Screenshot, Bild. March 27, 2017.Why did this centre-spread in the BILD newspaper
instruct Turkish voters that the founder of their new Republic, Mustafa Kemal
“Atatürk” (pictured) would have voted NO in the recent referendum? BILD, owned
by the media giant Axel Springer, is the largest circulation newspaper anywhere
outside East Asia.
In the first place, understanding what Atatürk was up to
confuses many. He followed the ideas of August Comte at the Paris École Polytechnique, mentor to many of the
French-trained élite officer corps who helped him carry out the coup in 1908, though not Atatürk himself. It was
Comte’s ideas about “rational religion” that he sought to apply to Islamic
practice to generate a strict moral code he would maintain was a genetic
This ideology of state supervision by a Soviet-style
“Directorate of Religious Affairs”would later be called Ataturkism by
1980 coup leader General Kenan Evren. It could be argued that the straightjacket
of Ataturkism, which would not allow for variations in belief (viz.
Alevis) or ethnicity (viz. Kurds), together with its aggressive policing, still lies beneath Turkey's divisions today, prompting the political
psychosis of what Kerem Oktem refers to as an “Angry Nation”.
Atatürk ruled through a single party, the Republican
People’s Party (CHP), which is the current bitter opponent of the Justice and
Development Party (AKP) founded by Erdoğan in 2001. From the 1930s onwards, the
Ataturkist (or Kemalist) élite sought to emulate the “good” European idea of a
multi-party system, which stuttered forward in a continuous stream of
opposition parties. But these would invariably be closed down, one after the
other, when judged unsuitable by a tutelary military.
In short Atatürk, the iconic figure who wrested the
Turkish nation from imperial aggression, was hardly a paragon of tolerance and
democracy. Why then did BILD feature him in this way? A clue may be found in an
announcement made by Bruno Kahl, head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND),
Germany’s spy agency, in the run-up to the referendum.
The BND, BILD and the Gülenists
Kahl announced that Erdoğan’s principal antagonist,
the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen was not behind the July 15, 2016
attempted coup in Turkey. The Gülenist organisation, according to him,‘…is a
civil organisation that aims to provide religious and secular education’. This
certainly contradicts Stuart Smith at the US Consulate in Istanbul who a decade
before had compared this organisation to that of a mafia (as revealed in the Wikileaks cables), an assessment
echoed independently in several books by journalists such as Ahmet Şık (in The Imam’s Army), Nedim Şener and Soner
Yalçın and former police chief Hanefi Avcı (in The Simons Living on The Golden Horn). These
writers would all be arrested on trumped up charges by prosecutors belonging to
the Gülenist organisation: now exonerated, they have all recently been released.
Kahl at the BND made what amounted to an essentially
supportive and conciliatory political
statement regarding the Gülen organisation, nine months after the coup,
and weeks before the upcoming April referendum, presumably to have some kind of
effect on the referendum outcome. Why would Kahl come out of the shadows to say
these things? We need to look at the role of the press and the link between
BILD, the press in general and the BND in Germany.
BILD is the tabloid representative of the German
political right, owned by the Axel Springer Group. Udo Ulfkotte has documented how in the 2005
elections which brought the CDU/CSU to power with Merkel at the head, Gerhard
Schröder, leader of the left of centre Social Democratic Party (SDP),
complained bitterly of a media stitch up at the centre of which stood Axel
Springer and BILD. In the late 1960s, Axel Springer had led the charge against
the student movement. When student activist and leader Rudi Dutschke was gunned
down in 1968, his followers and many in the community at large blamed BILD headlines for inciting the public to
violence against him and other individuals in the student movement.
The entire stable of Axel Springer publications
instructs its journalists to abide by an extraordinary ideological contractual code, which commits them
to taking the fight to “religious extremism” (however defined by editorial
edict), to defend America and “transatlanticism”, and to protect the State of
Israel. There is no reference to ‘journalistic values’ in the code.
Udo Ulfkotte’s book Gekaufte Journalisten describes
the pervasive influence on the German press of the BND, and its subservience to
the CIA. As editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ), Ulfkotte’s
description of the sheer extent of BND interference in what was, unlike the
Alex Springer newspapers, an independently owned and edited newspaper is
astonishing. The BND would rent rooms near the paper’s offices where their own
staff would write the stories Ulfkotte admits he had to accept and publish wholesale. He goes into detail about
the BND’s ‘… pervasive influence on literati, musicians, publishers or
public broadcasters’, an account corroborated by many, including the retired
head of German broadcaster ZDF, Wolfgang Herles.
The German government and the EU were clearly against
Erdoğan’s constitutional amendments and had published legal opinions decrying
them as a ‘dangerous step backwards for democracy’. But if
Ulfkotte’s description of how the BND operates is correct, the overt campaign
against the YES camp led by BILD, and which included ARD TV broadcasting in
both German and Turkish during the referendum, was accompanied by a more covert
The April 16 Turkish referendum
European institutions waited in the wings to weigh
into the fray in the aftermath of the referendum result in the event of a
victory for Erdoğan and the YES camp. Within an hour of the result, which saw a
51.4% win for YES out of 49.7m votes cast (from a total electorate of 58.3m),
the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) declared the
campaign unfairly biased towards the YES camp. Various EU institutions made
rapid fire announcements demanding transparency.
In Turkey, the CHP, whose leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu
had so far failed to use his party’s resources in an energetic
campaign, sprang into action and now sought the referendum’s annulment. Kılıçdaroğlu
based his demand on the Electoral Board (YSK)’s acceptance of “unstamped”
ballot papers as valid. No soorner were the CHP’s complaints filed, than a
stream of images about contraventions filled social media, chatter mushroomed
and the YSK was charged with being in Erdoğan’s pocket. Newspapers globally carried claims that the ‘… supreme election
board unexpectedly decided to accept ballots without the official seals’. The
YSK, on the other hand, said that all ballot papers without exception carried
the official watermark and the voter’s own mark. An additional stamp had been
missing on a few occasions due to the failure of some officials to do their
job. This, said the YSK head, could have been due to ‘… error,
neglect or manipulation’. It had occurred in past elections when the CHP itself
had advised overlooking the problem, since not
accepting the ballots would unfairly penalise the voters in question.
As it was, the audit confirmed the correct total
number of ballots counted originally supplied to the polling stations. The NGO ‘Vote and Beyond’, formed to improve transparency in Turkish elections
after the Gezi Park protests, detected inconsistencies in a mere 0.22% of the
total vote count, or 100,000 ballots (the difference between the YES and NO
camps was close on 1.5m).
The indecent haste of EU institutions, whether the
OSCE or the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), to discredit these
democratic procedures without waiting for the YSK to make their statements,
tells its own story. These are institutions who give unqualified support to
Israel and the current Egyptian junta, and who according to, for example, Richard Youngs' assessment of
the EU’s role in world politics, pursue policies which are ‘…increasingly
illiberal… [using] the ostensible principles of multilateralism as a means of
shoring up its own relative power in a more multipolar world… [and seeking]
containment of, rather than forward-looking engagement with, political Islam’.
The Gülenists, ultranationalists,
and the attack on the referendum
What role did the messages put out by Kahl and BILD
play in all of this? Atatürk is a totemic figure in ultranationalist circles,
and Gülenists, to whom they were appealing, are largely ultranationalist. They
are, furthermore, deeply ensconced in Turkish coup history. Gülen backed the
1980 military coup by General Kenan Evren, and became a purveyor of Ataturkism
at a time when the west was panicking about Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution
in Iran. Much later Gülen would back yet another military coup, this time in
1997 against his supposedly close friend and ally, Islamic politician Necmettin
With this background in coup-culture, Gülen joined
Erdoğan in the AKP project in 2001, until they fell out when Erdoğan launched
the “Kurdish Opening” in 2009, which sought to make
inroads into Turkey’s Kurdish problem by legalising the use of the Kurdish
language, launching Kurdish studies in schools and universities and allowing
Kurdish media. The Kurdish Opening involved a reconciliation process with the
Kurds which, as an ultranationalist, Gülen couldn’t stomach.
It involved trying to defuse the situation with the
militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Gülen’s followers in the police
wiretapped Hakkan Fidan, Erdogan’s MİT chief, while he met with PKK
representatives in an Oslo hotel on five occasions between December 2009 and
January 2010. They released the tapes to the press on the basis that the
government was negotiating with a proscribed terrorist organisation, causing a furore in nationalist circles. Gülen
later tried to have Fidan arrested on that charge while Erdoğan lay in
hospital. Ever since, he and Erdoğan have been enemies, while Gülen’s followers
in the police and judiciary are accused of laying ambush after ambush for the
The Kurdish issue has always been at the centre of
Turkish politics, exploited by factions in and out of country for different
political ends. The April referendum was no different.
In order to pass the legislation for the referendum
campaign in parliament the AKP had no choice but to partner the Nationalist
Party (MHP) with Devlet Bahçeli at its head, given the refusal by Kılıçdaroğlu
and the CHP, and by the HDP, to countenance such a move. However, while Bahçeli
delivered the necessary votes in parliament to pass the referendum law, his
grassroots deserted him.
In fact, the NO campaign was more energised by a
dissenting group of MHP members of parliament than a lacklustre CHP. Meral
Akşener, Koray Aydın, Ümit Özdağ, Sinan Oğan and Yusuf Halaçoğlu had earlier
tried to remove Bahçeli as leader but failed. Erdoğan is used to securing the
Anatolian vote in its entirety, but Ankara went against him by 51.15%. Those
bureaucratic heartlands, with their concentrations of MHP voters, were won over
to the NO campaign partly by these dissident ultranationalists.
What saved the day for Erdoğan was the Kurdish vote.
Out of 19 Kurdish-majority provinces 10 voted YES (Adiyaman, Bingöl, Bitlis,
Elazig, Erzincan, Erzurum, Kars, Malatya, Muş, and Sanliurfa). Out of 5.5m people
in those areas, 3m voted (54.5%) YES; the crucial development being, however,
of a shift in votes which occurred in NO-voting areas like Hakkari, Şırnak, and eastern Ağrı (as well as YES areas like Muş) compared with the November
2015 AKP results. This handed over nearly 1m votes to bail out the YES camp.
Within hours of the failure of the insurrection the dissident MHP MPs were appealing to Bahçeli to keep them on.
Judging the Venice Commission’s
The constitutional amendments passed on April 16 will
come into effect in March 2019, when new presidential and parliamentary
elections will be held, if and only if a whole raft of new supporting laws can
be passed in the meantime. Erdoğan’s ability to effect legislative and
constitutional change has been based on an unshakeable core support of about 32% of the Turkish
population. The “black Turk” meme used in his speeches exploits the divisions
in Turkish society left over from the Atatürk legacy. But if he didn’t ally
himself with other sections of what is a “multi-polar” society by using the
“big tent” approach for which he is renowned, he could never have achieved the
majorities which have propelled him forward so far. It is the perception
that PKK violence and Gülenist subversion is supported by foreign powers that
gives Erdoğan not only his majority, but the backing of a post-Ataturkist
Clearly, the concern is: what now? Is the future trajectory
different from the past? Close analysis of the constitutional changes point to
the fact that although Erdoğan has indeed bought himself some extra time in
power, nothing really changes. If an opposition with a credible programme forms
the right alliances, there is as much if not more chance for it to replace
Erdoğan (for instance in the March 2019 elections) as in the past.
The legal opinions issued by the Venice commission
which decry the April 16 constitutional amendments present objections that are
typical of formulaic EU institutions working through templates and
directives. They focus especially on the ability of the presidency to issue
executive orders, the concurrent nature of presidential and parliamentary
elections, and the ability of the presidency to dissolve parliament. But as
with all formalism, which cannot see the wood for the trees, it is not only
myopic but wrong about what Turkey is trying to achieve. For instance,
parliament can actually pass a law by a majority vote, which immediately
replaces any executive order from the president. Moreover, the presidential
impeachment processes put in place by the new constitution do have more teeth
than its critics concede.
The Venice Commission fails to recognise that really
nothing has changed in a system where the dissolution of parliament is not
possible without the simultaneous resignation of the president and where a
concurrent cycle elects presidents and MPs at the same time. All that has
happened is that the “prime minister” has simply become “president”.
If there is no change there, significant changes
however that will take place as laws are passed prior to March 2019 will shape
the actual nature of the administrative structure, especially with regard to the
intelligence services and the armed forces.
It is these last aspects of the new reforms which
Erdoğan has long sought to bring into a centralised and reduced structure, in
order to consolidate the “security state”, to use the terminology from Hans
J.Morgenthau’s School of Political Realism, on which the country’s
sovereignty is deemed to depend. Crucially, on this, likewise, depends the
“democratic state” and all its institutions. If the US and Europe struggle in
the modern age to keep the correct balance between these two aspects of the
modern state, Middle Eastern states suffer not so much from an imbalance
between them, as from a spectacularly overbearing “security state”.
However, if we have learned no more from the Arab
Spring, we have at least learned that this unfortunate situation has been
caused as much by the presence of the western security state in the region as
by anything else. Independence from this particular interference is necessary
for democracy to succeed in the region. This is essentially what Erdoğan's Turkey is
trying to achieve.
If Erdoğan and the AKP are seeking structures to
minimise the kind of foreign interference in Turkish affairs witnessed in the
events being related here, it is inevitable that Kurds will be granted federal
status eventually, as Erdoğan undertook way back in 2005 when he said ‘the
Kurdish problem is my problem’. Then the PKK will have to face not the Turkish
state, but the Kurdish constituency itself, and the lever European powers have
over Turkish politics will disappear.
If Erdoğan succeeds in putting the security state
fully under civilian control in Turkey in a centralised fashion, the
traditional competition between different deep state actors will end, together
with their solicitation of different foreign backers to pursue colliding
interests. The resulting stability will allow the democratic state inherent in
the multi-polarity of Turkish society and culture to flourish.