We talked with to her about the local elections in Turkey which will took place next Sunday and about the general situation in the country when it comes to issues like freedom of press and the economic crisis.
Kati Piri is a Dutch Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who belongs to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats. As the Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur since 2014, she has earned the reputation of being an outspoken critic of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party, the AKP.
There will be local elections in Turkey on 31st March. Some recent opinion polls suggest that the economic situation will be the deciding factor of the elections, with the state of the economy and unemployment being at the top of the list of what people see as the country’s most important problems. The unemployment rate (especially the youth unemployment rate) is extremely high and has been rising, and inflation has accelerated dramatically after the lira collapsed against other major currencies. For instance, food price inflation in Turkey reached an annual rate of 31%, the highest level since at least 2004.
Do you think that Turkish electors are going to punish the government for its inability to solve these problems?
The economy is a key issue for all voters in every country. And it has been essential for the AKP because they have gained the trust of a large part of the electorate due to their positive economic policies in the past.
However, the economy could also cost them their voters. If you do not have a job, or a decent house to live in, or if your salary is not enough to buy food for your family… These matters are crucial for people when they go to the voting booth.
However, we also saw in Russia, when President Putin faced economic sanctions and the possibility of a big problem at home with his country’s electorate, he tried to play the nationalist card. His message is: “do not blame me for the economy, the foreign powers are out to destroy us. If you are a true Russian, you should now defend the country.” And these are the tactics that President Erdoğan is now using.
He has all the power possible, more power than is healthy in a normal democracy, but he still blames others for the economy. The question is whether the Turkish electorate finds this credible or not. However, with all the deterioration of press freedom in Turkey in the last few years, we do not know if people hear a different opinion than the one which the government wants them to hear.
Before last year’s elections, Erdoğan said that the choice would be between nationalists (referring to his party and the MHP) and those who are under [foreign] control (the opposition parties). The Turkish President recently said that the CHP, İYİ Party and Felicity (Saadet) Party had formed a “gang” against the People’s Alliance of the AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). He even accused the CHP of being serving FETÖ and PKK.
What does this tell us about how Erdoğan sees opposition parties?
I think it tells us more about what type of politician he is: someone who does not want to have a debate about the substance of his policy but prefers directing personal attacks towards opposition leaders. We see other populists in Europe using the same tactic. Just think about Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Politicians like this always make it personal.
Then, when they are the ones being criticized, they insist that is not an institution that is criticizing them; they always say it is a personal attack by someone who was paid by this or that person. Very often the name, George Soros is mentioned. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories always work well with a certain type of society which wants to see a complot everywhere.
Turkey is obsessed with conspiracy theories…
Yes, but unfortunately there are similar feelings within all our societies right now.
Moreover, like we mentioned before, theories blaming “foreign powers” are constantly being used by the Turkish government.
Being in power for more than a decade and saying that whatever happens to Turkey is the fault of outsiders… That is not really taking responsibilities for your actions. The same goes for the Gülen movement. Which party was cooperating with the Gülenists? It was the AKP. Everyone knows this in Turkey; I do not know who Erdoğan is trying to convince anymore.
And let’s not forget that Erdoğan, who is perhaps the person with the strongest links with Gülen, even apologized after the coup…
Yes, he apologized, but he does not forgive other people. So, he apologizes but then he wants others in jail, even if they were not involved in the attempted coup. Sometimes because they had ByLock [an encrypted mobile phone application] on their phones, sometimes because they went to Asya Bank, etc…
Erdoğan recently said that “The HDP equals the PKK, which equals the People’s Protection Units (YPG)/The Democratic Union Party (PYD)”.
Do you think this rhetoric can have some impact on the next elections?
It is not just this statement, it is a variety of statements. The AKP has formed an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) for the local elections, and I am sure that this does not help when it comes to maintaining the Kurdish base. The AKP has a very strong Kurdish base; they won around 40% of the votes in the Southeast, and they are risking this by having this alliance with a strong anti-Kurdish party.
Besides that, I think everyone in Turkey knows that that there will never be a military solution to the Kurdish question. If there was one man who understood this, it was President Erdoğan. He decided to have peace talks but they did not deliver him what he expected in terms of support. In addition, we know that the Syrian war made the ambitions of the PKK bigger than the peace talks in Turkey. Be that as it may, one day the Turkish government will have to go back to those talks, and I think all top level AKP figures are aware of that. So, the question is: how much rhetoric can you allow yourself for the future?
Do you consider that we will witness massive arrests among the HDP elects after the elections?
My question is: who is left to arrest? They have arrested 2000 of the activists who are running the local branches, around 90 mayors, etc. Actually, they were not only arrested, but put in jail.
And let’s not forget that the HDP still have their two former co-chairs and other members of the parliament in jail. Who is left? And how long can you keep this up? These are people who represent millions of voters in Turkey. You cannot turn their voters into an enemy, they are citizens of Turkey. Irrespective of their leaders, of the HDP politicians, this is insulting to millions of Turkish citizens who voted for these people. I am really afraid of this very strong hostility that is building in Turkish society. We know that there have been more than 150 000 people fired, and the same amount of people since the coup have been in prison. We see what has been happening to the Kurdish left electorate.
I reiterate: we are talking about millions of people. How can any government think it is okay to be so hostile to its own population?
You’ve already mentioned the deterioration of press freedom in Turkey. We are talking about a country in which, according to some estimates, more than 90% of the media is under the control of the president’s allies. On 3rd October, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that “democracy is not possible with the media”, adding that, “it is not possible for a politician to pursue sound politics if he or she is afraid of the media”. Turkey is by all accounts the world’s worst jailer of journalists and the 2018 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders ranks it 157 out of 180 countries in the world.
Do you see any way for this situation to get better in the near future? How?
It is going to be difficult because it means the government stopping this crazy policy and returning to some normal governance. I do not see that happening soon. Let’s be honest: Turkey has never had free media. Never.
We should not forget the fact that most Turkish media outlets in the past were always part of businesses and special interest group. If you went to Zaman Network, it looked like you had walked into Google: it was a very modern office, clearly not from the profit you make with a newspaper. In fact, it was a business association with newspaper for its own interests.
Where businesses are involved, certain interest groups are involved. This has always been the case with the group of which Hürriyet and CNN Türk were a part. Yet, before, you had a variety of opinions from different interest groups and at least it was not all the same state propaganda. Now it is different. Turkey has a society which is focused on television – that is the way that people get their information. Not having free television channels and having to rely on a couple of papers and mainly online media, which is not something that the wider public uses as a source of information, makes this a very worrying situation.
Autocrats like Erdoğan play it very smart, they all go after judiciary and free press and then they say: ‘We win elections with a majority of the votes’. Well, it is easy to win if no one gives a different opinion.
The Editor-in-Chief of Ahval, P24 journalist Yavuz Baydar told Al-Jazeera that, “some terms for the large majority, such as ‘freedom’, ‘rights’, these are too abstract (…) Particularly middle and lower-middle classes of Turkey are much more focused on economy, the pocket, the daily life and the family. That’s why freedom of media, freedom of expression, all of these issues are left only for journalists, for intellectuals.”
Do you agree with this perspective?
You cannot blame the Turkish electorate. This is something that most people all over the world have in common. If they cannot afford their groceries tomorrow, then that is a much bigger issue than a judge being fired for his political opinion. Not everyone feels the effect of important democratic institutions in their daily lives, it takes a longer time before you see that these things are not there and what they mean for your life.
On the other hand, if you lose your job, from one day to the next, it has an immediate effect on your life. I see the same in Hungary. In December, the Hungarian government made two laws: one was on overtime, the so-called “slave law”, under which you have to work one day extra per week without getting paid; the other one was a very serious law violating the independence of the court system. No one took to the streets because of the courts, but because they did not want to work one extra day per week.
We forget to teach people that while we all take democracy and democratic reforms for granted, they can be destroyed easily and quickly, and this is what is happening in Turkey right now.
What do you make of Erdoğan’s rising influence in the Balkans? Do you think is he trying to expand some kind of authoritarian model?
When you look at the Balkans, the influence of Turkey is mainly in Bosnia and in Kosovo. For a long time, the EU was very happy with the close contact between Turkey and the Balkan countries; all of them were countries on their way to becoming members of the EU. But what we see now is a totally different type of policy. The EU kind of forgot about the Balkans when it was too busy with its own problems, and now, they have become a battlefield of influence between China, Russia, and Turkey. The EU has woken up very late to these developments.
Turkey are trying to have more of a cultural influence. We saw the kidnappings that lead to the Kosovan president and prime minister having some differences and the justice minister having to resign… Turkey is no longer the positive example of a Muslim country on its way to becoming a fully liberal democracy. For many years, it was a key example of that, especially for many countries in the Balkans. Unfortunately, now, it is an example of authoritarianism.
What is the image of Turkish government in the international arena?
Once a Turkish diplomat told me, “you guys have the memory of an elephant, we have the memory of a fish”. They think: we have this rhetoric now, but we can change it very quickly later. This is not the way things work in international politics. For example, most Dutch voters remember that two years ago, President Erdoğan called Dutch people the remnants of Nazis. This is not something that resonates well, or that could be quickly forgotten or be seen as election rhetoric. This was deeply insulting.
Every year, I try go to the US to talk with experts on EU-Turkey relations and the US have always had a very positive view on Turkey, mainly due its role as a NATO partner. But now, in the US, there is a totally different rhetoric on Turkey. A lot of damage has been done especially in the last 2/3 years.
I also think the Turkish government has made some really stupid mistakes. Everyone understands that if you face a coup attempt in your country, you will want to take those responsible to court. Turkey would have received wide international support if they had not started to purge all kinds of people who committed no crime or for their belonging to a certain religious group… That was too far! Then, by widening the purge to include even opposition journalists who have never had anything to do with any of these groups, they have ended up losing all credibility on the international scene. Turkey has been seen as an ally of the West for a long time and it has come to be seen as a very big liability.