A turning point in Turkey’s history?

Emre Caliskan and Simon A. Waldman write: The protests come as Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to change the Turkish constitution to give more powers to the president, an office Erdogan is believed to be eyeing when his term as prime minister soon expires. Many Turks believe that this will give him further powers. Already there are deep concerns over sweeping laws and policies passed by Erdogan which threaten to alter the nature of Turkey’s identity to one that favors Islam over secularism without transparency or due process.

Last week, with little public debate, Turkey’s parliament passed legislation to restrict the sale of alcohol. “We don’t want a generation wandering around in a merry state day and night,” declared Erdogan. This is despite the fact that Turkey enjoys one of the lowest levels of alcohol consumption and drink-related problems in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Also last week at a groundbreaking ceremony for a third Bosporus bridge in Istanbul, it was announced that the bridge would be named after Selim the Grim, a conquering Ottoman sultan known for his aversion to alcohol and his massacres of Alevis, a constituency that represents roughly 15% of Turkey’s population. This controversial decision was again made without public consultation.

Meanwhile, the independent media, a pillar of any healthy democracy, has been consistently targeted by Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). According to the Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey is “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” where approximately 70 journalists are still behind bars. Turkey was ranked 154th for open press out of 179 countries, a worse ranking than Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia.

This has not gone unnoticed by the public. The almost total media blackout of the first day of protests shocked many Turkish demonstrators who took to Twitter and Facebook to transmit news. But even social media has not escaped the wrath of Erdogan. “There is a now menace which is called Twitter,” the prime minister remarked, “Social media is the worst menace to society.”

Another source of public concern is the peace talks between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Considered a terrorist group by Ankara, the PKK has waged a battle against Turkey since 1984 in its demand for Kurdish rights and autonomy. However, there was little public knowledge or debate about the negotiations. When a team of “elders” was finally selected to discuss the issue with the public, its members were drawn almost exclusively from supporters of Erdogan’s party. Many Turks and Kurds doubt the sincerity of the peace process; there are more than 8,000 Kurdish politicians, journalists and activists behind bars, mostly for non-violent offenses. [Continue reading…]

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