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How the vandals’ election struck a blow for democracy

Time Out Istanbul editor Antoine Remise reflects on last week’s shock Turkish election result – and how it’s inspiring hope for a return to free expression and cherished civil liberties

Two years ago, not many people were in the mood to party after the brutal repression of the Gezi events – in May 2013, after a sit-in aimed at stopping developers building in Istanbul’s much-loved Gezi Park were met with police violence, a wave of protests spread throughout the country, amid widespread shock at president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fierce clamp-down on free expression. Festivals were cancelled, nightclubs left their doors shut, bars were exceptionally quiet, and we all spent a gloomy summer wondering what was next. What happened next was actually not very joyful but last Sunday the wind just turned in spectacular fashion.


Campaign against freedom

Ever since Erdoğan showed his true authoritarian face at Gezi, successive election nights had resulted in the same depressing scene on Turkish TV: Erdoğan appears with a triumphant smile on his balcony in Ankara, waving at an immense crowd of his AKP party supporters in frenzy. That’s a very disheartening image when you put it in the context of Erdoğan’s terrifying record within the last two years: an authoritarian bucket list that’s included 11 dead and thousands of injured people during the Gezi protests, shameless assaults on freedom of information (including a YouTube and Twitter ban among many other things), the jailing of journalists who dare to contradict His Highness, revealed acts of massive corruption (hence the ban of YouTube and Twitter along with a purge of the police and the judiciary), the construction of a lavish 1,150-room palace that Ceausescu would have found very much to his taste, and many – way too many – disagreeable and belittling declarations aimed at Turkey’s minorities, on how people should behave in daily life and on women’s role in society (girls, in case you didn’t know, you should have three children and your delicate nature makes you less than equal to men).

Despite all that, Erdoğan’s AKP have been winning the local and presidential elections without too much sweat, dashing all hope for change that rose during the Gezi protests. Discouraging for anybody who believes in the virtues of democracy, to say the least.

Turkish democracy redux

Last Sunday though, after the general elections, we didn’t get to see Erdoğan on the balcony. Instead, he sent Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu who gave a ‘victory’ speech that sounded as if he’d been involved in a completely different election to the one the anti-Erdogan supporters were celebrating in the streets.

Indeed, while the AKP managed to secure only 41% of the vote, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) led by the ‘Kurdish Obama’, Selahattin Demirtaş, exceeded the decisive 10% threshold to get seats in the Turkish Parliament. That’s a stunning premiere for the HDP. Why? Because it means that the AKP is now facing an opposition in the Parliament that is too strong for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s voracious plan to change the constitution and install a presidential state that would consolidate even more power in his now-not-so-vicelike grip on Turkey’s future.

It’s a huge blow for the Turkish president who’s now obligated to deal with the demands of many Turkish citizens who’ve been urging the government to respect their identity, their ways of life and the country’s diversity. His Kurdish competitor’s party, meanwhile, appealed not only to its traditional Kurdish consituency but also to women throughout Turkey, members of the LGBT community, environmentalists and the young Gezi generation (whom Erdoğan saw fit to brand ‘çapulcu’ – or vandals in Turkish), who were all seduced by its spirit of openness and tolerance. And it seems they were pretty good at chapulling* the polling stations.

Inside an Istanbul polling station on election day, Saturday June 6 2015© Julius Motal

Inside an Istanbul polling station on election day, June 7 2015© Julius Motal


A new climate of hope?

The creative souls and cultural entrepreneurs of Istanbul and Turkey never gave up during those dark times for freedom of expression during the past two years. But this friendlier climate-in-the-making should encourage them to come up with more innovative initiatives than ever. Why not turn all those empty malls into museums or music venues? Why not renovate all those beautiful old cinemas instead of destroying them? Why not make Istanbul the exemplary cultural capital of the Middle East, a vibrant creative hub free of all censorship?

Now, let’s not get over-optimistic. It remains unclear as to how the situation will develop from here, and history has proven that coalition government has never been Turkey’s strong point. But the seeds of change that were planted during Gezi have undeniably grown. The buds are still fragile, but there’s more hope than ever. And what’s a better fertilizer than hope?

* ‘Chapulling’ was a popular neologism coined during the Gezi Park protests after Erdoğan used the term ‘çapulcu’ to derisively refer to the protestors. 

See Time Out Istanbul for updates on Istanbul life and culture, and your essential guide to the city

Screen shot 2015-06-12 at 18.10.55


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