Erdogan's Bond With Turkey's Conservative Masses

Virtual one-man rule?
Virtual one-man rule?
Ahmet Hakan

ISTANBUL — The current state of Turkey offers little cause for comfort.

• The claims of corruption and theft multiply with each passing day.

• Those same claims are about to be swept under the rug.

• The judiciary is effectively finished.

• Limitation of basic freedoms is on the rise.

• Authoritarianism is alive in the form of virtual one-man rule.

In short, even with yet another victory in local elections this weekend, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has not borne a bonafide democracy. Instead, what it has managed to “normalize” in society is an atmosphere in which Turkey’s conservatives are able to breathe a collective sigh of relief, to finally feel as equals with others and hold their heads up high.

This atmosphere is the singular creation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, AKP’s leader.

Consider the following: Not long ago, a student with a headscarf was not able to attend to a university, and even the most democratic-minded people among us were arguing that “the citizen can wear a headscarf, but the civil servant cannot.”

The current administration solved this problem, undid the old regulations, and even the people who’d caused this problem realized how ridiculous they had been. “The headscarved women are our sisters too,” they now say.

Moreover, Erdogan is running an extremely powerful propaganda machine and selling the concepts of “corruption” and “lawlessness” to this crowd as “they are attacking me because I gave you this.”

AKP’s supporters are not saying “let him steal,” nor are they telling themselves “let us turn a blind eye to our people’s theft.” Maybe a few, but they are not the majority among AKP voters.

A magical bond

It is time we try to understand the minds of Turkey’s conservative people. That does not mean whitewashing the lawlessness, corruption or authoritarian tendencies going on these days.

Understanding the conservative people would help us grasp the concept of why the conservative crowd does not radically distance itself from the AKP. It would let us reason with an open mind.

There is a magical relationship between the conservative crowd and Tayyip Erdogan. Ending this relationship requires a process, which cannot happen overnight.

Opponents have to stand in front of this same crowd with a new relationship based on trust. The opposition, especially the Republican People’s Party (CHP), took serious steps in this direction. But a relationship of trust is not easy to build.

It is not just the CHP. Even the most democratic circles are just reaching a certain level of maturity regarding the demands and freedoms of the conservative people. But the conservatives see such moves as an attempt to act more democratic because they cannot overpower the government.

Or put another way, there is a suspicion of sincerity. It is meaningless to expect the conservatives to suddenly and radically distance themselves from their own party in such an environment.

Making such hostile comments as “they are sheep” or “they vote for the food donations” should be abandoned, and replaced by a patient, sincere and tireless effort to build trust.

In short, I am saying that we must stand against corruption, lawlessness and the limitation of freedoms. But we must find a way to do this without being seen as enemies to the people.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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