Tures: How I witnessed democracy’s death in Turkey two years ago

Published 10:00 am Monday, April 24, 2017

Many pundits will take the results of the Turkish referendum this weekend and conclude that this was when the republic perished. They’re too late to this party. I got to see firsthand how Turkey was a dying democracy two years ago on a research trip during their election.

Turkey’s undemocratic tendencies had little to do with most Turks. From the moment I set foot on Turkish soil in the airport, they were enthusiastically demonstrating their absentee ballot system, with clear tubs to show there was no vote stuffing. The average Turk regarded me as a fellow NATO ally, and they loved my efforts to pick up the local language.

Nor was this necessarily a political party problem. Every party stand I visited treated me like a celebrity, showering me with flags, buttons, banners, and literature, especially the Kurdish HDP, a favorite of all younger Turks. Even the ruling party, the AKP, did the same, with party faithful dubbing me “English John.”

But it did not take long to learn that the Turkish democracy we read about in our books and media back in the United States existed on paper, but not in practice.

At a university in Bursa, the political science students that I sat with eyed me nervously, and wouldn’t answer my questions. “We can’t talk about politics in class,” one bravely whispered. Immediately, a teacher appeared above us. “Politics may be discussed,” she informed us severely. “But it is not encouraged,” she added, with a glare to the students who were nearest to me, especially after another whispered an explanation: “Our president doesn’t like your country.”

Another university, this one in Kayseri, had open political and economic discussions flowing freely. Its administrator was a Kurd.  It’s been shut down. I fear the university presidents and professors are among the 40,000 arrested, in the wake of a botched military coup where another 100,000 judges, teachers, policemen, and prosecutors were fired for being followers of a moderate Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania in self-imposed exile.

As a communications major in college, I couldn’t wait to talk with journalists. But that encounter was an eye-opener. Several told me about how the government was shutting down newspapers that opposed Recep Tayyip Erdogan jailing reporters. “I expect to be arrested at any moment,” a bespectacled female journalist with a headscarf told me. We’ve lost touch since then. Given that the Committee for the Protection of Journalists identified Turkey as one of the leading jailers of reporters in the world, I’m not optimistic about her fate, and that of her colleagues, who did little more than uncover government corruption.

After writing about what I witnessed, I got plenty of critical emails from pro-Erdogan reporters, who have written plenty of critical articles about me, accusing me of being a supporter of terrorists for reporting on government abuses and Erdogan’s praise of Hitler’s type of government.

Younger Turks told me about how they faced arrest, tear gas, and water cannons for having a peaceful protest against having their favorite hangout spot, Gezi Park, get bulldozed by the Turkish government to build some gaudy building.

So no, I wasn’t surprised to learn that opposition party members were jailed ahead of the referendum, and that President Erdogan used “state of emergency powers” to limit media access (now owned by the government) to opponents of the referendum. I wasn’t shocked to learn that referendum opponents were afraid to campaign or protest. And I wasn’t surprised to see Erdogan win even more powers to control the country until 2029, until he hands it over to family members to continue his legacy. But the seeds were sown for Turkey’s turn toward authoritarianism long before this latest “vote.”

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College.  He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu or by Twitter at johntures2.