Why Turkey will never follow Russia

In a land known for its earthquakes Turkey experienced quite a shock a couple of weeks ago after the electorate worked together to yank the reins of power away from the AK party for the first time in 13 years. Such was the surprise and relief, particularly in the more modern west of the country, many towns and villages near me actually celebrated the news with fireworks – which is something I have never seen before in the fifteen years I have lived here.

After the ruling AK Party lost about 80 seats and with it its working majority the only way they can hold onto any form of power now is in a coalition with one of the 3 other parties, who managed to breach the 10% threshold needed before you can take up even a single seat in Parliament.

This election may have been about a new government but only a fool would say it wasn’t also about the power and ambition of just one man. Recep Tayyip Erdogan – the President, who had actually entertained the belief that his party could achieve a supermajority of more than 50% which would have allowed him to re-write the constitution and effectively transfer most of the governments executive powers to… you’ve guessed it: the President. However, the Turkish people had a very different idea and gave the AKP just over 40% of the vote. So Erdogan’s ambitious power grab, which many people believe would have resulted in a dystopian future because of the effective Putinization of Turkish politics they say would have quickly followed, has seemingly now lost its wheels and been consigned to history.

Erdogan and Putin discussion
Photo by Ust Manset

However, if people think Erdogan is just going to fade away then clearly they don’t know the man or understand his massive ego and ambition. “Democracy,” he once declared, “is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” Since saying this he has never indicated the “destination” toward which he thought Turkey’s democracy should be headed. But many Turks have drawn the conclusion that Erdogan had always intended to step off the tram as soon he had accumulated enough unrivalled power.

Now the three other parties are jockeying for power and laying out terms for forming a coalition. However, as all three have made it a condition that a number of huge corruption cases against AKP members and their families be re-opened, don’t expect a partnership agreement any time soon. Especially as it has become obvious that Erdogan still seems to have a veto over any AKP decision, despite currently holding the constitutionally ‘Non-Partizan’ role of President.

The massive graft scandal that simply refuses to go away erupted on December 17, 2013, when 24 leading business and public figures, including the sons of three ministers, were detained over allegations of corruption in relation to construction projects and the transfer of funds to Iran. The ministers were all forced to resign, with the Minister of Environment and Urban Planning Erdoğan Bayraktar furiously turning on Erdogan and demanding his resignation, since it was he who had approved the contracts.

Erdogan sacked a further seven ministers in a cabinet reshuffle, then packed it with his cronies. Although he lambasted the corruption probe as a “dirty plot” orchestrated “internationally” to discredit his government he only managed to bury it after sacking or demoting at least 2,000 police chief officers involved in the investigation from the financial crimes, anti-smuggling, cybercrime and organised crime units throughout the country. Then he appointed a little-known governor with no experience of police work, as Istanbul’s new police chief. He even sacked many of the prosecutors leading the investigations with the leading prosecutor quickly barred from expanding his investigation, which by now had implicated Erdogan’s own son Bilal, in order that the case could be handled by forces loyal to him.

Erdogan was not always the aggressive dictator-like leader we see today. At the beginning of his reign, he was quite the modern reformist, albeit with Islamic undertones. Western media praised his forward-thinking approach as he steered the country away from bankruptcy. However, in the 13 years since Erdogan’s AKP party swept into power a divisive society has gradually emerged, which finally united, for the first time against him on the 7th of June. Secular Kemalists, Nationalists, Kurds, Alevi’s, and other minorities such as the LGBT community, Greek and Armenian-heritage Christians and Women’s Rights groups all united against the Ottoman-idolising, conservative and religious leaning state, whose ever more autocratic leader openly views women as unequal and urges them to cover up, make more babies and not even laugh or smile too much in public. Such demands may have pleased AKP-supporters, but it was a step back in time for most Turks, who had been forced to watch on silently as Erdogan went about segregating his AKP-supporters from the rest of the population with his social policies.

The change in media was one of the most startling. Women in hijabs suddenly began presenting the news and most of the media owners were persuaded to either stifle any government criticism or face seeing their journalists jailed or have their TV, Newspapers and on-line content overseen by party placemen. Even poor old Twitter was banned.

Occupy Gezi
Photo by Ilker Goksen

All of this only further distanced many Turks from the new identity Erdogan hoped to sculpt. One of a religious, mosque-attending Turk who shuns the evils of alcohol and hedonism, and longs for the days of Ottoman rule across the Middle East… this despite the Ottoman Empire being recalled by most non-Turkish historical commentators before its demise as The Sick Man of Europe because of the rampant corruption, nepotism and miss-rule.

What happens now? A coalition of any makeup will always carry a flaw that could fracture at any moment. So don’t rule out early elections – indeed there are many here who believe Erdogan would relish yet another throw of the dice to try and get what he ultimately wants with fresh elections. Also, immediate change should not be expected. Not least because his New Order has now ingrained itself right into the heart of Turkish society, with AKP-supporting individuals now filling most positions of influence right across the country. They are embedded in the courts and police force, while high-ranking army generals who opposed the AKP were removed under a major government operation.

Public criticism and dissent are still being met with worsening repression, including ever tighter internet controls. Press censorship, intimidation and self-censorship is now so rife that Turkey became the world’s biggest jailer of journalists in 2013 and 2014. So the voice of Turkey’s modern majority has been neglected for quite a long time and was all but muted or dismissed by Erdogan with a “If you don’t vote for us, you’re nothing to me” attitude. However, now the Turkish people have finally spoken loud and clear, it will be very interesting to see how someone, now rather unaccustomed to working by the rules, will cope within a country that has finally decided to favour democracy over a dictatorship.

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Don’t Forget to Remember

Memory loss has to be one of our biggest fears. Names, words, facts and faces, your car keys – nothing is spared. Thanks to the steady erosion of our brain matter: we lose about 0.5% of our brain volume every year. The hippocampus – the region responsible for memory and learning – is thought to weather particularly badly; by the time we are 90, many of us have lost around a third of its grey matter.

book mindfulness
Photo by tourist_on_earth

Fortunately, recent research has shown that the brain is not concrete, but certain regions can adapt and grow. In his book ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’ Joshua Foer describes how he went from being a casual press reporter at the USA Memory Championships to competing, with no previous experience, and amazingly ending up winning the competition the following year. What Foer discovered during his year of preparation, is that the brain can be trained and improved through a series of exercises and memory tricks, mainly by using visualisations. These visualisations, which are commonly known as memory palaces, can be populated with certain items placed strategically around an internal image of a familiar structure such as your childhood address or workplace etc.

The Moonwalking with Einstein of the title refers to another system of remembering the order of any number of shuffled decks of 52 playing cards, which must be recalled exactly during the competition after only a short period of looking at each card. He discovered that most people can remember a series of up to 7 numbers or letters quite easily but most of us begin to struggle beyond that. Go on try it for yourself here.

The brain is incredibly adaptable and keeping your mind and memory active will eventually alter the physiology of your brain to cope with whatever you throw at it. In 2000, a study of London taxi drivers, for instance, showed that the 4-year training of London’s 25,000 streets, an ordeal necessary to acquire a black taxi licence and known as ‘The Knowledge,’ showed a remarkable growth in their hippocampus area compared to bus drivers who only learnt a fixed number of routes. The scientists think that, by memorising the maps of London, their brains build many more of the “synaptic connections” that allow their brain cells to communicate with each other. In other words, the good news is that it may be possible to train the brain to compensate for some of the neural decline that accompanies our expanding waistlines and receding hairlines.

Challenging your brain could be one way of preserving your recollections – though the value of commercial brain training apps is debatable; most experiments seem to show that while people may become a whizz at these screen based games, the improvements fail to transfer to daily life. But other, more traditional activities – like learning a musical instrument or a second language can help maintain the synaptic links and help lay down memory in a symbiotic way, so they can be accessed from different directions I.e. a musical note together with a letter or a number may be easier to recall together, rather than singly, at least in our short-term memory. Try this little test for yourself.

Ideally, you should try and keep your brain active throughout your life, well before you begin to approach your dotage. There is lots of evidence showing that we can improve our memory and brain function through exercise and a healthy diet, which is also thought to offer some protection against dementia. As can an active social life – since regular contact with other people is also thought to excite our neurons and preserve our synapses. Also ensuring that you regularly get a good night’s sleep is also very helpful.

Of course, nothing can guarantee health and vitality in old age. But these few simple measures might give you the best possible chances of preserving your wits against those inevitable ravages of time.

Anyway, where was I…?

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