July 16, 2014

Experts voice concerns about Turkish democracy to US committee

A group of academics and businessmen testified on Tuesday before the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats in a hearing on “The Future of Turkish Democracy” and expressed concern over the future of democracy in Turkey.

In the opening statement of the session, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who also chaired the hearing, said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Turkey has prospered but that political freedoms have fallen behind the country's level of economic prosperity. "The prime minister has been at times intolerant of legitimate political opposition. The [Justice and Development Party] AK Party has increasingly gone down a dangerous path and when faced with tough opposition, instead of negotiation and compromise, the ruling party has often been intransigent and vengeful. Certain social media websites have been blocked; journalists jailed or fired, and the justice system politicized.” He also noted that in May of this year, Freedom House downgraded Turkey's press freedom ranking to “not free.” Rohrabacher said the US wants a stable Turkey at the edge of the Middle East, but does not want “stability at the price of democracy.”

Ed Royce, chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2013, also attended the hearing. He said he is very concerned by recent events “that indicate a shift by Prime Minister Erdoğan from democratic ideals and reverting to more authoritarian rule. He has reportedly stated that ‘democracy is like a bus ride. Once I get to my stop, I am getting off.' He appears to be putting those words into action, and has consistently chosen to use strong-arm tactics against opponents.” He said this approach was clearly demonstrated in the suppression of the anti-government Gezi Park protests of 2013. Royce added that free speech has come under increasing repression under Erdoğan's government. In addition to press freedoms, freedom of religion and minority rights are also threatened, he noted.

Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA), who also spoke in the hearing, said many observers were concerned that Turkey had transitioned into a single-party regime.

Hakan Taşçı, executive director of the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), testified as a witness in the hearing. He said investors were concerned with the erosion of the rule of law and economic and political checks and balances. “Emboldened by a 58 percent vote in a 2010 referendum for constitutional amendments and 49 percent in the general election victory in 2011, Prime Minister Erdoğan opted for the monopolization of power instead of continuing with EU-bound reform agendas. Having tamed the military and crushed political opposition, he consolidated his power by suppressing media and dissent,” he said.

Erdoğan's authoritarianism first emerged during the Gezi events, Taşçı said, adding, “A similar pattern was observed during the corruption scandal of last December which implicated the sons of three Turkish Cabinet ministers, high-level bureaucrats and government-friendly businessmen.” He also said that the prime minister presented the investigation as a “political conspiracy led by domestic and international actors such as US Ambassador [to Turkey] Francis Ricciardone, influential preacher Fethullah Gülen, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC and the ‘interest [rate] lobby'.” Taşçı also said that the government has started a witch hunt, going after government, bureaucracy, media and business representatives believed to be affiliated with the Hizmet movement inspired by Gülen. “The Erdoğan government's controversial tactics are not limited to Gülen circles,” he said.

Businessmen, associations and media from a variety of ideological backgrounds are under intense pressure to either comply or face consequences, Taşçı claimed.

Soner Çağaptay, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also testified as a witness. “Under the [AK Party], Turkey has become more prosperous, but ironically, at the same time, also less free. When the party took power in 2002, Turkey's record on liberties, as measured by international indices, improved along with the country's ambitious work to qualify for European Union accession. Later, under the AKP, Turkey's record on liberties stagnated, subsequently taking a nose dive,” Çağaptay said.

He noted that there have also been foreign policy concerns: “Towards the end of the last decade, Ankara decided that the path to greater power and influence was through the Middle East rather than Europe.” Çağaptay recommended that the US encourage Turkish reorientation toward Europe. “We stand at an opportune moment regarding such a pivot. The AKP's drive to transform Turkey into a Middle Eastern power has failed and Turks feel burnt out from such efforts,” he further noted.

Another witness was Nate Schenkkan, program officer for Freedom House. “Since halting the Gezi protests with overwhelming police force in July 2013, the government has grown even more intolerant and dismissive of criticism,” he testified. “This tendency intensified following the launch of the major corruption investigation on Dec. 17, 2013, which implicated leading members of the government and was followed by leaked recordings of government officials apparently engaged in massive corruption.” He recommended that “Turkey's EU membership should not be treated as a 'nice if it happens' outcome -- it should be regarded as a top-level priority for the United States in the region, on par with security and economic goals.”

Published on Today's Zaman, 16 July 2014, Wednesday