October 31, 2015

Last call for Turkish passengers

Sevgi Akarçeşme

It was evident that things were rapidly going to get worse in Turkey when then then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to cover up the massive corruption probes, create an enemy under the name of the “parallel structure” and chose it as a scapegoat to blame for anything that went wrong in the country.

A phone conversation wiretapped by the German police in the espionage case involving the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) in which one of Erdoğan's former advisers is a suspect revealed that the Gülen movement had been chosen as the victim to cover up graft claims.

In the nearly two years that followed that fateful decision, Turkey has faced four elections (a municipal, a presidential and two parliamentary elections) which all went beyond their own function and turned into a referendum of approval on Erdoğan's tightened grip on society. Despite the unprecedented deterioration of media freedoms, the rule of law and an incredibly high degree of arbitrary rule over the past two years, thanks to Erdoğan's self-made media empire over the years and the public's deep-rooted resentment over previous mistakes related to the oppressive secularism of the state, Erdoğan still has an appeal in society. Indeed, people have never loved or hated him so much. You can get a sense of the degree of polarization in the country just by using that as a benchmark.

The last two years witnessed Erdoğan's vendetta-laden attempts to increase power in the guise of issuing lawsuits targeting outspoken journalists, the police chiefs who conducted the corruption investigations along with other crimes that the deep state is involved in and judges who released members the first two categories are still imprisoned. In addition to conventional media, Twitter and Facebook are considered enemies. Several regular citizens are being persecuted in an effort to intimidate others from being critical. Indeed, in 2015 in Turkey, “insulting the president” is taken more seriously than Islamic State in Iraq and the Levent (ISIL) terrorists, given the tolerance that the state shows towards the latter as opposed to, for instance, teenagers who "insult" Erdoğan.

Although the voters somewhat put the brakes on Erdoğan's desire for untrammeled power, the opposition, thanks to the irreconcilable differences cited by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) regarding the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), was unable to take advantage of that opportunity. The people are aware that the opposition blew a chance and they lost more hope in the opposition. Yet, the public also realized that Erdoğan is willing to do anything to cling to power, including breaking up the delicate settlement process he had forged in late 2012 with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Despite seeming to leverage control over everything in the country, Erdoğan is scared of losing power. As a result, just few days ahead of the election, the government appointed trustees to Koza İpek Holding, which owns two TV stations, two newspapers and a radio station, to further widen his grip on the media. Furthermore, these TV stations were shut down amid protests and defiance. Bugün TV -- owned by the İpek Media Group -- had been instrumental in monitoring the election results on June 7 and helped to prevent manipulation by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

Against such a backdrop, amid fears of election fraud and manipulation of even the announcement of the election results, one should not expect a miraculous outcome from the elections. People are increasingly frustrated, but they see no real alternative that would stop the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The CHP could see a slight rise in its votes because of its constructive attitude, but would still need to find a coalition partner or two. However, even a slight decrease in the AKP's vote and the prevention of a single-party government under the secretive leadership of Erdoğan would deliver some relief to an exasperated public. In that sense, this is the last call for Turkish passengers to stop a driver who has lost control of the vehicle from causing more damage. Yet, we could expect similar results to June 7, although public opinion surveys signal an increase in the AKP's support. Given that many such things lack credibility and social desirability, I find it hard to rely on them. Due to an unfair playing ground and concerns of fraud, it is also difficult to talk about completely free elections.

Nov. 1 is not a magic wand that will bring full democracy to Turkey, a democracy that unexpectedly slid, mostly over the past two years, into authoritarianism, but things were bound to get worse as long as politicians avoided accountability and the public gave a green light. It might take time, but sooner or later the real criminals will be brought to justice. In the meantime, Turkey will suffer from unpredictability, losing more time and energy…

Published on Today's Zaman, 31 October 2015, Saturday