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A Marginal Sociologist’s View on the Turkish Referendum and What the Future May Hold: The Fault lines Revealed Say Something About the World, Not Just Turkey

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Despite my earlier predictions, Turkish voters chose “YES” for a new constitution in the referendum of Sunday 16 April 2017 by a narrow 51.3%-48.7% margin. In my defense, the vote was marred by irregularities including ballot stuffing and a controversial decision to allow unstamped ballots to count. According to CNN’s piece, monitors

 

described a litany of shortcomings.

  • The state of emergency imposed after a failed coup last July had a profound effect on the political process. “Fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed,” the monitors’ report said. “The dismissal or detention of thousands of citizens negatively affected the political environment.”
  • State media was biased in favor of Erdogan and did not adequately cover opposition. “The legal framework for the referendum neither sufficiently provides for impartial coverage nor guarantees eligible political parties equal access to public media,” she [monitor Tana de Zulueta] said.
  • Monitors saw “no” supporters subjected to police intervention at events and senior officials in the “yes” camp equated them with terrorists.
  • The involvement of Erdogan and other national and local public figures in the “yes” campaign led to a “restrictive” and “imbalanced” campaign framework, she [monitor Tana de Zulueta] said. The decision on the day of the vote to allow unstamped ballots “significantly changed the ballot validity criteria, undermining an important safeguard and contradicting the law.”

 

In typical fashion, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed the monitors’ report, telling international observers to “know their place”. Given that Turkey’s three largest cities—Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir—all said no, it is very likely that voting irregularities did indeed turn the tide for the “YES” side. Indeed, it was noted that many polling places in southeast Turkey recorded clean sweeps (as in 97 for “YES” to 0 for “NO” in one case where all vote counters were relatives), the kind of questionable results that are common in authoritarian regimes. In fact the results were much closer in many Istanbul districts than would have been expected, as a look at Istanbul’s district by district results show. In conservative Eyup “NO” won out 51.54% to 48.46% while in conservative Fatih “YES” won with a similarly narrow 51.38%-48.62% result. With results this close—in even notoriously conservative districts—in an election where the majority of big cities went against the AKP for the first time since the party came to power, it is unrealistic to think that the “YES” win was truly “free and fair”.

 

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Three Largest Cities Say No. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39622335

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97 “YES” to 0 “NO” in Southeast Turkey’s Sanliurfa Province. Note the vote counters’ last names—they’re the same! Image Courtesy Of: http://ilerihaber.org/icerik/aile-boyu-saibe-urfada-dokzan-yedi-evet-0-hayir-cikan-oylari-sayanlarin-hepsi-akraba-70744.html

 

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Results Were Closer Than Expected In Some Conservative Districts of Istanbul. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.sozcu.com.tr/2017/gundem/istanbul-2017-referandum-sonuclari-evet-ve-hayir-oy-oranlari-1784854/

 

 

Despite the controversy, the “YES” side won. As President Erdogan said—using a football analogy, no less—“I come from a football background. It doesn’t matter if you win 1-0 or 5-0. The ultimate goal is to win the game.” Given that the “game” was won—albeit with an offside goal (!) perhaps—we now need to analyze what it means. I believe that the fault lines that the referendum revealed in Turkish society mirror the fault lines we see in the world today, but it is not all doom and gloom for Turkey since the future could be brighter than many “experts” seem to believe.

Many political pundits seemed despondent in the wake of the results, with The Guardian’s Yavuz Baydar saying “Erdogan’s referendum victory spells the end of Turkey as we know it” and Foreign Policy penning a piece titled “RIP Turkey”. At first glance, the pessimism seems warranted; the kind of polarization seen in the election map—where, in this case, the tourist and industrial centers on the coasts and Kurdish areas in the southeast voted “NO” and the long-neglected peripheral provinces of central Anatolia voted “YES”—is reminiscent of the societal polarization seen in the wake of Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States.

 

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Turkey’s Results. Blue is “NO”, Red is “YES”. Image Courtesy Of: http://referandum.ntv.com.tr/#turkiye

 

While I have seen many observers describe this phenomenon as one pitting the “educated” and “cosmopolitan” urban areas against the “ignorant” and “backward” rural areas, I believe there is another answer; it an answer that does not try to degrade one group in the face of another, rather it is an answer that tries to get to the root of what might be called a budding global crisis. Rather than an “urban/rural” divide, I think we are seeing a divide between “capital-rich regions” and “capital-poor regions”. This is to say that regions rich in capital—due to foreign investment or development—are typically urban while regions rich in capital—devoid of foreign investment or development—are typically rural. Of course the ethnic aspect of the Kurdish areas (themselves also capital-poor) adds another dynamic to the Turkish case, but—generally speaking—ethnically Turkish “capital-poor” regions voted along the same lines for “YES”. It is also important to note that the terms “capital rich” and “capital poor” do not refer to individuals living in those areas, rather it refers to general regional attributes (like the number of foreign companies present, etc.).

This situation affects traditional voting patterns. In the past people voted on what they thought was best for their country; while there may have been different parties with different goals, they tended to be different visions for the same end goal: the betterment of the country as a whole. In the current situation, with politicians more and more beholden to corporate interests and capital and less to their countries, there is little middle ground to be had for voters. For many politicians and wealthy donors the end goal is not the betterment of the country, rather it is the betterment of personal bank accounts. Thus the stark divide as politicians look to win votes (to better their own economic situations) by polarizing the electorate: it is a classic situation of divide and conquer in the context of a zero sum game.

An example of how this manifests itself is the case of Izmir businessman Selim Yasar, a member of the board of Yasar Holding, which owns the foodstuffs brand Pinar, the sponsor of the Pinar Karsiyaka basketball team (the Yasar family has also been involved with the Karsiyaka football team). After posting a Tweet reading “YES thank you to the Turkish public that made the right choice!”, fans of the Karsiyaka team slammed Mr. Yasar on Twitter to the point that the Tweet was deleted. This is not surprising, since Karsiyaka’s fan group Carsi has ran foul of the government before for sending political messages (much like the other Carsi group, fans of Istanbul team Besiktas). When fans confronted Mr. Yasar on social media, reminding him that his district (of Karsiyaka) voted overwhelmingly against the referendum (83.2% “NO”, one of the highest rates in the country), Mr. Yasar responded with a threat that the team’s sponsorship deal would need to be “reconsidered” so as not to fall afoul of Ankara [the government] following such a high percentage of “NO” votes in the district. In the authoritarian climate fostered by the referendum results, of course, such bold threats are not surprising.

Here we clearly see that the businessman is putting his own interests first, likely knowing that cultivating good relations with the government will mean more business deals and increased profits; for Mr. Yasar is voting along the lines of what will bring more money in. Mr. Yasar is a good example of how, under extreme capitalism, politics can get polarized (and, at times, ugly). Indeed the local—and even the team—is of no concern to Mr. Yasar. In order to cultivate support from the government, Mr. Yasar is willing to end his relationship to the sports team (or at least publically threaten to do so in the name of appeasing the state).

 

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Mr. Yasar Vs. The Fans. Images Courtesy Of: http://haber.sol.org.tr/toplum/evet-kutlamasi-yapan-yasar-holding-karsiyakali-taraftarla-karsi-karsiya-geldi-193445 (TOP) and http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/karsiyaka-taraftarina-tezahurat-sorusturmasi-40074959 (Bottom).

 

This brings me to why it may not be all doom and gloom for Turkey. First of all, there is a disconnect between what the state wants (the “YES” camp) and what the capital rich regions want (they mainly voted “NO”). This kind of divide will likely not be sustainable, especially given that the AKP has built itself on a foundation of economic “stability” and “development” (processes that affect capital rich regions). Mr. Erdogan has upped his populist rhetoric to speak to the capital poor regions of ethnically Turkish Central Anatolia, but that betrays his neoliberal leanings. His recent attempt to bridge these contradictory positions shows how untenable the situation is. At a ceremony marking the birth of the Prophet Muhammed on 22 April 2017, Mr. Erdogan said:

How can one who does not listen to the voices of millions of Muslim children who have been killed in Syria regard himself a follower of the Prophet? You must have seen the father who was holding his deceased twins after the chemical attack [in Syria]. How long will those villains continue their cruelties without paying the price? What are we called just because we speak against them? They call us dictator. Let them say that. We will continue to raise our voices against them. Because our Prophet preaches ‘consent to cruelty is cruelty.

While his pursuit of justice in the Muslim world is underlined here, it also conspicuously ignores the role that Turkey played in undermining Syrian stability by turning a blind eye to militants streaming into Syria from Turkey; this type of hypocritical position is not sustainable in the long term. Neither is the fact that, following the coup of 15 July 2016, much of Turkey’s civil society (including government officials, diplomats, and judges) has been purged for relationships with reclusive cleric Fetullah Gulen. The AKP was built on the foundations of a relationship with Mr. Gulen and his followers; without that deep-seated support—which penetrated all levels of the Turkish state—it is unlikely that the AKP can retain its institutional cohesion.

Perhaps most heartening, however, is the fact that—for arguably the first time in Turkish history—we truly see the liberal communities of coastal Turkey taking the same side as the Kurdish communities of eastern Anatolia. One look at the voting map shows this convergence based on shared interests. When one takes into account the close vote in conservative districts—and the fact that the biggest cities all voted “NO”—we can infer that many conservative Turks were also against the constitutional change. In this atmosphere, we see a rare opportunity for Turks of all stripes—conservative and liberal, Muslim and secular, ethnically Turkish and ethnically Kurdish—to come together.

 

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Most Big cities, Excepting Bursa, Voted “NO”. Among the Top 10 “YES” Voting Provinces (In the Red Column), Most Were From Central Anatolia. The Top 10 “NO” Voting Provinces (In the Blue Column) Were a Mix of Kurdish Provinces (5) and Liberal Coastal Provinces on the Aegean and Thracian Coasts (5). Note also that “NO” percentages in Turkey’s most Liberal City (Izmir) and Turkey’s Main Kurdish City (Diyarbakir) Were Virtually Identical: 68.80% to 67.59%. Image Courtesy Of: http://referandum.ntv.com.tr/#turkiye

 

Likely, it will necessitate the rise of a new political party or at least a new charismatic political leader to bring these disparate groups together. Such a party would probably have to be socially conservative (but not Islamist), much in the way America’s Republican party is conservative and not specifically religious, and it would have to be nationalist (civically, and not ethnically, so as to include Turkey’s Kurdish citizens) to have success. If such a movement mobilizes, it is likely that it will also benefit from fractures that have emerged within the AKP following the split with the Gulenists, and could mount a challenge to Mr. Erdogan in the 2019 Presidential election (which this referendum ensures). This means that a new opposition party could emerge to exploit the close nature of the referendum; if well-organized enough it would be able to challenge Mr. Erdogan, who could then actually lose the election in 2019 (and with it the power) he hoped to gain through the referendum in the first place! Hopes for a truly inclusive Turkey may actually be more alive after the referendum than they were before the referendum, and that is another perspective from which the referendum results can be viewed.

 

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Image Courtesy Of: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flag-map_of_Turkey.svg

 

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Crowd Trouble Mars UEFA Europa League Clash Between Besiktas and Olympique Lyon: What the Media Won’t Say About the Events

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European football’s second tier competition, the Europa League, is often derided for being less exciting than its more illustrious big brother, the UEFA Champions League. This week, the Europa League defied the preconceptions by providing a lot of unexpected excitement, albeit for the wrong reasons. The April 13 2017 quarterfinal match between Turkish side Besiktas JK and French side Olympique Lyon started 45 minutes late because of crowd violence, pitting fans of the two teams against one another and prompting a pitch invasion before the match.

While the unprecedented level of violence is alarming—and not to mention extremely disappointing—it also raises many questions. Why did this kind of violence happen at this particular match, and at this particular time? Who is to blame for it; Turkish supporters or French supporters? I hope to answer these questions by putting forth two theories. Likely, the truth is somewhere in between, but it is a lot more of an interpretation than much of what I have seen provided in main-stream media outlets.

As would be expected after an event like this, both sides blamed one another. The Turkish news media (especially the pro-government daily Sabah) blames the French police and supporters. Their articles carry headlines like “French Hooligans Attack Besiktas Fans!” and “French Police Attack Besiktas Fans”. In the mean time, Lyon’s president Jean-Michel Aulas claims that it is Besiktas fans who are to blame. Mr. Aulas hyperbolically said “We can always say that the match organiser has to face these issues but either we make stadiums that make it possible to do family football or we build blockhouses with barbed wire. It is not football that you love”. In the end, UEFA found that no one was innocent in this ugly situation and charged both teams.

Unfortunately, much of the foreign media took the blame game to the next level by strongly accusing the Turkish fans. In this regard British daily/tabloid The Sun was the most egregious, and their piece of photo-journalism, written by Gary Stonehouse, is a poor and misguided attempt at journalism; the pictures don’t even match the captions!

 

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The Young Girl in the Turkish Flag Hat Is Portrayed as “Launching a Terrifying Attack” By the Sun. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3328924/europa-league-clash-between-lyon-and-besiktas-delayed-as-thousands-of-fans-pile-onto-pitch-following-violence-in-stands/

 

The caption here reads “The travelling Besiktas supporters launched a terrifying attack on the home end”, yet in the picture we clearly see a group of masked men clad in black—with one wielding a metal rod—attacking a group of Besiktas supporters including a young girl with a Turkish flag hat! Unless this terrified young girl is a hardened football hooligan, I am unsure how Mr. Stonehouse could characterize this scene as one of Turkish supporters attacking innocent French supporters. The Sun’s piece is also keen on pointing out how scared “the children” were (one caption reads “A small child snapped along with thousands of Lyon fans fleeing onto the pitch in terror”) yet conspicuously ignores the plight of the terrified young Turkish girl.

 

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The Sun Is Cleary Concerned About The Well-Being of “The Children”…As Long As They Aren’t Turkish, Apparently. Images Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3328924/europa-league-clash-between-lyon-and-besiktas-delayed-as-thousands-of-fans-pile-onto-pitch-following-violence-in-stands/

 

Unfortunately, this is a prime example of a biased—and perhaps xenophobic—press. Even the image with the caption “Besiktas fans launched fireworks and missiles into the home end” is misleading, one can figure it out just by looking at the image. Clearly it is the masked hooligans, again clad in black, from the French side that are attacking the Besiktas fans (on the left) who are seen running in the opposite direction. Unfortunately The Sun seem to have lost their ethical sense and chose to run a biased story rather than do their job—provide unbiased journalism.

 

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Clearly It Is the Masked Men In Black (From the Lyon Side) Who Are Attacking The Turkish Fans (In White and Red, Mainly); It Is As If the Captions Describe a Different Event. Images Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3328924/europa-league-clash-between-lyon-and-besiktas-delayed-as-thousands-of-fans-pile-onto-pitch-following-violence-in-stands/

 

Given this example of poor journalism, it is clear that a better explanation for what happened is necessary. While there was violence both inside and outside the stadium, it appears that there is no way to establish blame at this point. This is why I will put forth two theories; it is likely that the truth lies somewhere in between:

  • The violence pregame was planned as a way to stoke the fires of Turkish nationalism before the critical referendum on Sunday 16 April 2017 in Turkey.
  • The violence during the game was a planned attack by ultra-nationalist and far-right French hooligans as a response to the pre-game fighting and is indicative of rising Islamophobia in Europe.

In terms of the first theory, we must first understand that the fighting before the match makes little sense. Besiktas—in this Europea League Campaign alone—faced teams from two countries with which Turkey has (geo)political tensions. Two rounds ago Besiktas faced Israeli side Hapoel Beer-Sheba, and the most interesting thing to happen was that some of Besiktas’ board members laid a wreath at a bust commemorating Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. One round ago Besiktas faced Greek side Olympiakos Piraeus (who got into a Twitter spate with Osmanlispor, the Turkish side they faced earlier in the competition) and the matches were played without visiting fans. Given that both of these matches carried political tension but went off without a hitch, the situation in Lyon raises questions.

Lyon President Jean-Michel Aulas said that shops were damaged before the match, and The Sun (in a different piece) reported that “Fans were snapped angrily clashing with armoured police, most wearing black signalling the club’s Ultras – and some waving the Turkish flag and letting off smoke bombs”. Here it should be noted that Besiktas’ “Ultras”—known as Carsi—do not look like the gentleman below who is pictured attacking stewards.

 

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The Above Image–of Men In Black Tracksuits Attacking Stewards–Does Not Fit Carsi At All; They Look More Like Hired Thugs. Images Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3328782/besiktas-fans-clash-with-french-police-in-violent-scenes-in-lyon/

 

In fact, Carsi gained notoriety for protesting against the government in 2013 and have a reputation for their liberal stance on social issues; they are not a group known for wanton violence. The key issue seems to be that, as the Lyon president noted, many fans entered the Turkish section without tickets. Sports Illustrated reported that “Lyon’s director of security, Annie Saladin, said about 50 Turkish fans forced their way inside the stadium and were responsible for the trouble”. Again, this is not something that Carsi are known for doing; having attended a Besiktas away match in London I can attest to the fact that the Carsi fans I met were largely rule-abiding decent human beings. So what happened in Lyon?

Given the history of framing Carsi (the pitch invasion at a 2013 Besiktas-Galatasaray derby comes to mind) by blaming them for crowd violence in order to discredit the group after they participated in anti-government protests, it is possible that this event is a similar framing. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lofty goals for Turkey—reiterated in an editorial for the daily Sabah on 15 April 2017 where he speaks of plans for as far off dates as 2053 and 2071–and he cannot afford to lose in Sunday 16 April’s nation-wide referendum which would give him executive power. Given this obsession, it is not unlikely to believe that he took a page out of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s playbook: stoke the fires of nationalism through soccer hooliganism. In this past summer’s European championships, Russian fans clashed with British fans while Putin mocked the violence. Later, it became clear that the Russian “hooligans” had ties to the Kremlin.

Regarding the case in Lyon, it is possible that either Erdogan sent fans from the Turkish community living in Europe to cause trouble or members of the European Turkish community went of their own accord to cause trouble. In either case, the troublemakers knew that the response from police would solidify the “Us vs. Them” narrative that Mr. Erdogan feeds on: the narrative that Turkey is a Muslim nation bullied by Europe and that—in order to stand up to this injustice—Turkey must be strong and, therefore, allow Mr. Erdogan to have complete power to “strengthen” the country. Even Mr. Erdogan’s response to the Lyon events carries an unprovoked denial: “The match is happening in France, there is no Erdogan there. If the French [fans] went onto the field that is dangerous. I suppose there have been some changes there too lately […]”. Why would Mr. Erdogan voluntarily tie himself to this event, as he does in the first sentence, if he wasn’t involved?

The second theory is that the French fans came looking for a fight. The rush with which Lyon’s president—and much of the European media—moved to blame Turkish fans for the violence suggests a tacit acknowledgement that the French fans held some culpability. The images provided above also tell an important part of the story. Scenes of French fans clad in black and attacking children with metal rods—or screaming, shirtless, on the pitch—do not give the impression of an innocent group. Quite the contrary, they look like members of a paramilitary group.

 

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The Section of Lyon Fans “Reacting To their Turkish Attackers” Don’t Look So Innocent To Me. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3328924/europa-league-clash-between-lyon-and-besiktas-delayed-as-thousands-of-fans-pile-onto-pitch-following-violence-in-stands/

 

Given the recent incident involving the bombing of German side Borussia Dortmund’s team bus (initially blamed on Islamic terrorists) and the rising tide of terrorism in Western Europe, it is quite possible that some of the French fans came ready to fight the Besiktas fans because they represented Turkey, a Muslim country. In short, Lyon’s fans may have been expressing the kind of Islamophobia that has been on the rise in Europe recently; they are not innocent.

Unfortunately, much of the Western media has ignored the guilt of Lyon’s fans. Besiktas’ main fan group, Carsi, has sent out a series of tweets detailing the atrocities committed by Lyon’s fans. It is also important to note that on 11 April 2017 Carsi Tweeted a warning to visiting fans, telling them to not travel in small groups, wear team colors, or respond to any agitations; Carsi was aware of the possibility that there could be trouble in Lyon which leads me to believe that they would not go out looking for trouble.

 

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Carsi Sends a Message To Traveling Fans Urging Them To Not Respond to Provocation From Home Fans In Lyon. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/forzabesiktas?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

 

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Carsi’s Twitter Feed Points Out the Errors In the Western Media Narrative. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/forzabesiktas?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

 

Once again, I do not believe that Besiktas’ “Ultras” themselves–the “real” ones–had anything to do with the horrible scenes we saw unfold in Lyon. Rather, it seems as if the match was used in order to further different narratives concerning Turkey and its relationship with Europe. I don’t know which is sadder: that football is being tarnished to further political goals, or that Western media cannot separate fact from fiction? On the other hand, what is important to recognize is that this was certainly not the work of real football fans; it is instead a classic example of what happens when politics gets mixed up with football.  Given that matches in the Turkish league have been postponed this weekend due to Sunday’s referendum, we are likely to see politics mix further with Turkish football in the coming weeks.

 

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As The Banner Shows, Many Of the Besiktas “Fans” Came From Europe, In this Case Berlin. It is Likely that the Majority Were Not Part of Carsi’s Core Support From Istanbul. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-4410138/Lyon-Besiktas-fans-fight-pitch.html

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For Those Who Think The French Fans Are All Innocent, This Is A Picture That Speaks A Thousand Words. Thanks To The Daily Mail For Correcting The Sun‘s Egregious Error In Reporting. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-4410138/Lyon-Besiktas-fans-fight-pitch.html