As Turkey's elections approach, denial runs deep for Erdogan



Emily Judem

ISTANBUL, Turkey—On March 11, Berkin Elvan died after 269 days in a coma.

He was killed by a teargas canister shot by Turkish riot police. He was 15 years old, still a child. But for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, the boy was a terrorist.

Calling him a terrorist was an easy way out, a way to avoid giving condolences or apologizing for the crime police committed, acting on his orders. Maybe in Erdogan’s “parallel state” Berkin Elvan was a terrorist. But, still, for the rest of us, he was just a kid.

He will be remembered by his family, friends, and hundreds of thousands of Turks who marched in peace and support on the day when young Berkin was buried not as a terrorist, but as a child who was killed on his way out to buy bread.

This, sadly, is only the latest in Erdogan’s denial and apathy about the country he has driven to a dangerous brink.

And just days away from Turkey’s March 30 municipal vote, Prime Minister Erdogan’s party candidates warn of “vanishing ink on ballots.” Still, the ruling AK Party appears to be “on course to maintain its dominance of the electoral map”—a curious feat considering the country's state since protests began last June.

The park

When the prime minister ordered the demolition of a park in central Istanbul, a little less than a year ago, he did not know what was to come. When countrywide protests broke out, he dismissed them as part of a plot (orchestrated by the “Interest lobby”) to overthrow him and discredit the ruling party.

He was quick to blame everything on “external” factors and to call the protesters all sorts of names. Everyone, everywhere was responsible, but not the Prime Minister himself.

His reaction, and his divisive rhetoric, polarized the country.

Erdogan did not recognize the Gezi park protests as anything more than just people’s anger toward the demolition of a few trees.

He failed to see the bigger picture—that this was an accumulation of grievances against his government.

Everyone who was on the street last summer was a hooligan, part of the riffraff, or a destroyer of what this government has built over the past 11 years.

Over 8,000 people were injured, 5,300 arrested and 11 killed last summer. The excessive use of force by Turkish riot police, the piercing smoke of tear gas canisters (and the canisters themselves), and the painful blows of the rubber bullets, resulted in 14 people losing their eyes.

“Winter is coming”

One of the popular slogans shared during the summer protests was “Tayyip, winter is coming” referring to a widely popular TV series “The Game of Thrones.”

Little did the authors of this slogan know that winter indeed was coming and that it would bring serious challenges to the ruling Justice and Development Party, which has been entangled in a corruption scandal since December of 2013, involving the sons of three cabinet ministers, a construction tycoon, and a mayor from the AKP party. All were implicated in “deals” and arrested in Istanbul and Ankara.

Several phone conversations including calls between the Prime Minister and his son—concerning the retrieval of $1 billion of accumulated cash out of the family house—were released and shared widely (the PM and his son insist the recording is a fake and is another attempt by the “parallel state” to overthrow the honest AKP.)

Other recordings revealed that Erdogan had called the executive at local news network HaberTurk and asked him to censor the views of an opposition leader and a critical story on health care reform. The reporters, as well as the editor in charge of the story, were fired soon after (and to Erdogan this is normal).

“We have to teach [the media],” Erdogan said in a press conference.

In another call, the prime minister asked his justice minister to take care of a case against Aydin Dogan, a media boss facing tax evasion charges. In response, the minister said it was going to be impossible to influence the course of the case, due to the background of the presiding judge as he was from the Alevi community—a religious minority group in Turkey that is often at odds with the ruling party.

Admitting to this phone call as well, Erdogan said his asking for this favor was natural.

“Anything for the country and the nation,” he said.

Following this statement, it was no surprise that in yet another move to stifle freedom of expression in Turkey, Erdogan blocked Twitter on March 20.

“We will eradicate it!” he exclaimed at a campaign rally in Bursa.

Twelve hours later, just around midnight, Internet users could no longer access Twitter. The government had made good on recent promises to block access to major social media sites if it became necessary.

And while it was easy for him to influence his own folks, like the ministers or the heads of news channels over a phone call, Erdogan quickly learned that dealing with international platforms like Twitter isn’t as simple. In order to eradicate this “menace to society,” as Erdogan called the social platforms during the summer protests, four court orders had to be issued, and have been—meaning every Internet provider, including the GSM operators must implement the ban.

As Erdogan fired at Twitter, he said he didn’t care what the international community would think.

And he doesn’t care what the international community thinks about the young boy who was killed while running an errand, either.

Erdogan remains unapologetic about the death of 15 year-old Berkin Elvan.

And on the day of his funeral, protests erupted with police yet again, resorting to violence, yet again.

Protesters in 15 cities joined the clashes against the police. But, still, the prime minister chose to keep his silence on the day of the funeral while President Gul and other officials were quick to offer sympathy to Elvan’s family.

Former European Union Minister Egemen Bagis called the protesters “necrophiliacs” in a Tweet that was removed shortly after it was posted.

Erdogan’s silence was only broken at a campaign rally in Gaziantep, where the prime minister, instead of giving his condolences, called the young boy a terrorist.

He also made the crowds heckle the mother of the boy, Gulsum Elvan, who said “my son’s killer is the prime minister!”

But Erdogan maintains that a slingshot and “shooting marbles” are considered a weapon, and Berkin’s carrying them meant that he was a member of a terrorist group.

It must be said here that the fundamental rights of the people of Turkey are at stake in these continued conflicts and the coming elections.

There are more journalists in prison in Turkey than in China. And as protests of this past year showed, the country’s record of dealing with protesters is bleak.

What’s more, the two controversial laws recently passed by the parliament—on the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors and on the regulation of the Internet—demonstrate the government’s tightening grip over the judiciary and online content. And there is growing concern over Internet surveillance and the potential impact this could have on freedom of expression in Turkey, which is already in a fragile state.

When Berkin Elvan stepped out of his family’s apartment on June 13, he wasn’t fighting for his right to freedom of expression. But nine months later, after having lost his life, he has become a symbol for this fight.

The people who mourned together with his family, marched in the streets, and faced police resistance were fighting—through the memory of the young boy—for their right to assembly and free expression.

National elections in Turkey will be held this Sunday and Tayyip Erdogan has called for democratic elections, in a democratic state. But Turkey is nowhere near the promised land of liberal democracy, and that is painfully clear in the sight of mourners suffocating from tear gas and protestors having their voices stifled.

Arzu Geybullayeva is a regional analyst and blogger contributing to Global Voices Advocacy, an international citizen media project promoting free speech online, where a version of this piece originally appeared.


This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.