Theodoros Benakis

Interview with Eylem Tuncaelli: The case for a united opposition in Turkey

"They have created a monopoly in all the media, to abolish the possibility of different voices being heard. We are now in a period where only one voice is heard in Turkey," says Eylem Tuncaelli.

Turkey these days is making newspaper headlines across Europe and the world, but for all the wrong reasons: controversial internal politics and policies implemented by the government, the country’s foreign “adventures” and its deep economic crisis.

Turkey’s Green Left Party has been the target of the country’s regime. The party’s co-chairs, Eylem Tuncaelli and Naci Sönmez, are among a group of 11 people calling for peace and who were put on trial earlier this year.

Founded in 2012, the party, which is affiliated with the European Green Party, works for the unity of the opposition forces in order to present a democratic alternative to the regime established by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

European Interest interviewed Tuncaelli, who is also the spokesperson of the Green Left Party. We asked her about a wide-range of topics that are crucial for Turkey and Turkish society.

She was quick to stress that the ruling AKP party changed its approach to social politics and that the regime has tried to eliminate any possible form of opposition.

“They have created a monopoly in all the media, to abolish the possibility of different voices getting a hearing. We are now in a period where only one voice is heard in Turkey,” she explained.

As for the Turkish economic crisis, it is the result of foreign borrowing, as well as a monopolisation of production in the country’s construction sector.

But Tuncaelli is particularly concerned about Erdogan’s energy agenda – namely, his nuclear power plant in Akkuyu. Pollution is also at high levels in Turkey and is affecting drinking water, the rivers and the coasts.

While she and her party are in favour of a European future for Turkey, public opinion is much more sceptical now than ever before.

For Tuncaelli, the opposition seems to be the only possibility to stop the authoritarian regime.

European Interest: AKP’s favourite narrative is about its success in domestic security and international politics. Since Brussels has a different view of this success, what do you think are the AKP’s greatest achievements?

Eylem Tuncaelli: To assess its success and failure, you can’t look at the whole 16 years period of AK Party power as one.

During the first two parliaments of their power, in the period up to 2011, they were more sensitive to social problems and social demands. However, once they felt that they had established their national and international legitimacy there was an accelerated turn to narrow identity politics and they lost the sensitivities of the earlier period.

The failure of AK Party’s foreign policy is clear from their failures towards Syria, Egypt and the USA. We are now faced with a regime that is far from foreign politics based on peace and dialogue.

We can see, looking at the regime’s internal and external performance during the first half of the 16-year period, something like a sine curve showing sometimes an approach that is improving, at other times one that is worsening. But in the most recent period there is nothing that could be evaluated as success.

But if you look at it from their own point of view, by what they have done and what they have said, they have succeeded in establishing a considerable social base. In particular, they have portrayed what any state should in any event do in the way of social services and portray it as an achievement of their party.

Another great “success” has been their campaign to eliminate every possibility of opposition or struggle. They have created a monopoly in all the media, to abolish the possibility of different voices being heard. We are now in a period where only one voice is heard in Turkey.

Concerning the economic crisis that hit Turkey, has your party reflected on the causes? What are, according to the Green Left Party, the necessary steps for economic recovery?

Of course, this crisis is not independent of the global crisis. The crisis is connected to external borrowing to finance non-productive investment.

The budget deficit has increased, the balance of trade deficit has increased, private sector debt is out of control, and the banking system has started to become unsustainable.

An economy based on a concept of development centred on the construction industry, resulting in concrete cities, an economy not based on production and distribution, was never sustainable.

The only way out of this crisis is to work for a system that ensures more equal distribution of wealth, a just tax system, green economy principles and support for production whose basic aim is sustainable living. Only if we have, instead of unbounded development, the implementation of the principle of development within the bounds of the planet, will this be possible.

With a social, green economic programme based on solidarity and pluralism, this crisis can be overcome. In place of neo-liberal policies supported by crazy consumerism, we need an anti-capitalist approach, focussed on the protection, not of companies, but of the environment. We need to return immediately to the principles of the welfare state and the protection of the rights of the poor and of working people to a humane life.

After the Constitutional Referendum on 16 April 2017 and the general elections of 24 June 2018, it seems that Turkey has entered a new period of uncontested rule by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP. Do you agree with this? Can you imagine how the new period will be? Will there be any other chance for the opposition parties to change the political situation in Turkey in the near future?

After the referendum and election, they are trying to sustain their administration with a new alliance, a new power bloc. However, this is fragile and riven with internal tensions.  The events of the last two days have shown this (AK Party’s partner, the ultra-right MHP, voted against MHP in parliament and their alliance may not continue in the 2019 local elections). The democratic resistance of the opposition can change a regime based on repression and threats. If an opposition front can be woven in such a way that it can turn the cracks in the ruling bloc into opportunities, events may develop differently.

While the Turkish diaspora in EU member states could play a progressive role, we see that it is deeply divided between pro and anti-Erdogan. Can you explain this? Can the diaspora play a role in the democratisation of Turkey and if so, how?

The struggle for democracy in Turkey cannot be carried forward solely by internal forces. External forces are just as important as the internal.

The “obedience and situation protection” efforts of supporters of the government render making contacts more difficult.  The diaspora always has an effect on internal politics. Pro-government forces are being created in Europe.  The situation can be improved by forming communication mechanisms and improving the contact between the internal opposition and progressive forces.

A few years ago, Turkish society held pro-EU sentiments. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan let it be assumed that today the situation has changed. Earlier this month, he said that he should call for a Referendum on Turkey’s path toward EU. Is it true that people are now turning their back to the EU prospect?

The European perspective is important for the democratisation of the country. But if there was a referendum, since the conditions would not be equal, it would be open to manipulation by the regime. The rising nationalist wave since the beginning of the Syrian civil war has created a mood against the European Union. The rise of racism and islamophobia in the EU has made this situation worse. Half of society has accepted the president’s views on this subject without question.

It would appear that, as the result of a number of problems in relations with the US, Erdogan and his circle have felt the need to turn towards the EU again as a balancing factor. The problems include disagreements about the relationship with the YPG-PYD in Syria, the Reza Zarrab, Halkbank and Hakan Attila trials in the US, the arrest of the priest Brunson, the imposition of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium, and finally, the operations against the Turkish Lira in August 2018.  It seems that they now believe that what they have been unable to achieve through relations with Russia and some Eurasian countries, they may once again be able to achieve by returning the fold of the EU. While it is far from clear how sincere and deep rooted this turn is, it is, nevertheless, a factor.

Of course, if there is a referendum, we would campaign for a positive vote.  However, given Erdogan’s one-man regime, the lack of democracy, the Kurdish problem, the economy, the policies on freedom, the media and justice, campaigning on the European Union will not be easy.

You will have watched with concern the developments during previous elections and referendums.

Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrians in temporary protected status. This means Syrians do not have refugee status in Turkey. On the other hand, Erdogan clinched a refugee deal with Europe. What is the real impact of the refugee presence in Turkey in relation to its economy and diplomatic relations? What is their weight in Turkish politics?

Turkey is consciously keeping the status of the Syrian refugees in limbo to use them as a bargaining counter. They are being used both as an excuse to intervene in the internal politics of Syria, and also as a weapon against the EU. There are also arbitrary policies of discrimination between Kurdish and Arab refugees. Refugees are being exploited as a cheap source of unregistered labour.

Unfortunately, these people, who are fleeing war, have been deprived of their most basic rights and encounter many problems wherever they go. As Green Left, we support the right of refugees wherever they go, to become, if they wish, citizens of these countries and, whatever their status, to enjoy all the fundamental rights and freedoms.

The lack of democracy in Turkey makes us talk mainly of the political problems. But, pollution is an acute matter as well. According to a recent report of the Chamber of Environmental Engineers, 79% of the country’s freshwater is polluted. The pollution of the seas in the Aegean provinces and of Istanbul is also worsening. Since the EU has asked Ankara for “a stronger political commitment”, has there been any concrete action from the Turkish authorities about this?

The government is pursuing a policy of pillaging nature. As you know, I am an environmental engineer. To fulfil political promises, environmental laws are enacted, but they exist only in name. Our most frequent slogan these days is, “Yasanız yalan, derdiniz talan” – “Your law is a lie, your aim is pillage”. It is still the case that nature, and whatever is above or below the ground, is regarded as a store of resources to be exploited. If you have money and/or political connections, you can pollute as much as you like. For this reason, every day we wake up to a country where water, air and land are becoming more polluted. What we need is not “the polluter pays”, but the principle that we should prevent pollution, protect and develop by making and enforcing laws.

In regard to ecological policies, the Ak Party has been an uninterrupted failure since it came to power. Even they, saying things like “we betrayed the cities”, admit this. But this betrayal has not ended with this confession. If we draw a graph to summarise ecological policy, it would simply be a line going continuously downwards. Unfortunately, that curve’s downward path is getting steeper by the day, pollution and deterioration is accelerating.

The first Turkish nuclear power plant in Akkuyu along the Mediterranean coast is expected to come online in 2023. Construction of the first reactor commenced in April. In addition, there are plans for three more nuclear power plants by 2030. According to the official declarations, the Akkuyu power plant will meet 10% of Turkey’s energy needs. Since there is too much speculation concerning the entire project, from energy, ecological and even political point of view, do you think Akkuyu is a solution for Turkey’s energy safety needs or perhaps it is the opposite?

The damage to the environment caused by nuclear power and the safety risks it poses are both long-term. There should be no construction of nuclear power plants, neither in Turkey, nor anywhere else in the world. For none of the planned nuclear, and thermal, power stations can we talk about energy security, nor about health and safety.

We submitted many pages of scientific reports in support of our applications to the courts to cancel the Akkuyu project.  The day before the hearing the president said, “Whether they want it or not, we will do it”. At the hearing the next day, the judges rejected our case for cancellation.

Over the past few years, there has been a tendency of rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow in the areas of defence and energy. On matters of energy, for example, Russia is Turkey’s largest supplier of gas and the third largest for oil. Are you concerned about the fact that Turkey could become much more dependant and influenced by Russia?

Being dependent on other countries for energy is problematic, whether that country is Russia or any other. The rapprochement with Russia has strengthened the authoritarian tendencies in our already problematic democracy. At a time when the future of the planet demands that we reduce fossil fuel consumption and turn to renewable energy, Turkey has become a country that is increasing fossil fuel consumption, planning a fossil fuel power station on every corner and become a country importing fossil fuel from Russia.  On the other hand, the rapprochement with Russia on defence issues represents a choice of war over peace.

As the Green Left, we want to live in peace in an equal, free and green world.

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