an alternative order.

In Turkey, speaking for structural peace that seeks an end to all kinds of exploitation and oppression requires offering alternatives to the neoliberal and authoritarian policies of the AKP. It is not enough to make the military cadres of the state bend to the authority of the civilian cadres of the state. This is the wrong starting point for a democratic social structure. In a socio-political context of multiple structures of political oppression, there is a need to start from the demilitarization of social practices, civilian cadres and everyday politicking. Otherwise, there is simply a transfer of power from some cadres to certain others, while dissent turns out to be a reason for marginalization and intimidation. In the political setting of neoliberal authoritarianism under the hegemony of the AKP, it is clear that basic democratic struggles are integral to the political and organizational agenda of the Turkish left today. •

Simten Coşar teaches in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Baskent University in Ankara.

Gülden Özcan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University.