A few comments on the Turkish election results

March 31, 2009
On March 29, nationwide elections were held in Turkey for various offices in provincial, municipal, and neighborhood government. I'm sure many of you have already seen the headlines regarding the election results, so I'll jump quickly to a few points that interested me.
  • This was the first time since the AK Party was founded in 2002 that the party has lost votes from one election to the next. In the last local elections, held in 2004, the AK Party received 41.7% of the vote for city mayors. In the last parliamentary elections in 2007, the AK Party won 47% of the vote. This year, the party won a little less than 39% of the vote--a disappointment, but still more than the 34% than the party one the first time it picked up a parliamentary majority in 2002.

Eurasia and Steve Kotkin's "Ab Imperio," Part deux

March 30, 2009
In my previous post, I summarized Princeton historian Steve Kotkin's important article, "Mongol Commonwealth? Exchange and Governance across the Post-Mongol Space." 
As someone who works primarily with Turkic and Russian documents with respect to issues spanning Central Asia, Russia, the Caucasus, the Ottoman center and the Turkish Republic, the question of what to call the region I work on is something that I've put a lot of thought into over the years. Originally, I tried to get out of the question altogether by simply describing myself as a "modernist historian," but people always wanted me to be more specific than this. In just about every job interview I had, someone from the hiring committee asked me to describe the region that I work on.  

Eurasia and Steve Kotkin's "Ab Imperio," Part I

March 28, 2009
As some of you may have noticed, I've recently been playing around with the name of this blog, switching from something that was totally generic to something using the name 'Eurasia' to something else. And ruminating about what to call my blog [I ultimately decided to switch away from "Eurasia" but not because I think it's a bad name for an academic subfield] got me thinking again about Steve Kotkin's 2007 piece "Mongol Commonwealth? Exchange and Governance across the Post-Mongol Space," which I first read closely when I was in Ufa last summer. 

In this piece, which was published in the journal Kritika (which is itself devoted to "Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History"), Kotkin takes on the concept of "Eurasia" and its use by North American academics to describe what once was called "Russian and East European Studies" (or variations thereof). "Suddenly," writes Kotkin, "Eurasia is everywhere."

Decision 2009: The Race for Muhtar

March 25, 2009
A fair bit of attention is being paid in the international media these days to the upcoming municipal elections in Turkey. On March 29, cities across Turkey (and “boroughs” inside major cities like Istanbul) will vote for mayor. One of the major questions of the day is whether or not the AK Party, which also holds power nationally in Ankara, will be able to receive more than fifty percent of the vote nationwide. While reaching fifty percent will have no practical impact on the status of the ruling AK Party in Turkey (except, of course, with respect to election returns), given the dominant position of the party in Turkish politics these days the "fifty percent or more" question is one of the only mysteries left.
And certainly, during a time when the state (meaning departments of the permanent bureaucracy which have, over the last six years, come under the effective control of AK Party appointees) is taking on not only major figures in the military and the opposition, but also the media, any convincing mandate in elections would be of major importance to the AK Party. Moreover, the fact that US President Obama is coming to Turkey immediately after the elections could also conceivably make it more important for Prime Minister Erdoğan to put in a good performance, particularly in light of recent American criticism (in the form of a State Department-produced human rights report) on freedom of expression in Turkey (although the report tended to focus upon issues for which Turkey is criticized every year, like Kurdish-language issues, rather than for the media crackdown that has been taking place specifically under Erdogan). 
One aspect of the upcoming elections that hasn’t received so much attention is the elections which are also taking place at the muhtar level. In Turkish villages, the muhtar is the most important administrative figure, the head of the village council who oversees most of the village administration. In big cities such as Istanbul, each neighborhood also has a muhtar (but not a council). In the 1990s I lived for five years in a mahalle (neighborhood) known as Muradiye (located between the larger neighborhoods of Teşvikiye and Beşiktaş). The only time I saw my muhtar was when I needed paperwork related to my residence permit. When I first moved in to the neighborhood, I went to the muhtar in order to register. I showed him my passport and lease and he wrote my name and information into a thick book. In following years, I was sometimes asked to produce a slip of paper from the muhtar when I renewed my residence permit.
Muhtars do more than just register people (Turkish citizens and foreigners alike) in their neighborhoods. They are also responsible for helping people obtain other important documents, like birth certificates. Moreover, in both cities and villages alike, they can lobby higher-up officials for improvements to their areas. In the Izmir district of Bornova, for example, a candidate for muhtar is campaigning on the promise of erecting public toilets. Candidates for muhtar often focus on issues like improving public transportation to and from their neighborhoods, increasing trash collection, and, in the Seyrantepe district of Sivas, encouraging the production of women's handicrafts.

In Istanbul, the muhtars are often shopkeepers who conduct their muhtar duties in their workplaces. Abdullah Bey ("Mr. Abdullah"), who was the muhtar that I always dealt with in Muradiye, owned a small grocery store across the street from Beşiktaş Pazarı. His office was located in the back of the store which he ran with his kids. When I’d go in to get a paper from him that I needed to show to get my residence permit renewed, he’d often be in the middle of selling a newspaper or bread to somebody. His kids would run the register while he was in the back filling out my paperwork.
The muhtar’s term in office is five years, and the elections for muhtar coincide with municipal elections, which are always held simultaneously across Turkey. Unlike candidates for municipal elections, however, candidates for muhtar do not run with a party affiliation. The last year I lived in Muradiye, Abdullah Bey did not run again as a candidate. The two candidates who ran to replace him were Ahmet Abi (“Big Brother Ahmet,” which is what everybody called him though this moniker did not appear on his campaign literature), who ran a grocery just up the street from me on Göknar Sokak, and the young woman (I think her name was Arzu) who ran the pharmacy one street parallel to mine.
It was quite the campaign, not least of which because Ahmet Abi’s campaign posters featured a photograph of him wearing a flashy suit and tie. Ahmet Abi’s opponent, the pharmacist, had posters printed which described her as “contemporary, hardworking, and güleryüzlü,” the last of these adjectives being a Turkish word means “someone who likes to smile.” Everyone, it seemed, had decided in advance that Ahmet Abi was going to win the race, but in the end the smiling pharmacist carried the day. I guess the voters of Muradiye felt they were in need of a smile.
This year in Arnavutköy, meanwhile, the race is between Terzi Hikmet (“Hikmet the Tailor”), and Sedef Hanım ("Mrs. Sedef"), the incumbent. Sedef Hanım doesn’t apparently have a job other than that of muhtar, so she carries out her duties in an office that she rents across the street from the big Greek church. Terzi Hikmet’s shop is on the main road running perpendicular to the Bosphorus.
What can Terzi Hikmet do for you? 
Terzi Hikmet is campaigning aggressively, plastering the neighborhood with campaign posters. Sedef Hanım's campaign, meanwhile, is decidedly more low-key. The only poster of hers that I've seen was right outside her office. Then again, she does have the power of incumbency on her side. 
People that I've asked in the neighborhood tell me that, despite Terzi Hikmet's full-fledged campaign, they think the race will be close. Most people don't think that all of the posters are going to make much of a difference, since everyone in the neighborhood knows the two candidates well, anyway.
In any case, given the sorry state of the opposition Republican People’s Party (in Turkish, CHP) these days, the muhtar races might well end up providing most of the real excitment on election night this year.

Azeri referenda

March 21, 2009
A constitutional referendum proposal was officially approved this week in Azerbaijan lifting presidential term limits. According to official tabulations, over 71 percent of the country's 4.9 legal voters turned out to vote in the referendum, which was held on March 18. According to Azeri law, there must be at least a 25 percent turn out for referendum results to be considered valid. The Central Election Commission, a state-based organization, claims that 91.7 percent of voters supported ending term limits, which will allow Azeri president Ilham Aliyev to extend his term beyond 2013.

Turkey's upcoming elections

March 18, 2009
Howard Eissenstat has an interesting piece in Juan Cole's Informed Content re the upcoming nationwide municipal elections in Turkey. In this piece, Eissenstat predicts a big victory for the ruling AK Party, and gives several reasons for backing up his argument.

I agree with Howard--in my opinion, the AK Party might even outdo their mandate of 2007, when the party won nearly 47% of the nationwide vote in parliamentary elections.

One point that I would add to Howard's analysis is the benefit that AK Party municipal candidates will reap from the fact that the AK Party has controlled a solid parliamentary majority in Ankara since 2003.

Indeed, while it might not show up in ideologically-based formulations set up to explain the popularity of the AK Party, it's generally understood in Turkey that if you want your city to receive money from Ankara in order to pay for mass transit, a new university, or infrastructure maintenance, you'd better vote in an AK Party mayor.

Not only does the AK Party have enough seats in parliament to approve spending bills for AK Party-friendly cities, but the government has now been in power long enough to have filled much of the permanent bureaucracy of the country with political supporters. 
Turkish PM Erdogan
In Izmir, where the AK Party is fighting hard to finally capture the mayoralty, Erdogan has given a series of speeches lately where he has emphasized the kind of service that municipal AK Party administration can give.  Universities, schools, roads, metros, and other forms of municipal improvement take place in AK Party controlled cities. For whatever reason, cities that don't elect AK Party mayors have more trouble getting money from Ankara to finance such projects.

America, Turkey and the 'Moderate Islamic Republic'

March 9, 2009
In a post from this past Saturday on Hillary Clinton's appearance on an evening talk show in Turkey, I mentioned that the first query posed to the American Secretary of State had been a bit of a trick question: does America see Turkey as a "moderate Islamic republic?"

Clinton visiting Ataturk mausoleum

Cumhuriyet Ankara Bureau Chief Re-Arrested in Ergenekon Case

March 7, 2009
Mustafa Balbay, who is the Ankara Bureau Chief for the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, was arrested at his house at seven o'clock in the morning on Thursday, then was transported to Istanbul as part of the ongoing Ergenekon investigation. Last July 1--just weeks before a decision was to be made on the AK Party's closure in Turkey--Balbay had been arrested along with three other journalists and interrogated for four days in connection with police suspicions that the four journalists had been involved in the plotting of a coup against the AK Party government of Tayyip Erdogan.

Mustafa Balbay was arrested again on Thursday morning

Hillary in Turkey

March 7, 2009
Hillary Clinton is visiting Turkey for one day during the course of her eight day trip through the Middle East. Visiting Ankara, Clinton met with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan. During the course of the visit, Clinton announced that President Obama would be visiting Turkey in April of this year.
In the evening, the television network NTV broadcast a thirty-minute interview Secretary Clinton conducted with the panel and studio audience from "Haydi Gel Bizimle Ol" ("Come and Join Us"), an evening current events show hosted by four Turkish women representing different generations.

Cumhuriyet asks: if we go silent, who will speak out?

March 5, 2009
On Sunday the front page of Cumhuriyet was left almost entirely blank in order to protest growing government interference in the free press in Turkey. As I wrote in my posting yesterday as well as in an earlier posting, the largest media group in Turkey, the Dogan Group--which is considered unfriendly to the AK Party government in Turkey--has recently been targeted by the Turkish Ministry of Finance for an investigation looking into non-payment back taxes. This comes on the heels of the suspicious takeover of the second-largest media group, ATV-Sabah, by a group headed by the son-in-law of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in November of 2007.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan: I'm no Maganda

March 3, 2009
In a recent post, I talked a little bit about the numerous lawsuits that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has filed in recent years against journalists and cartoonists. Today it was reported that Turkey's litigious leader is suing the leader of the political opposition, Deniz Baykal, for character assassination. According to the newspaper Vatan, Erdogan is suing Baykal 100,000 Turkish Liras (about $57,000 US) becasue Baykal criticized Erdogan's "maganda style" (maganda üslubu) at a rally in the Black Sea city of Sinop on February 28. Erdogan is also suing Republican People's Party spokesman Mustafa Ozyurek for 20,000 Turkish Liras.
In Turkish, the term 'maganda' is a very offensive word which is used to evoke hot-headed macho gold-wearing men lacking in general culture. That Baykal would even use the word at all is representative of his generally tin ear when it comes to addressing anyone outside his educated urban base.

Don't call this guy a maganda, either

This marks the fifth time that Erdogan has sued Baykal for character defamation. On two occasions, Erdogan sued for 25 thousand liras, and a third time for 20 thousand, losing on all three occasions. There has not yet been a ruling on a fourth lawsuit, in which Erdogan is demanding 40,000 liras.
Last month, Erdogan won an award of 4,000 liras from the Turkish humor magazine Leman, after Leman published a photomontage of Erdogan flipping his middle finger. Erdogan had originally sought 20,000 in the case.
I've written about this before but I'll say it again: Erdogan's frequent lawsuits against journalists and political rivals (thought to total over fifty lawsuits since Erdogan's AK Party took power in 2003) amount to an intimidation tactic unbecoming to Turkey. These lawsuits, moreover, need to be placed in the context of other events which have taken place in recent years. In late 2007, the second largest media company in Turkey, ATV-Sabah, was put into government receivership after its owner went bankrupt. Emerging out of nowhere to buy the company was an outfit called Calik Holding, which obtained loans from state-controlled banks in order to purchase the media firm. And who is Calik Holding's general manager? Tayyip Erdogan's son-in-law, Berat Albayrak.
Now the Turkish government is going after the largest media holding company in the country, the Dogan Group. In late February, the Ministry of Finance announced that it was fining the Dogan Group--whose owner, Aydin Dogan, has been sharply critical of Erdogan over the past six months--a record 826 million Turkish Liras ($490 million). This amount is larger than the value of the entire company, which would most likely send it into government receivership if the Dogan Group fails in its bid to appeal the ruling.
While there have always been certain issues (mostly relating to Kurds, Armenians, Islam, and--once upon a time--communism) that could get people in trouble if they wrote about them, within such boundaries the media has generally been free in Turkey. Since I first began living here in 1992, I have never seen anything like the concerted and multi-faceted effort that is currently taking place to silence or buy out government critics. When this happened in Russia several years ago, the editorial staff at the Washington Post and other American media outlets routinely (and rightly) denounced Vladimir Putin for quashing democracy and the free press. In the case of Turkey, however, it's really a non-story. Indeed, while Turkish journalists have to defend themselves from lawsuits filed by their own Prime Minister, American journalists who are paid to report the news from Turkey are largely ignoring this story.