There is a very good reason why anyone over the age of 50 in Turkey is deeply concerned about the increasing political and social polarisation in the country. They remember all too well when similar divisions in their youth led to the violent clashes of the 1970s and ultimately to the military coup of September 1980.
I was in living in Ankara in 1968 and 1969 and remember vividly the building tensions. The 1968 upheavals in Europe had made their way to Turkey. Hardly a day went by without an angry demonstration against ‘imperialism’, the United States, the general ‘establishment’ or any of the other assorted evils perceived by students of that generation. Walls at Ankara University were covered with posters urging solidarity with the Palestinians, Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung. , and, of course, Ho Chi Minh. The anti-capitalism works of the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse became very popular.
All this made the government extremely nervous. The only way officials knew how to respond was with heavy-handed police action and subsidising squads of right-wing thugs. The stage was set for a decade of escalating violence that routinely resulted in several killings a week.
I remember going to a dinner party and joking that people should check their guns at the door. It was not a joke when several of the guests then deposited their hand guns on a table by the front door. It was also not a joke when a journalist friend of mine was kidnapped, badly beaten and left for dead in an empty lot. It was a miracle that he survived.
Of course there are sharp differences between now and then. For one thing, the military is a less obvious source of intervention than it was more than 30 years ago. For another, Turks have more experience at the ballot box and rather like the chance to choose their own rulers.
The biggest difference, perhaps, is that now it is the government itself fuelling tensions. Not a day goes by without the prime minister accusing his growing number of opponents of being terrorists, atheists, stooges for unnamed foreign powers (everyone understands he means the US, EU, and Israel), or simply working against the National Will. Most politicians offered ritual sympathy to the family of the young man who died recently after being hit with a police tear gas canister. No such words of sympathy from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. Instead, he accused the 15-year-old of being a terrorist whose pockets were filled with explosive devices. Those charges might carry more weight if earlier outrageous claims by the prime minister about desecration of a mosque or attacks on a head-scarfed woman had not been proven to be complete lies.
The immediate causes of these angry, irrational outbursts are the municipal elections and the spreading corruption charges against his cronies and family. Erdoğan is fighting for his political life in these elections scheduled for March 30. The actual outcome in individual cities is much less important than the overall national share of the vote. Erdoğan has been bragging that with 50% of the vote he is essentially invulnerable and the voters love him regardless of any corruption charges. If the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) vote share falls much below 50% those claims go up in smoke and his political future is thrown in doubt. It is unclear how low the AKP vote total would have to go before other forces in the party would summon the courage, if any remains, to get rid of Erdoğan before more damage is done.
Given that the stakes are so high, will Erdoğan try to rig the elections? Turkey has an enviable record for relatively clean elections, but Erdoğan has demonstrated time and again that his role model is more Vladimir Putin than Thomas Jefferson. His government has routinely bent theoretically independent state institutions to serve his own purposes. His Minister of Interior has been caught on telephone yelling at a prosecutor to arrest and charge a journalist. When the prosecutor demurs, the minister angrily tells him to go ahead and that the government will pass any law needed to cover his action.
So there is understandable anxiety in the opposition parties about the fairness of the elections. Why, one opposition leader asks, have more than 140 million ballots been printed when Turkey only has about 47 million voters? What is going to happen to those un-used ballots? So far there are no answers.
These elections will go a long way to show if, and how far, Erdoğan’s electoral star has dimmed. The electoral landscape has changed since he won about 50% of the vote in 2011. His one-time partnership with the movement controlled by Islamic scholar Fetullah Gülen has been irreparably broken. Now the question is how much electoral power does the Gülen movement really have? Can their votes make a difference? Also, will the urban young who demonstrated so vigorously against Erdoğan last summer go to the polls? Can they channel their street anger into anti-Erdoğan votes? And what about the three major Istanbul football clubs? Their millions of supporters have reasons of their own for disliking the prime minister. Will they express their dislike at the polls?
Meanwhile, scenes from the bad old days continue haunt the country. Football matches and funerals have become platforms for massive anti-government rallies. Unknown assailants attack a Gendarme post and kill three soldiers. Pro-government gangs disrupt political rallies. AKP blocks a legislative investigation of government corruption. Throughout it all the prime minister continues to bellow his increasingly hollow claims that it is the internal and external ‘enemies’ of Turkey that are causing problems. Unfortunately, the March 30 elections will not be the end of these deep divisions in Turkey. The presidential and legislative elections that follow will keep tensions high. One can only hope they don’t escalate into the violence seen not that long ago.