January 12, 2015

Turkey sees unprecedented division, conflicts under AK Party rule

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, which came to power in 2002 with an all-embracing and pro-democracy discourse vowing to respect society's diversity, has, after its 12-year-old rule, ended up being one of the most divisive and polarizing governments in the history of the Turkish Republic, something that could be seen clearly in the conflicts among various groups and even members of the same family in the country.

The divisions in the society, fomented by the AK Party government and its former leader and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, became more visible following the Gezi Park protests in summer 2013 and graft probes that became public in December 2013.

The Gezi Park protests began on May 28, 2013 initially to oppose the urban development plan for İstanbul's Gezi Park. The protests were sparked by outrage when the protesters conducting a sit-in in the park were violently forced out by riot police. Subsequently, supporting protests and clashes took place across Turkey protesting plenty of other concerns. The protests quickly spread to the whole country and evolved into anti-government protests.

Back then, Erdoğan, who was then prime minister, refused to ease the tensions. Describing the protestors as “looters,” Erdoğan said he was having a difficult time of keeping 50 percent of society, i.e., his voter base, in their homes. He also tried to stigmatize the protestors on many occasions.

One incident was frequently referred to by Erdoğan in an attempt to portray the protesters as being hooligans. It was claimed that an attack on a headscarved woman happened in Kabataş on June 1, 2013 during the protests. However, video footage released of the Gezi Park protests refuted this claim.

In another attempt to stigmatize the Gezi protestors, Erdoğan had also accused them of drinking alcohol in a mosque. The mosque story was also later found to be untrue, thereby damaging Erdoğan's credibility. In leaked video footage, the demonstrators who sought refuge in a mosque appeared to have sustained injuries and were wounded. The imam of the mosque apparently opened the doors of the mosque to those running away from the police seeking refuge.

Following the Dec. 17 and 25 graft probes' going public in 2013, in which some government-affiliated figures were implicated, Erdoğan, who described the probes as a “coup attempt” against his government, referred to those asking for an investigation of the corruption claims as the “others.”

Conflict among the religious

Turkey is used to seeing conflicts between its religious and secular circles; however, for the first time in the country's history, a conflict has emerged among religious groups in the society based on their perception of the graft allegations.

The AK Party government, which received the support of the faith-based Hizmet movement for years, launched a battle against it following the Dec.17 incidents, accusing the movement of establishing a parallel state within the state and masterminding the corruption probes.

On many occasions, Erdoğan has used derogatory remarks for the followers of the Hizmet movement such as “virus,” “hashashin,” “gang,” etc. The hatred fomented by the government in society also had repercussions among society's members and relations between members of the same family or relatives have been damaged.

Journalists, academics divided

The Gezi Park protests and Dec. 17 graft probe led to fragmentation among journalists and academics who used to support the AK Party government until the beginning of the party's third term in power, which began in 2011.

Journalists who did not agree with the government labels for the Gezi Park protests and the graft probes as “attempted coups” were sacked from pro-government media outlets. For instance, Yeni Şafak writers Murat Menteş, Işın Eliçin, Murat Aksoy, Kürşat Bumin and Süleyman Gündüz left their jobs at the paper due to a disagreement with the paper's publication policy to refer to Gezi Park protests and graft probes as a “coup attempt.”

Columnists Mustafa Akyol and Sedat Laçiner from the pro-government Star daily shared the same fate, while columnists such as Gülay Göktürk, Ahmet Taşgetiren, Etyen Mahçupyan, Leyla İpekçi and Atilla Yayla, who used to write for the Zaman and Bugün newspapers, which are affiliated with the Hizmet movement, left these papers and were immediately employed by pro-government dailies Sabah, Star, Akşam and Yeni Şafak.

Dozens of other journalists have lost their jobs due to their criticism of the government.

Young Civilians split up

Even the anti-militarist, anti-coup civil society group Young Civilians (Genç Siviller) saw division in its ranks following the graft probe's going public. Turgay Oğur and Yıldıray Oğur, two brothers who are among the group's founders, fell into opposite camps. While Yıldıray, along with activists Ceren Kenar and Erkan Şen, chose to take sides with the AK Party government, Turgay, along with activists Fatih Demirci and Nurcan Çalışkan, refused to back the government's anti-democratic actions, and they cut their ties with the group.

Commenting on his departure from the Young Civilians, Turgay Oğur said during an interview with the Radikal daily: “I made efforts for the Young Civilians for years. I made many sacrifices. Including the job I do today to make a living, I have not had any financial gain for being a part of this group. To the contrary, I was seen as a little bit dangerous. Despite this, I took my jacket and left the Young Civilians. On Dec. 17, I understood that everyone is an enemy of the Hizmet movement. People I thought were very close wrote on social media mockingly that the Young Civilians' pro-Hizmet wing had been eliminated.”

Armenians divided, too

The polarization in society has also hit Turkish-Armenians. Following the Dec.17 graft probe, Turkish-Armenian columnist Etyen Mahçupyan parted ways with the Zaman daily for which he wrote for years and began to write for the pro-government Akşam daily. With another Turkish-Armenian writer, Markar Esayan, who began to write for the pro-government Yeni Şafak daily, Mahçupyan took part with those who claimed that the Dec.17 probe was a “coup attempt” against the government.

Mahçupyan even became an advisor of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu who was appointed to the helm of the AK Party following Erdoğan's election to the presidency last summer. Yet, another well-known Turkish-Armenian writer Hayko Bağdat, who writes for the Taraf daily, continued to direct criticism at the AK Party on many occasions.

Carrot and sticks used for business world

The business world also received its share from the polarized atmosphere in the country. It is no secret that business organizations that comply with government policies are given privileges in public tenders, while there is discrimination against companies and businessmen who criticize government acts.

The government has not denied the existence of documents showing that it profiled companies that are members of the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), which is affiliated with the Hizmet movement.

There is a boycott under way against these companies. Moreover, the government is trying to discourage members of the confederation from engaging in commercial activities through frequent inspections.

The Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (TÜSİAD) was also placed on the government's target list after TÜSİAD President Haluk Dinçer expressed in a recent newspaper interview his disagreement with a number of government policies. He said he does not see any “parallel structure” within the state, as is asserted by pro-government circles, that there is no impartial and independent judiciary in Turkey and that TÜSİAD does not believe that the Gezi protests and the Dec. 17 investigations were “coup attempts” against the government.

A columnist from the pro-government Sabah daily, Okan Müderrisoğlu, was quick to target the organization and said, “Failing to take a stance with Erdoğan, TÜSİAD may turn into parallel structure.”

Published on Today's Zaman, 10 Janaury 2015, Saturday