Yogi Berra’s famous dictum was the first thing that came to mind yesterday as I watched yet another round of peaceful protests overtake Turkish cities and be met with the predictable barrage of TOMA water cannons, tear gas, and massive police force. This round of protests is in many ways an extension of the Gezi protests last summer, as they were ignited by the death of Berkin Elvan, a fifteen year old boy who had been in a coma since being hit in the head with a teargas canister in June. Just as the government’s overreaction in June directly led to yesterday’s events, no doubt the effects of the police response yesterday and the continuing teargassing of mourners during today’s funeral will reverberate down the road, as more civilians were injured yesterday, including people struck with teargas canisters. So yet again Turkey’s cities are filled with protestors angry at the government, and the official government response is to cause chaos and destruction in urban centers and send the message that protest and dissent will not be tolerated in any form. This is becoming habitual rather unique, which does not augur well for the future.
The most remarkable part of all this is that the government has demonstrated that it has learned absolutely nothing from its experiences of the past year. Not only was yesterday’s response inappropriate, it was also ineffective and counterproductive. For some reason, Prime Minister Erdoğan – who, by the way, given his propensity to micromanage everything from local construction projects to whom television stations interview is no doubt directing the police response – believes that violence will succeed in getting everyone off the streets and creating compliantly meek citizens. Rather than indicating that he has heard Turks’ legitimate complaints and grievances and is working to address them, he deems it better to act as imperious as always. An apology from Erdoğan for Elvan’s death does not seem to be forthcoming, and there has not even been a simple statement of regret. Contrast this to Erdoğan’s public tears and repeated decrying of the Egyptian government for the deaths of Egyptian protestors, and you can understand why many Turks are fed up. Given that Elvan was killed after leaving his family’s home to buy bread and that Turks have been hanging bread outside their doors as a symbol of protest and mourning at his death, Claire Sadar’s bitingly sarcastic prediction that we are perhaps about to see the emergence of the bread lobby as Erdoğan’s newest bogeyman captures well how tone deaf Erdoğan’s past rhetorical broadsides have been. Successful leaders learn from their mistakes and move on, but there is no evidence that Erdoğan has even a sliver of this trait.
Turkey’s claims of enhanced democracy under the AKP are crumbling in other ways as well. The protests are overshadowing the news that former army chief of staff General Ilker Başbuğ and other military officers ensnared in the Ergenekon trials were released from prison over the past week, exploding forever the idea that the AKP’s greatest achievement has been subordinating the military to civilian control by punishing officers for numerous coup plots. Whether the military will be willing to align with Erdoğan in his fight with the Gülen movement after everything it has been through is an open question and my hunch is that the answer is no, but it’s clear that the prime minister is eager and open to partner with anyone in his latest battle. The Ergenekon prosecutions were largely shams, so releasing officers who were convicted under false pretenses is a good thing, but do not think for a second that this is being done in the service of democracy. Rather, it is being done to curry favor with one undemocratic actor in order to create a stronger coalition against another undemocratic actor. In the process, the AKP’s claim to have installed a consolidated democracy by defanging the military has gone up in smoke, as the government itself has now conceded that the trials themselves were marked by all manner of irregularities and is working to reverse the verdicts. In the process, Turkey’s justice system is turning more and more into one big kangaroo court.
The variable injecting massive uncertainty into everything this time around is the municipal elections scheduled for March 30. When the Gezi protests were violently suppressed, elections were still some ways off and there was room for the government to recover. Now, however, elections take place in less than three weeks, and will come on the heels of more injured protestors, more inflammatory government statements, the graft and corruption scandal, and they have also taken on an outsized importance in Erdoğan’s mind itself. If the AKP does not do as well as they have become accustomed to, or loses Ankara or Istanbul, it will severely damage what has been up until now an aura of invincibility surrounding Erdoğan and the AKP. Erdoğan himself has been saying for months that the municipal elections should be viewed as a proxy for the party’s national power, and given the allegations swirling around him and his family, the results matter more to him than perhaps even to the mayoralty candidates. With the stakes involved and more information coming out every day about the government’s illicit behavior and attempts to influence all sorts of decisions, I have grave doubts about whether these elections are going to be free and fair, and whether the AKP’s efforts to put its thumb on the scale are going to cross over into more egregious election violations.
Yet, there are some small rays of hope. President Abdullah Gül went farther this week in denouncing Erdoğan’s threats to ban Facebook and Youtube than he has in the face of similar comments in the past. Gül, Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek, and EU Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu all expressed condolences to the Elvan family yesterday, which is farther than any government official went during Gezi. So even if Erdoğan is too stubborn to ever change his ways, perhaps others in the AKP have learned something about how to interact with the people who have put them in office, even if it is nothing more than a small gesture such as offering sympathies to the family of a boy killed by the government for no reason while buying groceries. Let’s hope that Berkin Elvan eventually becomes an exception rather than a rule.