Elon Musk’s Twitter caves to Turkish demands of censorship

Let’s start with something basic: Freedom of expression is absolutely essential to democratic or republican government. The syllogism works like this. If you have a right to vote freely, you have a right to have as informed a choice as possible. In order to make such an informed choice, you have to be able to receive information freely, and if people cannot speak freely, you cannot receive information freely. Therefore, freedom of expression is absolutely essential to free elections. Frankly, by this metric, few world governments are truly democratic or republican.

Turkey is one of those countries that isn’t truly republic (as they claim) because they do not have free speech. For instance, Article 299 of their penal code literally punishes you for insulting the president of Turkey. That significantly impairs the ability of any opponent to actually challenge the incumbent (but it doesn’t limit incumbents), because it hems in how one can criticize the persons currently in power. After all, if that law was enacted in America, Donald Trump would have racked up probably 200 years in prison by now! And Joe Biden wouldn’t have been too far behind by the time he took office in 2020. And that is only scratching the surface of Turkish censorship.

With that in mind, we are nonetheless coming up on an election in Turkey this Sunday that promises to be close, despite the competition being hobbled by censorship:

And with that election looming, Twitter has caved to Turkish demands of censorship:

Taking them at face value, they are saying they have prevented certain accounts from being heard in Turkey. They are available in the rest of the world, but for some reason, people in Turkey are not allowed to see … whoever these people are and whatever they are saying. Twitter seems to be saying that some kind of legal process had been initiated and there was a belief that if they didn’t censor these people, then all of Twitter might have been prohibited. So, we can see what the people in Turkey are not allowed to see.

Of course, one person has a theory about how people in Turkey could get around this problem:

We have no idea if that would work.

Naturally, this got some pushback:

We should find out what exactly the people of Turkey are not allowed to see.

For making your country less democratic?

We don’t know if that would work, but censors tend to be dumb, so … maybe?

And of course, a great deal of it involved calling out Musk himself:

We have some sympathy for the difficult position Musk finds himself in. If we take Twitter at face value, it was either allow the entire platform to be censored, or censor a few voices. They might have also deduced that if Twitter was available in their country, that the messages might get through. Further, you might hope that the fact that Turkey was demanding censorship on the eve of the election might create something similar to the Streisand Effect, making people turn against Erdogan even more.

Still, we can’t help but think that the ideal answer would be to tell the government of Turkey to pound sand and then do something like offer free Starlink in the country, just to take a stand.

But Twitter might not be able to afford that, these days, in part because of the liberal campaign to degrade it, motivated by their own hostility to free speech. The ugly truth is tyrants don’t like free speech, and tyrants will not confine their censorship to their own borders. If they think they can use their economic power to censor the world—as China has—they will do it.

It’s not a cheerful thought, but it is the reality we deal with.

Update: via @filmladd, we discovered that we missed Musk’s response to Mr. Yglesias’ tweet above:

He also promised further transparency:

Still, we think the ideal response is to tell the world’s censors to pound sand.


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‘I could die for him’: In Erdogan’s old Istanbul neighbourhood, loyalties run deep

from our special correspondent in Istanbul, Turkey – In the Kasimpasa neighbourhood of Istanbul where he grew up, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s former neighbours describe a generous young man who was already destined for a bright future. With the future of Turkey at stake in the upcoming presidential election, they are eager to explain why the incumbent deserves another five years on the job. 

On a hill in Kasimpasa, a working-class Istanbul neighbourhood overlooking the Golden Horn estuary, sits a nondescript building, its fading façade sprouting a few satellite dishes. There’s not much to say about 34 Piyale Mumhanesi Street, except that Recep Tayyip Erdogan lived here, and this is the neighbourhood from which he launched his political career.  

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s childhood home at 34 Piyale Mumhanesi Street. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

“He lived here before he became president,” says Semiha Karaoglupacal, owner of the grocery store across the street. “He used to come to the store to shop. Every morning, before he left for work, he would say hello.” At the time, the narrow store belonged to Karaoglupacal’s father. She worked here every day after school.  

Like many residents, Karaoglupacal has never left Kasimpasa. This neighbourhood was once home to shipyard workers who lived along the coast. That’s what brought Ahmet Erdogan, a sea captain and father of Recep Tayyip, to Kasimpasa after the family left their native Rize on the eastern Black Sea coast.  

Erdogan senior was a pious and severe figure, according to numerous biographers. Discipline and a rigorous adherence to the values and precepts of Islam were the central themes of the Turkish president’s childhood. After attending the local primary school, “Tayyip”, as he’s fondly known in his childhood circles, attended a religious vocational high school.  

The exterior of the apartment building in which Erdogan lived in Kasimpasa, Istanbul.
The exterior of the apartment building in which Erdogan lived in Kasimpasa, Istanbul. © Sam Ball / France 24

As a teenager, Erdogan earned pocket money selling simits, the round, sesame-encrusted bread that can be found on every street corner in Turkey. 

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan was always charitable. He used to buy things to give to children, and on Fridays, he would distribute money to them,” recalled Karaoglupacal.

‘We are proud of him’  

Once a gritty neighbourhood, Kasimpasa changed after Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, according to Karaoglupacal. “It was renovated. We are doing well now,” she explains with a smile. 

>> Read more : Tempest in a teashop: Turks bitterly divided in Erdogan stronghold ahead of presidential vote

Polls may show a close race in the lead-up to the May 14 Turkish presidential election, but in this neighbourhood, there’s an unquestionable favourite. “We are proud of him, proud of what he has become,” the owner of the grocery store says. “We love him because he is one of us.”  

Semiha Karaoglupacal runs the grocery store across the street from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's childhood home in Kasimpasa, Istanbul.
Semiha Karaoglupacal runs the grocery store across the street from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s childhood home in Kasimpasa, Istanbul. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

It’s a sentiment echoed by most Erdogan supporters who oppose the country’s secular elites, identify with his modest origins and admire his achievements. Erdogan, for them, is a man who speaks the language of the street, a true popular hero. 

“He was born for this [position],” says Karaoglupacal, adjusting her veil. “He is not afraid of anyone, except God. He is a true Muslim,” she maintains. “If people are good Muslims, they should support him. With our prayers, he will be victorious. Nothing will stop him.”  

Outside the little store, a street vendor buying and selling a variety of items bellows his sales pitch in the residential neighbourhood. The vendor pauses, waiting patiently. But in vain. There are no takers. On this hot afternoon, there aren’t many people on the streets.  

The lack of customers sees Gonul glued to her cell phone. She runs the hair salon on the ground floor of the building where the president lived.

“I have seen Erdogan a few times when he was mayor of Istanbul, but also when he was a member of the government. He came to visit us in Kasimpasa. He would simply say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ He is close to the people,” she declares, waving her phone for emphasis.  

Gonul runs a hair salon in Kasimpasa, Istanbul.
Gonul runs a hair salon in Kasimpasa, Istanbul. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

A resident of the neighborhood for 27 years, Gonul even lived in the Erdogan family’s old apartment at one stage. “One day, he knocked on the door. I didn’t expect to see Erdogan when I opened the door. I wanted to kiss his hand because it is a sign of respect for elders, but he didn’t want it. He’s a good human being and I respect him as a president.” 

‘Nothing but football’ 

Inside the building where Erdogan lived, it’s perfectly still. The stairwell is still in its original state. Huseyin Ustunbas, 72, lives on the fifth floor, just above the apartment where the Erdogan family once lived. 

Today, he is the only resident who knows the president personally. The kindly septuagenarian is used to receiving visits from foreign journalists and he’s happy to open the door to his large apartment. 

Huseyin Ustunbas lives just above the apartment where the Erdogan family once lived in Kasimpasa, Istanbul.
Huseyin Ustunbas lives just above the apartment where the Erdogan family once lived in Kasimpasa, Istanbul. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

Sitting on his living room sofa, he spins out anecdotes about “Tayyip”, as he affectionately calls his former neighbour. “He only thought about football, nothing but football, ” recalls Ustunbas.  

As a teenager, Erdogan attended an Imam Hatip school, one of many such religious schools founded in Turkey after traditional madrassas were abolished. The schools were primarily aimed at training government-employed imams as well as providing a means to further education for children of pious Muslim families.  

The teenage Erdogan also managed to frequent Kasimpasa’s football clubs: Erokspor, Camialti and IETT. His classmates nicknamed him “Imam Beckenbauer” after his idol, German footballer Franz Beckenbauer. “His father didn’t like him playing, so he would sneak his cleats and go for his matches,” says Ustunbas, noting that Erdogan’s father prevented him from taking up professional football.  

The apartment is dotted with family photos. But one, in particular, has a prominent spot, framed and hung on the wall above the sofa where Ustunbas is seated. It shows the Ustunbas family – his wife, who passed away in 2018, his daughter and grandson – standing next to Erdogan and his wife, Emine.  

“Sometimes he (Erdogan) suddenly feels like coming back to the neighbourhood. He doesn’t plan it in advance,” says the retiree. “That day, I was shopping when I got a call that the president was here,” he says, indicating the photograph. “He asked the photographer to take this picture as a souvenir of his visit. I told him we would never get a chance to see it. The next day, it was dropped off at my house.” 

A framed photograph of the Ustunbas family with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and First Lady Emine Erdogan.
A framed photograph of the Ustunbas family with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and First Lady Emine Erdogan. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

Ustunbas describes the simplicity of the kid next door who rose to the pinnacle of power. “We are friends. Our children played and grew up together. Bilal (Erdogan’s son) is the same age as my son. Their house was like ours. Nowadays, because of the security, we can’t approach him as easily, but if he sees us, he stops to talk. He doesn’t like it when his bodyguards prevent people from approaching.”  

‘He will win this election’ 

The old man regrets that he no longer has his photo albums to display since they are with his daughter now. He has only two souvenirs left, which he hastens to fetch from the sideboard: invitations to the weddings of Esra and Burak, two of Erdogan’s other children. Ustunbas recounts how he found himself not far from guests like former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the king of Jordan. “When he came to greet us, many wondered who we were and why he was talking to us.” 

Huseyin Ustunbas proudly displays the invitations to the weddings of President Erdogan's children, Esra and Burak.
Huseyin Ustunbas proudly displays the invitations to the weddings of President Erdogan’s children, Esra and Burak. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

Erdogan has displayed generosity with his neighbours over the years, including those who are critical of “Tayyip”, notes Ustunbas. “He was already called ‘reis’ (chief or president) when he was young. He was very active; he did so many things to help people in this neighbourhood,” he recalls. “My wife died of cancer. She needed chemotherapy but we couldn’t find the money for the treatment. We called Bilal because [Erdogan’s] adviser was not answering us. After that, we were able to go to the hospital for free. The adviser was dismissed.” 

The devotion is total, and it comes with certainty. “He will win this election. In the previous election, the situation was the same. Foreign journalists asked us the same questions. There were economic problems. He won. We expect him to win 51 to 53% of the vote in the first round.”  

As for Erdogan’s critics, he brushes them off with a wave of his hand. “Don’t listen to those who are against him. I know him. I know what he’s like. I could die for him. I would give my life for him.” 

(This is a translation of the original in French.) 

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Turkey’s political rivalries play out in unexpected places

With overseas voting taking place for the first time this year in the three Baltic States, Turkey’s political tensions are playing out along starkly familiar lines.

“In an ideal world, we would be able to trust the Turkish government,” said Onur Can Varoğlu. “But we need to make sure the votes being counted in Lithuania end up in Ankara.”

“Anything can happen if we don’t watch.”

The 27-year-old is part of a team of independent volunteers monitoring the vote of Turkish nationals in Lithuania, ahead of Turkey’s nationwide elections on 14 May.

He has volunteered in nearly eight elections, but these in the small Baltic state are special as it is the first time ballots have been set up here. Before, they had to travel to the Turkish border to cast their vote.

Arrested during the Gezi Park protests of 2013, Varoğlu said it was vital to protect the integrity of Turkey’s election, believing democratic freedoms had been eroded back home.

“We are pretty protective of our vote,” he told Euronews. “In Turkey, it is very difficult to protest and we saw how the Middle East went down after the Arab Spring movements.”

“We don’t have hope for a big social movement. Our only chance for change is at the ballot box.”

Turks have been given the opportunity to vote in Lithuania for the first time as their number has risen significantly in recent years, with nearly 2,000 now in the country.

But with the arrival of more Turkish people to the Baltic nation, came the arrival of their political rivalries too.

In Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, there are reportedly dedicated mosques and cultural centres for supporters of Erdoğan and those of the various opposition forces, such as Kurds and Gülenists, a political group once allied with the Turkish president. 

“These political tensions actually play out more abroad because people are freer to express their opinions and do activism,” says Varoğlu. “In Turkey, if you say or do anything too political you can end up in prison.”

Erdoğan has increasingly clamped down on dissent, bringing in controversial laws that criminalise “insulting the president” and “disinformation” on social media. 

These political rivalries could be traced back to the family, Varoğlu continued. “It doesn’t matter if you come to Europe. If you are from a nationalist, Islamist background or a more pro-European immigrant one, you bring these values with you.”

“Turkish politics is like football, you are born with your team and will support it no matter what.”

Why are Turkish people in Lithuania?

Over the past decade, Turkey’s economy has hit the rocks, with millions of Turks pushed to the brink by skyrocketing inflation and a collapsing currency.

In September 2021, one US dollar was worth 8 Turkish lira. Today it is 19.5.

These economic headwinds have profoundly impacted which Turks emigrate and where they go.

“The only people who stay in Turkey are those benefiting from the regime. If you are willing to sign up for their agenda and support the party, you will have a bright future. If you don’t want to sacrifice your values to get a good job, then you must leave,” said Varoğlu.

“It’s a given that this is the only way to have a bright future.”

Turkish immigrants in Lithuania tend to be younger, university educated and more supportive of the opposition, compared to the more established Turkish communities in other parts of mainland Europe. However, many still do back Erdoğan.

“Most Turks in hotspots Germany went as guest workers after World War Two. There was no plan to integrate them, so they built their own communities and are stuck in a Turkish fantasy,” said Varoğlu, suggesting this was one reason why diaspora there tended to support Erdoğan.

“But newer generations of immigrants in places like Lithuania are not like that. They’re more open and European.”

In the 2018 elections, 87% (2.63 million) of the Turkish voters registered abroad were residents of 19 EU Member States, the UK, Norway or Switzerland. Almost half of all expat voters in 2018 (47%) were living in Germany, which strongly supported Erdoğan in the last presidential election

One of these younger Turks who will play a pivotal role in the election is Merve Yılmaz.

The 20-something, who cast her vote at the Turkish embassy on Sunday, is studying a master’s at one of Lithuania’s most prestigious universities.

For Yılmaz, the vote couldn’t be more important. Not only was it her first time voting, she has also only ever known Erdoğan, and his AKP party, ruling over Turkey since 2001.

And she is not alone. Five million young people will vote in Turkish elections for the first time this time around, with their support seen as crucial for deciding who will win.

With his stripped-down social media videos, Erdoğan’s rival and leader of an opposition bloc, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has attracted many young voters eager for change. But Erdoğan retains strong support, especially among conservative religious voters.

“To me, it is very clear who should be the next leader,” said Yılmaz. “He [Kılıçdaroğlu] is the only person who we can trust to help lift our country from the horrible situation it is in now.”

“We want change for a better future.”

‘Dictators don’t retire’

Erdoğan is facing the biggest threat to his two-decade rule yet. 

His support has taken a battering, with critics accusing him of steering the country towards authoritarianism, ruining the economy and mishandling the response to a devastating earthquake in February that killed more than 50,000 people.

In his defence, the 69-year-old has called the earthquake an act of god, maintaining it is impossible to prepare for such a catastrophic natural disaster on this scale.

Polls predict a neck-and-neck race between Erdoğan and his opponent, with the upcoming vote pitched as a seismic battle over Turkey’s destiny.

There have been widespread fears Erdoğan could not play fairly, while his supporters have threatened to reject the vote if he loses.

“We have a lot of insecurity towards elections being rigged,” said Varoğlu. “We had some bad experiences in the past, but we weren’t as well organised back then.”

After a 2017 referendum on whether to overhaul Turkey’s democracy and establish an executive presidency for Erdoğan – which he won – the opposition cried foul after rules were changed at the last minute to allow 2.5 million unstamped ballots to be included in the vote.

However, Varoğlu was more sure about what was at stake.

“Each candidate is promising two very different futures for Turkey. One of them is promising more restrictions on human rights, more wild nationalism and capitalism. The other is promising improved human rights and a return to European norms.”

“It’s Turkey, anything can happen.”

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In epicentre of Turkey quakes, survivors are indifferent to upcoming polls

PAZARCIK, Turkey – In the southern Turkish town of Pazarcik, the epicentre of the devastating February 6 earthquakes, people are focused on just trying to survive. Tens of thousands of residents left the town after the disaster and for the ones left behind without adequate shelter or facilities, holding a presidential election on May 14 seems incongruous.

They live in the dust, surrounded by the wreckage of buildings slated for demolition. The town of Pazarcik, the epicentre of the February 6 earthquakes in Turkey’s southern Kahramanmaras province, is a shadow of its former self. Only a few damaged buildings have been demolished and the rubble cleared away to make way for vacant lots.

“There’s no one left in the streets,” laments Mustafa Kayki, a local elected official of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a rightwing nationalist party. “Around 20,000 people have left Pazarcik since this terrible tragedy. Our voters are scattered. Pazarcik has been scattered. Our dear Pazarcik has turned into hell overnight, dark, a ruined city. It’s painful.” 


Mustafa Kayki, a local member of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), says 20,000 people have fled Pazarcik since the earthquakes. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24


The city was once home to 70,000 inhabitants, mainly Kurds and Alevis, a religious minority that professes a heterodox Islam, which counts, among its members, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition candidate in the 2023 presidential election.

At a street corner, two construction workers are busy renovating a shop on the ground floor of a building, which has a big pile of cement stacked at the entrance. There are no signs of political campaigning here and the workers appear indifferent about the upcoming polls. “There’s nothing to say. Just look around,” shrugs one worker.

The two workers, who prefer to remain anonymous, are not very affable. They reveal, rather bitterly, that this construction work is financed by the diaspora that left the country for Europe in the 1990s. “Life has resumed since the earthquake but we don’t know how long it will last. Those who had money have long since left,” explains a worker.


A camp for the homeless was set up at the entrance to Pazarcik after the February 6, 2023, quakes.
A camp for the homeless was set up at the entrance to Pazarcik after the February 6, 2023, quakes. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24


When people are asked about the May 14 election, their faces cloud over. Pazarcik’s remaining residents explain that they are “afraid to speak out and get arrested”. There’s a palpable fear of openly criticising the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power for 20 years, and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appears particularly out of bounds.

“It’s not the right time to organise an election,” says Kayki. “People here are not thinking about elections, they are thinking about how they will survive. What am I going to eat? Where am I going to stay? These are their only concerns.” 

‘I don’t think I will vote’

It’s a view echoed by Adem Kutuk, a 49-year-old carpenter who has lived in Pazarcik for 24 years. “After everything we’ve just been through, I wish there was no election. What’s the point? Only those who live here, in these ruins, can understand. I don’t think I will vote,” he explains before making it clear that he does not want to “talk about politics”.


Carpenter Adem Kutuk says he's overworked rebuilding homes after the earthquakes.
Carpenter Adem Kutuk says he’s overworked rebuilding homes after the earthquakes. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24


In his small workshop, Kutuk is overwhelmed with work. “I wish there was no earthquake. I wouldn’t have so much work today. We have so much, too much work. Everywhere we go, we’re fixing kitchen cabinets, closets … Anything we can get back in shape.”


Adem Kutuk had five workshops before the earthquakes. This is the only one that survived the disaster.
Adem Kutuk had five workshops before the earthquakes. This is the only one that survived the disaster. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24


Shortly after the earthquakes struck, Kutuk and his colleagues went into battle mode, trying to help the victims. “We went to Iskenderun, in Hatay province, to buy particleboard to repair houses,” says the craftsman who now lives in a three-room hut that he built for his wife and two children after the quake.

‘The earthquake changed everything’

Funda Ozdilli has not been as lucky. The 36-year-old housewife lives in a tent – like an estimated 2.7 million people across Turkey rendered homeless by the earthquakes. Ozdilli lives here with her husband and 15-year-old daughter.

“I can’t tell you what we’re going through. Talking about it and living it are two different things,” she says quietly as she does the dishes under a tarp stretched in front of the entrance to her makeshift shelter. “I knocked on many doors to ask for help but they remained closed. I said we were homeless, that we needed a tent. I finally received this one.”

The Kurdish woman has not seen any of the 10,000 liras [465 euros] economic aid promised by Erdogan back on February 9, during a presidential trip to the southeastern city of Gaziantep. “Some people have got 10,000 or 15,000 liras,” she says, referring to a resettlement assistance. “I didn’t get anything. I don’t know why.”


Funda Ozdilli washes dishes in an area outside her tent in Pazarcik, Turkey.
Funda Ozdilli washes dishes in an area outside her tent in Pazarcik, Turkey. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24


Hands plunged in a basin of soapy water, she talks about the stifling heat, the lack of sanitary facilities, the absence of showers, the terror when a snake invited itself into the family tent. “I’m not asking for money. I just want a roof over my head. Is that too much to ask?”

Shelter, a place to call home, that’s all Ozdilli dreams about these days. “If I could find a house for 1,000 pounds [47 euros], I would do everything I could to pay for it.  But how can I pay 3,000 pounds rent every month? My husband is the only one working. We are not rich,” she explains.

Erdogan has promised to build more than 450,000 earthquake-resistant homes “within a year”. It’s an eternity for many who, like Ozdilli, live in precarious shelters. “I’m not going to vote for anyone. Who do you want me to vote for? I don’t think about it. I’m desperate. The earthquake has changed everything. People don’t know who to trust anymore,” she says with a blank look. “No one has the right to ask us for our vote. They have to find solutions for us first. Then we can talk about the vote.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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‘All that we’re asking for is to be recognised’: Turkish Alevis’ struggle for equality

From our special correspondent in Pazarcik, Turkey – With an estimated population of between 15 to 20 million people, Turkey’s Alevi community is one of the country’s largest religious minorities. Despite being widely discriminated against, Alevis are being given renewed hopes in their struggle for equality in Turkey as Alevi presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu faces off against incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 14. 

The Cemevi (Turkish for house of gathering) in the town of Pazarcik situated in the Kahramanmaras Province in southern Turkey has been heavily damaged by the February 6 earthquakes. The Alevi prayer house now serves as a place of storage for aid supplies.

Chairs and tables are piled together and boxes strewn about on the cracked and dust-covered floor of the partially destroyed prayer house where President Hasan Husevin Degirmenci of the local Alevi Cultural Association spoke with FRANCE 24.

The Pazarcik Cemevi, which was originally built with funds raised through the sale of “tea and coffee at weddings of the [Alevi] diaspora in Switzerland”, is far from the only Alevi prayer house damaged by the earthquakes, Degirmenci said, adding that there is no rebuilding in sight.

Meanwhile mosques damaged by the earthquakes will be rebuilt, he said. 

Alevism: an old syncretic religion

It is hard to define what Alevism actually is. Some say it is a sect, while others call it a religion, an Islamic branch resembling Shi’ism and Sufism. Alevis, however, regard themselves neither as Sunnis nor Shias.

“We red heads (kızılbaş in Turkish refers to the crimson headwear worn by Alevis during the rule of the Ottoman empire) have nothing to do with Shias,” Degirmenci said. “Ali is Shia. We pray for the 12 imams at each Cem (gathering) so that the prayer is complete.”

The Pazarcik Cemevi that has been heavily damaged by the February 6 earthquakes now serves as a place of storage for aid supplies. © Assiya Hamza

The icons of the 12 imams are portrayed above a platform at the far end of the room with Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, along with Muhammad’s descendants. The 12th imam is “hidden” (his features are not portrayed) and is believed by Alevis to return at the end of time. The icon of Haci Bektas Veli, a revered 13th century Turkish philosopher and founder of the Bektashi Order, and a photo of Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and champion of secularism, are also portrayed. 

The icons of the 12 imams are portrayed at the Pazarcik place of worship.
The icons of the 12 imams are portrayed at the Pazarcik place of worship. © Assiya Hamza



A portrait of Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and champion of secularism, displayed at the Pazarcik Cemevi.
A portrait of Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and champion of secularism, displayed at the Pazarcik Cemevi. © Assiya Hamza

The Alevi faith is essentially a religious syncretism which combines philosophy, Gnosticism, Sufism and Christianity. Unlike the majority of Muslims, Alevis do not pray five times per day, nor do they go on pilgrimage to Mecca. They do not observe Ramadan and do not ban alcohol. Every Thursday, a ceremony called the Cem is presided by a dede (which literally means “grandfather” in Turkish) during which men and women gather to pray. At the end of the ceremony, the devotees perform a dance called Semah accompanied by music played on a Saz, a traditional string instrument.

“The main rule is justice. Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you,” Degirmenci said. “Don’t say things that you won’t want said to you. We don’t have a book. Our belief is passed on orally. We respect the four holy books (the Quran, the Bible, the Torah and the Book of Psalms) and we expect the same respect from others. We exist, even though we’re not recognised by authorities.”

‘They killed children’ 

Ever since the rule of the Ottoman empire, Alevis have been regarded as apostates, miscreants and followers of Islamic fanaticism in Turkey. Often persecuted for their faith, Alevis have been the victims of several pogroms. Hasan Husevin Degirmenci has himself survived the 1978 Maras (short for Kahramanmaras) massacre, during which over a hundred Alevi Kurds were killed and more than 500 injured by neofascist groups according to official figures. 

“The fight was mainly between left and right wingers (communists and neofascists from Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party) but armed groups took it out on Alevis,” Degirmenci said. “They killed children, they eviscerated pregnant women. At that time, there were a lot of Alevis living in Maras, and the community was prosperous. They did it to divide and to weaken us. They reinvented history by pitting Sunnis against Alevis.”

Another more recent pogrom has also left its bitter mark on Alevi history. On July 2, 1993, Islamic fanatics carried out an arson attack on a hotel in Sivas, a city in central Turkey known for its religious conservatism. Academics were gathered at the hotel to celebrate Pir Sultan Abdal, a 16th century Alevi poet. The arson attack left 37 people dead, and among them 33 Alevis. The faces of the “martyrs” cover one of the walls of Cemevi’s main hall. 

The faces of the victims of the Sivas massacre cover one of the walls of the Pazarcik Cemevi’s main hall.
The faces of the victims of the Sivas massacre cover one of the walls of the Pazarcik Cemevi’s main hall. © Assiya Hamza

Despite making up to an estimated 20 percent of the population, the Alevi community in Turkey continue to face death threats and attacks for not observing Ramadan, and their houses are often marked with a cross.

“When I was a child, we weren’t even allowed to speak Kurdish. We had to hide our faith after the Maras massacre. But after what happened in Sivas in 1993, people refused to endure it anymore,” Degirmenci said. 

Struggle for equality 

“I was born Alevi, I didn’t choose it. I have an identity card, I did my military service, I pay my taxes. I fulfil all my duties as a citizen. There are between 15 and 20 million Alevis in Turkey and all that we’re asking for is to be recognised in the Constitution.”  

Despite the continuous hardships, the Alevi community in Turkey have recently been given renewed hopes when the opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu spoke publicly of his Alevi heritage, breaking a political taboo. 

Backed by strong popular support, Kilicdaroglu would become the first Alevi president in Turkey’s history if he is elected on May 14 against Recep Tayyip Erdogan

“We Alevis, we have hope. We will never give up,” Degirmenci said. “An Alevi candidate will apply his beliefs in morality and justice. There are other minorities in Turkey: Kurds, Syrians, Yezidis … He will not point fingers at anyone.” 

However, Kilicdaroglu’s victory is not yet guaranteed, and fears over the incumbent’s potential re-election remain high among Alevis.

“We can’t go on like this,” he said. “The Christians have already left the country. If he is re-elected, the Alevis will leave.”

This article was adapted from the original in French

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Conservative Turkish women are turning their backs on Erdogan ahead of vote

Issued on:

Turkey – Turkey’s May 14 elections are looking uncertain for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan amid a sluggish economy, young Turks less enamoured with the ruling AKP and an opposition that is finally united. Support from conservative women, usually a pillar of his voting base, is also looking less robust ahead of the vote. FRANCE 24 reports.

“I liked him a lot, and I liked the party, as well,” Emine* says, when asked why she has voted for Erdogan for the past 20 years. This housewife lives in the Basaksehir district in Istanbul, one of the many neighbourhoods transformed by the ruling AKP’s urbanisation policy. She was in her early 30s when then candidate Erdogan, who ran as an MP in a March 2003 by-election, emerged as a beacon of hope for women like her: veiled, conservative women who felt marginalised and even disregarded.

The “AKP opened up new areas for conservative women by removing the headscarf ban”, Esra Ozcan tells FRANCE 24. The author of, “Mainstreaming the Headscarf: Islamist Politics and Women in the Turkish Media,” Ozcan cites the fact that veiled women can now serve as police officers, judges, university professors or elected political representatives – all of which was against the law unless they removed their headscarves until the AKP came to power.

“This is indeed a group that experienced an expansion of freedoms under [the] AKP,” says Ozcan, a senior professor of practice at Tulane University in New Orleans.  

Murat Yetkin, a well-known Turkish editorialist, says one of the reasons that explains Erdogan’s extraordinary popular appeal in the early 2000s was the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling coalition at the time that employed openly anti-Islamic rhetoric targeting veiled women. By denouncing this trend, the young charismatic leader became the champion of conservative women who, from then on, formed an important base of his support.

But 20 years later, “Women have changed,” says Ozlem Zengin, vice president of the AKP bloc in the Turkish parliament.

Those who were among Erdogan’s most ardent supporters in the early years  Erdogan has been president of Turkey since 2014 – could turn their backs on him on May 14 for the country’s presidential and legislative elections.

Tradition and domestic violence

Erdogan often reminds the Turkish public of how he helped strike down the headscarf ban. He believes he has done more for women than many of his predecessors, although many deem that this measure alone was not enough.

Erdogan’s speeches reveal a traditional vision of women’s role in society: above all, a woman is a mother (to three children, if possible) who also takes care of the elderly. It is an ideal that remains unchanging even as the country experiences rapid urbanisation and modernisation.

In today’s Turkey, women – even those who wear the veil – want the same opportunities and working conditions as men.

When Erdogan pulled Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention on violence against women in July 2021 it confirmed his anachronistic tendencies. In recent years, the Erdogan government has taken a strong stance in favour of traditional family values and against the LGBT “propaganda” embraced by the Western world and the “normalisation” of homosexuality.

With the upcoming elections likely to be Erdogan’s most contested yet, the decision to incorporate two Islamist parties into his coalition that have called for the annulment of a law protecting women from domestic violence is dividing members of the AKP, a rare feat.

Red line

Zengin, 53, did not mince her words when she stated that the passage of law 6284 would be a “red line”, a comment that attracted a fireball of criticism and threats coming from her own political party. She later tried to put out the flames. “We’re sorry. I don’t want to say anything more about this law. I’m tired. I am saddened when I see the situation of our community. I did not say that the law couldn’t be discussed. I only wish that we can discuss it in a more humane, decent and Islamic environment.”

 Among those that supported Zengin is the Kadem Foundation. It, too, is affiliated with the AKP and its leader is none other than one of Erdogan’s daughters. But the foundation published a tweet denouncing “an insulting and misogynistic campaign” and reminded its followers that “half of the voters who will cast their ballots are women”.

In another sign that Turkish society is evolving on these issues, an episode of “Kızılcık Serbeti“ (“Cranberry Sorbet”), one of Turkey’s most popular TV shows, ended last month with a veiled woman being killed by her husband. The country’s RTUK media regulatory council ruled that the scene “encouraged domestic violence”, demanding the producers pay a heavy fine and taking the show off the air for five weeks. Its fans were surprised to see a documentary on Islamophobia, notably featuring President Erdogan, airing on April 14 instead of the show.

23 women killed by men in March

 According to “We will Stop Feminicides”, 23 women were killed by men and 19 others died in suspicious circumstances in March 2023. The organisation itself is the target of a judicial inquiry and faces closure for “carrying out activities that are against the law and morality”. The last hearing took place in the beginning of April and was adjourned until September 13.

Conservative women are not a homogenous voting bloc in Turkey. But Ozcan is confident that the AKP “has lost sections of it”.

“Young conservative women want to see [the] AKP… go,” she writes. “They have been very disappointed [by the] AKP’s transformation from former victim to a new oppressor. These women identify as Muslims and they don’t want to see Muslims as oppressors.”

When asked why she won’t vote for Erdogan on May 14, Emine responds simply, “Because I started to think with my head.” Still, that doesn’t mean the 54-year-old will be voting for the opposition. For the first time ever, she says she will abstain. 

*Not her real name.

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Should Turks living in Europe be allowed to vote in May’s elections?

Sultan has lived in London for more than two decades.

The 59-year-old housewife is close to her extended family and enjoys spending time with the three grandchildren. 

And like many other Turkish nationals living abroad, Sultan plans to cast a vote in the upcoming Turkish elections.

“I need to know who is ruling my country, if I am given this right, I need to have a say. It is my country at the end of the day,” she tells Euronews.

“We keep the ties alive with our home country. We always travel and stay there for months sometimes. When there, we use the same daily services such as hospitals and post offices with the people residing in Turkey. So why shouldn’t we?”

“People criticise me for living in London and being involved in Turkish politics,” she continues.

“I tell them, when I left Turkey, the atmosphere was different. We just had a massive earthquake at the time in 1999. I didn’t have many opportunities for work. The general situation wasn’t so great. But although I believe things have improved, it is not easy for someone to relocate at a certain age when you need your children and grandchildren around you”.

‘If those granted citizenship later in life can vote, why shouldn’t we?’

Forty-year-old Umut is a business owner in the construction industry and called France home for the past 17 years. 

He tells Euronews he’ll be heading to the polls for the election to exercise his democratic right, but he adds: “My situation might be different to others as I have businesses in both countries. I travel between the two often, so I believe I have a say.”

“Many Turkish living in Europe feel they belong to Turkey. Even if they are born and bred here, they always have a dream of returning one day, although deep inside know they will never go back”.

Umut believes people who are against extending voting rights to the Turkish diaspora are not criticising the right to vote, but are more likely critical of the fact it was the current AKP government who made it possible since they know a majority of voters overseas are on their side. 

Asked what his priorities are when deciding on how to vote, Umut says, “justice, an independent judiciary”.

“If a non-Turkish person, for example, an Iranian or someone from the Gulf states, is granted citizenship, hence the right to vote when they invest in Turkey, why shouldn’t we? Nearly all Turkish citizens living abroad have some kind of investment in Turkey”.

The father of three says his children are unlikely to vote in Turkey’s elections when they become eligible.

“They identify themselves as French first, then Turkish. I don’t think they will be interested in Turkish politics”.

Millions of voters overseas

Sultan and Umut are just two of more than three million Turkish nationals who live abroad, and who are eligible to vote in the upcoming elections on 14 May – around 5% of the total electorate. 

With polls suggesting the race will be neck-and-neck between the two main candidates, overseas voters could potentially play a decisive role in deciding the outcome. 

The question of whether expatriot Turks should even get a say in determining the fate of the country they don’t live in comes up at each election, since they were given the right to vote back in 2012. 

Turkish nationals with residency abroad cast their first votes remotely for the first time in 2014 for the presidential elections. Previously, those residing abroad could only vote at border gates.

Critics of the right to vote abroad argue that Turkish migrants living in the West are well off with better living standards, unaffected by the internal politics of Turkey and enjoy the rate of the currency they earn against the Turkish Lira. 

Defendants say it’s a democratic right.

‘Where do we set boundaries?’

For Emre Erdogan, a professor of political sciences at Bilgi University, the governing bodies should be inclusive when deciding who should vote.

“If we defend that it is a right derived from citizenship, then migrants or refugees cannot vote. But they are directly affected by the policies of governments or affect the policies directly. However we do not give them a voice,” he tells Euronews.

“So arguing that people should be voting only at their residential country becomes restrictive.”

“Where do we set boundaries?” he asks.

“There are many people especially residing in Germany who have investments in real estate in Turkey. There is no harm in being inclusive.”

Erdogan argues the issue of external voting cannot be discussed without examining the policies of Turkey towards its nationals living abroad.

“When we look at Germany example, Turkey saw the potential in mobilising a mass population of Turkish nationals at the time of Turgut Ozal’s leadership,” he says.

“The main aim was to keep the Turkish identity. These policies were not aimed at integrating Turkish citizens into the countries they have settled in. Those who emigrated abroad embraced religion whenever they had to overcome issues they faced or to maintain their political or national identities. This has created a hinterland of Turkey in Germany. Therefore, it was already known who would benefit the most from this kind of hinterland,” Erdogan tells Euronews.

“At the same time, the Kurdish movement is also a powerful movement abroad, especially in France and more in Sweden.”

“When it comes to Social Democrats or the opposition in Turkey, they have failed to grab the attention of Turkish people living elsewhere. They don’t take enough action in this field.”

Ayhan Kaya, a professor of politics and director of the European Institute at Istanbul Bilgi University, believes participating in elections from abroad shows that the political, cultural, social and economic ties of those living outside Turkey with their homeland remain strong.

“These ties are growing stronger with the globalisation that offers more accessible communication and transportation”, he says.

The previous election results show each country has a different voter profile. The majority of Turkish citizens favour current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Germany, but those in the UK favour the pro-Kurdish HDP or main opposition party CHP.

According to Prof Kaya, this can be explained by the integration policies of each country. 

For example, Germany, where most Turkish migrants live, does not allow dual citizenship. Those who don’t give up their Turkish IDs for a German one tend to be much more patriotic or have a strong religious identity. It is no surprise that these voters favour Erdogan over parties of the left.

“Another factor that determines the voter’s decision is the underlying reason for living abroad. A significant portion of people of Turkish origin living in countries such as the UK, Switzerland, the USA and Sweden are refugees who distanced themselves from the government in Turkey. This explains why there are differences of voter tendencies in different counties.”

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Looking back at 20 years of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in power

After two decades in power as prime minister and as president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hoping to win a final mandate in the 2023 presidential election next month. But amid mounting anger over his handling of the economy in recent years, the seasoned Turkish politician could be in for a tough fight against his main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Turkish political scientist Ahmet Insel looks back at Erdogan’s time in power. 

A talented orator and wily politician credited with lifting millions of Turks into the middle class, Recep Tayyip Erdogan transformed the country as only Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, accomplished before him. The 69-year-old Turkish president is now running for a third term. But the upcoming presidential election in May is no cakewalk for the seasoned politician with polls suggesting he could be defeated by opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu

A profound economic crisis coupled with skyrocketing inflation, deep political tensions and mounting anger over his handling of the February 6 earthquakes, which killed more than 50,000 people, could cost Erdogan his place in the Ak Saray presidential palace. Turkish political scientist and publisher Ahmet Insel spoke to FRANCE 24 about Erdogan’s political legacy and the stakes in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. 

FRANCE 24: After two decades of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in power, do Turkish voters still trust him?  

Ahmet Insel: He is not as popular as he was in 2020. In 2018, he won the first round of the presidential election with flying colours, getting 52% of votes. But surveys now show that only 40% or 42% of respondents would vote for Erdogan in the first round of the upcoming election. After 20 years in power, it’s a relative drop but not an insignificant one, given the democratic erosion that has taken place and the ongoing economic crisis.   

He could lose this election because of his decision to change Turkey’s political system to a presidential one, where a candidate needs over 50% of votes to win. If he had kept the parliamentary system, he would certainly win. Despite how he handled the earthquakes, Erdogan still has a surprisingly strong level of support. People also fear the change that would come should the opposition win these elections.   

How would you assess his track record as prime minister and president? 

His track record is negative on three counts. First, he came into a rather authoritarian democratic regime with the promise of establishing a conservative parliamentary democracy and expanding rights. What we see today is an extremely repressive presidential regime that has gutted civil society, gagged the media and made way for an autocracy, justifiable only because elections still exist. Turkey hasn’t made any progress on the democratic front. 

On the economic front, Erdogan implemented a neoliberal stabilisation policy in the 2000s, taking advantage of a very favourable international situation. With the prospect of Turkey joining the EU in a 15-year timeframe, there was plenty of foreign investments. The average income per capita rose from $3,000 in 2002 to $12,000 in 2012, a record high. But since then, it has been declining and is now at $9,000 – the same as it was between 2007 and 2008.   

Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis is largely a consequence of policies that Erdogan has implemented since 2018. The Turkish lira has lost more than 200% of its value in relation to the euro in just four years, which is an astounding rate. Turkey has the second-highest inflation rate worldwide. We reached an official rate of 80-90% last year, but unofficial estimates say the rate was much higher. Our current rate is around 60%. The middle class has become poorer. When Erdogan first came to power, Turkey had been part of the G20 for four years and had the 17th highest GDP in the world. That ranking has now dropped to 20th. There could have been more positive outcomes, but the president wasted the assets he had in his first 10 years as leader.   

Lastly, there is the ideological shift Erdogan made. In the early 2000s, he was culturally conservative and politically liberal, especially regarding gender issues. He supported an open-minded policy on education. But from 2010 to 2011 onwards, he changed his policies and adopted a more nationalistic, “authentic” position, to use his own words. He described himself as a Turkish nationalist who embodies Sunni Muslim values. He started saying his goal was to train a “pious youth”, something unheard of ten years earlier. His nepotism was blatant, he appointed people from “imam schools” – or preachers – to senior positions within his administration. He implemented more religious education in school curriculums. He used the Directorate of Religious Affairs in Turkey (Diyanet) to spread religious ideology. And he transformed the historic Hagia Sophia into a mosque, which was symbolically a big move.   

What about his foreign policy?   

Turkey has become a regional power feared by its neighbours, including Syria, Iran, Greece … Contrary to what Erdogan promised in the 2000s, the country has become a source of many problems, not a solution. He uses the country’s location to position Turkey as an intermediary between Ukraine and Russia. But while Erdogan condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he still cooperates on trade. His stance on NATO is ambivalent. Relations between Erdogan and the EU are completely frozen regarding Turkey’s membership. And he doesn’t respect the decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights.  

How can you explain Erdogan’s ideological shift, especially in terms of religion?  

He was trained in political Islam. He was the first mayor of Istanbul to be a member of the [Islamist] Welfare Party. In the late 1990s, he realised his stance on political Islam would limit him to the political fringes. Along with other politicians such as Abdullah Gul, who became president in 2007, he realised it was necessary to refocus his political agenda and occupy the centre-right. His success in both the 2002 and 2007 parliamentary elections was a consequence of his altogether authoritarian, culturally conservative, economically liberal, and politically rather democratic stance. It’s also what garnered him international support.   

From 2011 onwards, he had a majority in parliament and began implementing religiously conservative policies. And then came the Arab Spring. That’s when we found out he had been in close contact with the Muslim Brotherhood. He saw the Arab Spring as a moment to become the rising star of “democratic” Muslims in the region, from Algeria to Syria. He wanted to be the democratic older brother. He strongly supported Mohamed Morsi [in Egypt], Syrian opposition groups, and Ennahda [in Tunisia]. I think that’s the moment he started changing his stance. When Morsi was overthrown, when the US and France supported [army chief Abdel Fattah] al-Sissi, when Ennahda became an enemy of the state, he became suspicious of western allies. He is very paranoid. 

Then in 2014, he was elected president. After the June 2015 parliamentary elections, he lost his majority. He realised he could no longer win elections on his own and formed an alliance with the far-right nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). They were once fierce opponents, literally hurling insults at one another. In 2018, their interests converged, they joined forces and went on to win a parliamentary majority. Since then, he has associated himself politically with extremist nationalist and religious views.   

Will the February 6 earthquakes impact how people vote in May?   

The way he handled the earthquake may slightly weaken his chances. According to the polls, those who were convinced they wouldn’t vote for Erdogan are even more convinced now.  

On the other hand, the earthquakes took place in regions where Erdogan has a reserve of back-up votes (aside from Antioch). There may be a loss, but on a national level, the impact seems to be minimal.   

What will happen if his opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins? Will Erdogan admit defeat?   

Erdogan was the one to appoint all the judges of the High Electoral Council, so people are afraid they will declare his victory before the opposition appeals are filed. All the opposition parties have mobilised on the issue of election security to ensure their observers are everywhere. There are 192,000 voting stations in Turkey, the objective is to have observers in at least 160,000 of them.   

What would dramatically change if the opposition wins?   

The government will start sending more positive messages to the EU and, if they have a parliamentary majority, take the necessary measures to change the nature of the regime. It’s possible to change the criminal code, for example, and go back to a system that ensures fundamental freedoms. Foreign policy wouldn’t change that much because the international situation won’t be shifting drastically anytime soon. Turkey’s [foreign policy] position will go from aggressive to calm. Relations with NATO members will be less tense, Sweden’s membership will no longer be blocked. The opposition would probably cancel the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, a source of major conflict with the US. And there will be a sense of freedom in the air for a few months. After that, it’ll be up to the ruling parties to play their cards right.  

This article was translated from the original in French

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How the West, Russia see Turkey’s presidential elections

The 2023 Turkish presidential election next month will be eagerly followed in Western capitals – and in Moscow. Russia favours the incumbent, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while the West tacitly prefers his main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, according to analysts. But an opposition win does not guarantee an obstacle-free path to pivoting Turkey back towards the West. 

Erdogan has attracted much international attention over recent years with his assertive foreign policy – most recently his blocking of Sweden’s NATO accession, after accusing Stockholm of giving safe haven to people allegedly linked to Kurdish militant group, the PKK.

This confrontational approach to projecting power marked a big change from Erdogan’s pro-Western stance shortly after he took power in 2003.

On the 2023 campaign trail, foreign policy has taken a back seat to more pressing issues. Since 2018, an inflation and currency crisis has sent living standards plunging for Turkish nationals and residents. The divide between Erdogan’s Islamism and Kilicdaroglu’s secularism is another major dynamic in the electoral battle.

“As in most democratic countries, foreign policy is less relevant compared to other themes, particularly economic and identity issues,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat, now an Istanbul-based visiting fellow at Carnegie Europe. 

Russia ‘clearly’ supporting Erdogan

But while foreign policy might be a peripheral issue to the average Turkish voter, the elections are a big deal for various foreign powers.

“They’ll be watching it very carefully,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St Lawrence University and the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

While underlining that the Turkish president is unlikely to upend his foreign policy if re-elected – “Erdogan will still be Erdogan” – Eissenstat observed that “Russia in particular will be hoping for an Erdogan victory”.

With a long history of friction dating back to Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire, the two countries had a diplomatic crisis as recently as 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over Syria. A formal apology from Erdogan soon ended Moscow’s retaliatory sanctions – creating a rapid deepening of ties that survived Russia and Turkey backing opposing sides in the Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh wars.

The dramatic attempted coup in 2016 inaugurated a chill in Turkey’s relations with the West.

Ankara accused Fethullah Gulen, an Islamist cleric and ex-Erdogan ally living in exile in the US, of masterminding the coup. Gulen denied the accusations amid a Turkish government crackdown on his movement, which extended to critics of Erdogan’s policies. For his part, Erdogan perceived the West as insufficiently supportive in the aftermath of the thwarted putsch.

Erdogan’s rapprochement with Russia led to a full-blown rupture with Washington in 2017, when Turkey agreed to buy the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia – a red line for a NATO member, prompting US sanctions on the Turkish defence industry. 

This fits into a pattern going back to the Cold War, when the USSR helped Turkey develop infrastructure for heavy industry in the 1970s after the US spurned Turkey’s request for assistance.

Since the Cold War era, Moscow has “always been the second choice for Turkey if it thinks Washington is unwilling” to help, while Moscow has “never lost an opportunity to draw a wedge between Turkey and the West”, observed Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara bureau.

“Erdogan and Putin use each other for their own ends,” added Jeffrey Mankoff, from the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Since 2015, Russia has seen Erdogan as someone they could do business with. And Erdogan as a leader is now seen as toxic in the West – and that has benefits for Russia.”

In this context, Moscow has done Erdogan a favour ahead of his re-election campaign, Ulgen noted: “Russia has clearly supported Erdogan and they’ve demonstrated this by granting them deferred payments on natural gas purchases – essentially helping Turkey out financially by alleviating somewhat the pressures on the Turkish central bank”.

‘Frustration and exhaustion’

By contrast, Kilicdaroglu’s heterogenous six-party bloc, the Nation Alliance, suggests it wants restored relations with the West.

The Alliance is committed to restarting the EU accession process and following the rulings of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Most significantly, the Nation Alliance said it would “take initiatives” to bring Turkey back into the F-35 fighter jet programme, which allows NATO allies to buy the US stealth multirole combat aircraft. Washington removed Turkey from the programme in 2019 over its procurement of S-400s.

Analysts say that beneath the West’s silence about the election campaign, Europe and the US would welcome Kilicdaroglu’s victory.

“A lot of Western officials and leaders feel a sense of frustration and exhaustion in dealing with Erdogan,” said Mankoff. “They see him as presiding over Turkey’s drift from the West and the move towards a personalised and populist regime. For those reasons, they’d be pretty happy to see the back of him.

“At the same time, because Erdogan has been so effective at mobilising anti-Western sentiment, it pays for the West to be silent,” Mankoff continued. “And he’s a wily operator – a very effective politician – so there’s a reasonable sense that he might be re-elected despite all the headwinds. Why further alienate him?”

EU accession ‘effectively closed off’

But even if Kilicdaroglu wins, deepening ties with the West would take a lot of work.

The EU enlargement impetus has diminished over recent years, after the bloc’s rapid expansion was principally driven by Britain in the 2000s as a perceived means of diluting Franco-German influence. French President Emmanuel Macron vetoed accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania in 2019, suggesting the EU would struggle to integrate two countries from the troubled Balkans.

Bad relations with EU members Greece and Cyprus provide even bigger obstacles to Turkey’s EU accession.

After historic tensions going back to Ottoman rule over Greece, Athens and Ankara patched up relations in 1999 with the “earthquake diplomacy” breakthrough, after both countries suffered brutal quakes in the space of months. But Greece and Turkey have seen resurgent animosity over their Aegean Sea maritime border dispute since natural gas reserves were discovered in the eastern Mediterranean in 2010.

Meanwhile Turkey is the only country in the world that recognises the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus created after the 1974 war divided the island. The Nation Alliance promises to maintain Turkey’s longstanding position on the issue, saying it “will pursue the objectives of protecting the acquired rights of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”.

“Of course tensions between Turkey and the EU would decrease if Kilicdaroglu wins, so Turkey will be less isolated and will use diplomacy instead of threatening to invade Greece,” Unluhisarcikli said. “But even if Turkey meets all the other criteria for EU membership – and Turkey would have a lot of homework to do – Cyprus would still be a big issue, and there would still be questions about Greece.”

“On Cyprus, the opposition’s policy is not terribly dissimilar from Erdogan’s,” Eissenstat added – stating that the “road to Turkish EU accession is effectively closed by this point”.

‘Less difficult, but still difficult’

Restoring ties with the US would be similarly complex, given the low ebb they have reached. Unusually for a NATO leader, Erdogan took several days to congratulate President Joe Biden on his US presential election victory in 2020 as his predecessor Donald Trump baselessly contested the result. Biden reciprocated by taking three months to ring Erdogan. 

“Biden seems to have an embargo on Erdogan,” Unluhisarcikli said, adding that, whoever wins the Turkish presidential elections, “there will be a need to manage crisis-prone US-Turkey relations”.

“Under Kilicdaroglu, I would expect Turkey’s relations with the US to be less difficult, but still difficult,” Eissenstat added.

As things stand, it is hard to imagine F-35s and S-400s co-existing within the same country’s arsenal, since the US says the Russian system is a threat to NATO members’ security.

That said, if Washington and Ankara made a concerted effort to deepen ties after a Kilicdaroglu victory, there could be scope for a compromise on the S-400 issue, according to Ulgen. “If there is a flexible attitudes on both sides, there are other formulas besides the maximalist approach of demanding Turkey get rid of them, such as the US putting conditions on any potential Turkish use of S-400s,” he noted. 

Amid these thorny issues, if Kilicdaroglu wins Turkey and the West would likely concentrate on the low-hanging fruit – such as updating Turkey’s customs union with the EU to reduce trade friction.

Such an approach could also see Turkey resolve its most conspicuous source of tension with the West at present: “If the opposition wins, I would fully expect Turkey to ratify Sweden’s accession to NATO,” Eissenstat said.

If Kilicdaroglu wins, “there’s quite a realistic sense [in Turkey] of what the West could provide in terms of short-term wins for both sides”, Ulgen concluded. “I think there would also be quite an expansive political space for the West to achieve these wins – before it gets tricky.”

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Will Turkey’s inflation crisis damage Erdogan’s re-election chances?

A month before Turkey goes to the polls on May 14, the country’s inflation crisis is a major campaign theme as the six main opposition parties rally around Kemal Kilicdaroglu to create the strongest challenge yet to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But analysts say discontent with Erdogan’s economic management will not automatically translate into votes for Kilicdaroglu – especially given the prominence of cultural issues in Turkish politics.

It was telling that Erdogan focused on economic promises when he finally launched his presidential election campaign on April 11, more than two weeks after the secular CHP’s leader Kilicdaroglu. “We’ll bring inflation down to single digits and definitely save our country from this problem,” President Erdogan told his supporters at a stadium in Ankara.

Turkey does indeed need saving from inflation. While growth is robust, the most recent official statistics show inflation running at over 50 percent year-on-year in March, after it reached a quarter-of-a-century peak at over 85 percent in October.

Few doubt that the real figures are much higher: “It’s very clear that the government has been playing with the numbers; the real experience of everyday citizens is considerably more dire,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University and the Project on Middle Eastern Democracy in Washington, DC.

The Turkish lira fell to an all-time low against the dollar in March – the latest of its periodic collapses in the currency and inflation crisis that has racked the Turkish economy since 2018.

Experts blame the crisis on Erdogan’s belief – against all economic evidence – that high interest rates fuel inflation, which has prompted him to cut rates when tight monetary policy is needed to reduce inflation.

‘Really dire’

All this marks a colossal change from the economic outlook in the early years of Erdogan’s rule, back when the Western commentariat lauded him as a forward-thinking reformer.

Erdogan’s moderate Islamist AKP party pulled off an extraordinary feat in the 2003 Turkish elections, overcoming the secularist hegemony cemented in the 1920s by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The 2001 Turkish economic crisis was a major factor behind the AKP’s victory – and when Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, he set about reviving the economy and turning it into a powerhouse.

Bolstered by IMF support and buoyant conditions in Europe, Turkish GDP growth averaged 7.2 percent from 2002 to 2007. Many voters in Erdogan’s core constituency – working-class, socially conservative Muslims in the heartlands of Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey – joined the ranks of the middle class.

But over the past five years, the inflation and currency crisis has affected all segments of Turkish society, from Istanbul’s Europhile bourgeoisie to pious, working-class voters in the Anatolian heartland.

“The daily lives of Turkish citizens are being squeezed in very fundamental ways,” Eissenstat said. “People who think of themselves as middle-class are having tremendous difficulty maintaining a basic standard of living. And for the vast majority of Turks who live week-to-week and month-to-month in the best of circumstances, the situation has become really dire; just putting food on the table has become a major struggle.”

Unreliable polls?

Polls suggest the president is losing support in the current economic context. Erdogan and the AKP repeatedly sailed to re-election over the past twenty years – but the latest survey by Mediapoll puts Kilicdaroglu slightly ahead for the first round, at 42.6 percent compared to 41.1 percent for Erdogan.

“I want change,” Selman Deveci, a voter in Konya, a traditionally AKP-supporting territory in the Anatolian heartland, told the Financial Times. “They’ve screwed the economy.”

But Deveci was not impressed with the opposition either: “I don’t have faith in them.”

Analysts say this attitude of disillusionment with Erdogan but scepticism towards the opposition looks to be quite widespread – casting doubt on Kilicdaroglu’s lead in some polls.

“I’m not sure I’m very trusting of the polling,” Eissenstat said. “A lot of outside observers tend to just assume that … because the economic situation is bad, people will jump ship – but not necessarily. I suspect a fair number of AKP voters will return to them, after flirting with the idea of doing something else.”

After all, many Western observers underestimated Erdogan the last time around, in 2018 – expecting then-CHP leader Muharrem Ince to push the president into a second-round runoff after a spirited campaign. Ultimately, Erdogan clinched the necessary majority in the first round with 53 percent, winning 10 million more votes than Ince.

Culture war

The economy’s consequence in determining elections is one of the oldest rules in politics, most famously encapsulated by the cliché “It’s the economy, stupid!”, a mantra for staffers created by Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville during the successful challenge to George HW Bush for the US presidency amid 1992’s deepening recession. But not every electoral campaign takes place in the kind of context the US had in 1992, when pervasive political tribalism was confined to its past and future.

A fissure has run through Turkish society ever since the early 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk severed the profound links between Islam and politics that characterised the Ottoman Empire.

After coming to power, Erdogan slowly but surely brought Islam back into the heart of Turkish public life, eroding the power of Kemalism (so named for the secular philosophy espoused by the republic’s founder) and the “deep state” military-judicial nexus that had long buttressed it.

The anger of Turkey’s largely metropolitan secularists attracted international attention during the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul – but Erdogan retained his popularity among his millions of supporters in the Anatolian heartland, many of whom welcomed his triumph over the old establishment.

This cultural divide has many different characteristics from those seen in Europe and the US. But “culture war stuff matters in Turkey as it does in the West”, Eissenstat underlined.

And the technological changes of the last decade are amplifying this phenomenon, he added: “In a world of social media – of experiencing the world through news sources of our political choosing – political identification and ideology play a greater role in voting behaviour than before, as we’ve seen not just in Turkey but France, the US and the UK.”

All that said, as the presidential candidate uniting a heterogenous bloc of opposition parties, Kilicdaroglu has adopted a far more pragmatic stance on Turkey’s culture wars than his CHP predecessors.

Last year, Kilicdaroglu shifted the CHP’s position on women’s headscarves, a totemic issue in Turkish politics. Ataturk had discouraged the wearing of headscarves in the 1920s and his successors gradually introduced explicit bans applying at public institutions, which Erdogan then reversed in several stages.

Not only did Kilicdaroglu say the CHP had “made mistakes in the past” by supporting headscarf restrictions, he also endorsed a constitutional amendment upholding women’s right to wear it.

This strategy will make it easier for Kilicdaroglu to emphasise the economy, suggested Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara bureau. “The culture war is the main driver of Turkish politics, but not the only one,” he said. “Kilicdaroglu has softened the impact of polarisation with his conciliatory discourse. Therefore the economy will play a more significant role than usual in these elections.”

Return to orthodoxy?

Kilicdaroglu’s economic platform is a return to orthodox monetary policy and central bank independence. Beyond that, the opposition has avoided getting into the nitty-gritty details of economic policy.

But while it is a simple answer to the inflationary crisis, returning to economic orthodoxy is not such an easy sell for the Turkish opposition.

“The opposition is promising a return to confidence and normalcy, but their problem is that confidence and normalcy requires short-term pain,” Eissenstat noted. “That means they’d rather keep the conversation about how Turkey got into this mess, keeping the election as a referendum on Erdogan, without too many questions about what the opposition in power would look like.”

“Providing economic confidence and returning to governing fundamentals is what Turkey needs,” he concluded. “But it wouldn’t necessarily be popular or easy.”

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