June 17, 2014

Interior minister fails to impress audience in Washington address

Turkey's Interior Minister Efkan Ala, a bureaucrat believed to be the leading figure in containing a recent corruption scandal and in implementing a number of the government's anti-democratic practices, delivered a speech on Turkish domestic politics in Washington, D.C., on Monday, eliciting laughter among the largely American audience.

In what was believed to be a move to polish the government's sinking image in Washington, a claim raised by numerous Turkey-watchers during a day-long conference organized by the Middle East Institute, Ala stood before academics, the policy community and journalists in Washington to convince them that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is on the right course toward what he said is an "open society."

"It sounded like an election campaign," an analyst at a Washington-based think tank remarked on the minister's speech about Turkey's current dynamics. The interior minister, who was earlier caught on tape demanding a prosecutor arrest a prominent critical journalist without a court order having been issued, presented the ruling AK Party as a political force that has been under constant fire by "status quo forces." He even acknowledged several coup plots by army officers against his government in the past, which stood in stark contrast to a government narrative that there have been conspiracies against the army.

He argued that the ruling party has a good record of democratization and pro-freedom reforms, adding that it is determined to move forward to build a "consolidated democracy." He spoke at length on how the support base of his government increased during the course of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's tenure, in a show of approval of Turkish authorities' popular social policies. Ala left criticisms that the government is rapidly moving away from democracy unanswered.

Previously the undersecretary at the Prime Ministry, Ala is known by the public as the bureaucrat who organized most of the anti-democratic practices of the government to contain the corruption scandal -- from removing members of the police and judiciary to demanding a prosecutor "break down the door of journalist Mehmet Baransu and arrest him" without a court order. As photos of Ala speaking in Washington surfaced on Twitter, social media lit up across Turkey, with many mocking the government decision to send Washington "the worst minister" in its image-making move. Ala, who has difficulty speaking coherently even in Turkish, is often a subject of social media jokes.

"I hope there is someone who is translating Ala's remarks into Turkish," a US-based Turkish journalist tweeted while another user said: "Efkan Ala is said to be haranguing American democracy, transparency, etc., in Washington. I missed the fun party."

"I don't believe in a single word he is saying," an American participant said following the minister's speech, while another audience member described the whole event as a "sham." Many who spoke to Today's Zaman agreed that if the minister's speech had been designed as a "PR campaign” then it was a "total failure."

Ala is in Washington to hold high-level talks with US officials on security cooperation. Agenda items that officials from both countries will discuss have not yet been made public, but a whistleblower said on Twitter that Ala flew to the American capital to complain about sympathizers of the Gülen movement living in the US.

The Gülen movement and the government of Erdoğan are at odds after the prime minister targeted the faith-based movement during his election campaigns, accusing it of masterminding a conspiracy against his authority "with global links." Erdoğan earlier said in a televised interview that US President Barack Obama told him the "message is delivered" when he asked that the US extradite Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement and who has been living in a rural Pennsylvania town since 1999. The White House denied Erdoğan's remarks attributed to Obama and the US president, who earlier called the prime minister a "good friend of mine," was reported to be forwarding Erdoğan's phone calls to Vice President Joe Biden. It was not clear if the interior minister would talk about the possibility of extraditing Gülen to Turkey. Extradition processes from the US are usually painful and long and there must be an ongoing case against suspects in question. The accusations against the suspect must also be considered a crime under US law.

Although Ala didn't talk about his government's unease over Gülen's residency in the US, he did complain about the "parallel structure," a euphemism constructed by Erdoğan in December last year to describe the Gülen movement. Government officials who acknowledge a setback in freedoms often justify most of the government's recent anti-democratic actions, including thousands of public reassignments, by blaming the Gülen movement. Some observers accuse Ankara of using the Gülen movement as a scapegoat for its wrongdoings. The Turkish government has adopted a series of laws this year, such as an education law that restricts the freedom of entrepreneurship, a law that puts the judiciary under government's tight control and a law that grants wide powers to Turkey's spy agency. Erdoğan's government also recently blocked access to YouTube, Twitter and Google+ as part of a wider crackdown on the media, a restriction that was later lifted by courts.

On media freedom, Ala said the reported number of journalists who are incarcerated is an exaggeration, and he defended media freedom in the country. Freedom House recently listed Turkey as a "Not Free" country in its annual press freedom ranking, prompting a smear campaign from pro-government newspapers about the Washington-based think tank and its president. Ala said that press freedom might not be perfect in Turkey, but he put the blame on what he called "status quo forces,” referring to the Gülen movement.

Many Turkish journalists filled the room so they could ask the minister questions, but the Q-and-A session was strictly moderated. President of the Middle East Institute, Ambassador Wendy Chamberlain, who was moderating the minister's speech, said "we're out of time" and took only two questions. Though dozens of hands were raised, she made a quick survey of the audience members before selecting those who could ask questions. One of the participants even asked a question about Turkish foreign policy. It was not immediately clear if the participants who had been given a chance to ask questions were selected before the speech. The moderator refused to hear questions from other audience members and journalists.

Published on Today's Zaman, 17 June 2014, Tuesday