Amid Crackdown In Turkey, Dissatisfaction With President Erdogan Grows

Mar 21, 2016
Originally published on March 21, 2016 7:32 pm

Not long ago, Turkey was held up as a regional model: a Muslim-majority state with a thriving democracy and a market economy. These days, though, it's more often seen as a country where a ruling party with no serious opposition is drifting toward authoritarian rule.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led the Justice and Development Party (AKP in its Turkish acronym) to power in 2002, in a breakthrough victory for politicians gathered together from earlier, failed Islamist parties. The AKP has won every election since.

For Turkish liberals like Sahin Alpay, the AKP's early days as pro-democracy reformers are now memories from another time. Alpay, a veteran newspaper columnist, remembers that first AKP platform fondly. It was, he says, "the most liberal political party program ever in the history of the Turkish Republic."

Alpay, now in his early 70s, has lived through much of that history. His grandparents came to Turkey from Greece in the upheavals that led to massive population transfers in the 1920s. His parents embraced the former elite, the so-called "Kemalists," followers of the Republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. They enforced a secular Turkish nationalism that brooked no dissent.

The young Alpay liked the secular part but was appalled by the Kemalists' undemocratic tactics, especially the military coups that regularly put down opposition parties in the latter half of the20th century.

So in 2002, when Erdogan and the AKP burst onto the scene, Alpay wrote a column headlined "A Victory For Democracy." It wasn't Erdogan's working class background or charisma that attracted him, but the program of reforms he offered.

Here was something new under the Turkish sun: a party run by devotees of political Islam that proposed something Ataturk never had, European-style democratic institutions and freedoms.

"The centerpiece of the program was, 'We want to have Turkey as member of the European Union, and we're going to reform the country,' " Alpay says. "And they had a clear vision of a market economy."

Foreign investment soared and living standards began to rise. The death penalty was abolished and minorities gained basic rights. By this time, Alpay was a columnist for Zaman, a paper linked to Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric and the AKP's powerful ally. Alpay wrote columns defending the ruling party against attempted coups and cheered as the military's longstanding dominance over Turkish politics was cut back.

It wasn't until early 2011 that Alpay began to have doubts about where Erdogan was leading the country. The AKP had won another election decisively, and Erdogan gave a famous "balcony speech" in which he vowed to represent all Turks, not just those who voted for him.

But Alpay took note of Erdogan's other speeches — the ones attacking an independent judiciary and calling for a strong Turkish president, an office Erdogan would later win.

Then came the Arab Spring uprisings, which Alpay says gave AKP leaders dreams of Muslim Brotherhood-style governments across the region. Large anti-government protests in Istanbul in 2013 were crushed, with many demonstrators prosecuted. Opposition media outlets were at first threatened, and then sometimes taken over.

Alpay now believes Erdogan no longer stands for reform — or even any particular ideology.

"I think it's a gang of people who are united in their financial and political interests," he says. "So it's a terrible situation, and I think Mr. Erdogan is leading the country into very, very dire times."

These days, Erdogan remains popular with conservative and religious Turks, while his critics face a growing crackdown. The security forces are on the streets almost constantly, either responding to terrorist attacks or putting down protests.

More than 1,000 academics were arrested for calling for peace with the Kurdish minority. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have been periodically shut down or filtered.

As for Alpay, he can no longer air his opinions in the pages of the Zaman newspaper, since police stormed its offices and installed court-appointed trustees earlier this month.

Overnight, the country's largest opposition paper began offering uncharacteristically glowing coverage of Erdogan's struggle against those he calls the "accomplices of terror."

In a recent speech, the president warned of further crackdowns. "Being an academic, author, journalist or an NGO executive does not change the fact that this person indeed is a terrorist," he said.

Civil liberties groups — who have heard autocratic leaders in other countries use similar logic to silence dissent — say with a divided and weak opposition, the country will likely face more attempts to bring the population to heel behind its powerful president.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Besides the confusion that it's caused migrants, there's another concern about this deal between the EU and Turkey, it's the nature of Turkey's government itself. It was held up as a model Muslim-majority state with a thriving democracy just a few years ago. Lately, it's been cracking down on dissent and arresting critics. The hopes of many Turks have turned to gloom. NPR's Peter Kenyon introduces us to a man who used to be a fan of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: I met Sahin Alpay at his Istanbul home. He's a veteran newspaper columnist and university lecturer who's lived through much of Turkey's modern history. His parents embraced the former elite, the so-called Kemalists, who enforced the secular Turkish nationalism that brooked no dissent. The young Alpay liked the secular part but was appalled by the military coups that regularly put down opposition parties in the late 20th century. So in 2002 when Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK party burst onto the scene winning that year's elections, Alpay wrote a column entitled a victory for democracy. It wasn't Erdogan's charisma that attracted him, but the surprising political platform he offered.

SAHIN ALPAY: Which was the most liberal political party program ever in the history of the Turkish Republic.

KENYON: Here was something new, a party run by devotees of political Islam that proposed something the public secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, never had, true European-style democratic institutions and freedoms.

ALPAY: The centerpiece of the program was we want to have Turkey as a member of the European Union, and we're going to reform the country. And they had a clear vision of a market economy.

KENYON: Foreign investments soared and living standards began to rise. The death penalty was abolished, and minorities gained more rights. By this time, Alpay was a columnist for Zaman, a paper linked to a powerful ally of Erdogan, Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric. Alpay defended the ruling party against attempted coups and cheered as the military's long-standing dominance over politics was cut back. It wasn't until early 2011 that Alpay began to have doubts about where Erdogan was leading the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: That was the year of Erdogan's famous balcony speech in which he reassured liberal and secular Turks that he represented them, too, not just those who had voted for him. But Alpay noticed Erdogan's other speeches, the one's attacking an independent judiciary and the calls for beefing up the powers of Turkey's president, a job Erdogan would later win. Then came very large anti-government protests in 2013 with demonstrators crushed and prosecuted. Opposition media were at first threatened and sometimes taken over. Alpay now believes Erdogan no longer stands for reform or even any particular ideology.

ALPAY: I think it's a gang of people who are united in their financial and political interests. So it's a terrible situation, and I think Mr. Erdogan is leading the country into very, very dire times as witnessed by what we are living through, especially during the last year.

KENYON: These days Erdogan remains popular mainly with conservative and religious Turks while his critics face a growing crackdown. Over 1,000 academics were arrested for calling for peace with the Kurdish minority. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have been periodically shut down or filtered. Residents of Istanbul and Ankara have grown used to seeing security forces on the streets almost constantly either responding to terrorist attacks or putting down street protests.

Alpay will no longer be able to express his opinions in the pages of the Zaman newspaper which has gone from being an Erdogan booster to being accused of trying to topple the government. This online audio was recorded as police stormed the Zaman offices and installed court-appointed trustees. Overnight, the largest opposition paper began offering glowing coverage of Erdogan's struggle against what he calls the accomplices of terror. Heard here through an interpreter, Erdogan warned of further crackdowns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Being an academic, author, journalist or an NGO executive does not change the fact that this person indeed is a terrorist.

KENYON: Civil liberties groups have heard autocratic leaders in other countries use the same logic to silence dissent. They warn that with an opposition that's divided and weak, the country will likely face more attempts to bring the population to heel behind the powerful president. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.