October 10, 2015

Why did Turkey quickly slide into authoritarianism?

Sevgi Akarçeşme

I am writing this column only hours after witnessing Bülent Keneş, the editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, arrested in the newspaper building over his allegedly insulting tweets about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Unfortunately, Keneş was arrested just because he had expressed his ideas. In this country, which I call hell for journalists, prosecutions against members of the media are the rule rather than the exception. The apathy and indifference among the general public are almost scary. Even those who defy authoritarianism have gotten used to reports of detentions, trials and constant intimidation. This is in stark contrast to the Turkey of a decade ago that officially began European Union negotiations.

By many accounts Turkey is doing worse in many aspects, including the Kurdish issue, compared to a decade ago. The grim photograph and video footage last week of the body of a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist being dragged through the streets by the police will lead to bigger scars in the collective memory of Kurds in the years to come. What is worse is that such unacceptable treatment of a dead human being is being justified by some Turkish nationalists. What makes a state distinct from a terrorist organization? Respect for human dignity and the rule of law. If a state has no respect for the rule of law, it is no different than a gang.

In Turkey today we still have to express such basic concepts. Why did Turkey regress so quickly? It all boils down to the aborted corruption investigations of Dec. 17 and 25, 2013. Indeed, it is not only the unprecedented pressure on the media that was recently manifested in the attack against popular journalist Ahmet Hakan or the deteriorating Kurdish issue, but also the widespread witch hunt within the bureaucracy and even the raid of kindergartens inspired by Islamic Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen that are relevant to those infamous dates. Let me explain how.

When the massive corruption probes that implicated ministers, Justice and Development Party (AKP) cronies and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s family members emerged, there were two options for the government: face the charges and let the process take its course, or cover up the investigations. In an effort to avoid accountability, Erdoğan and the AKP chose the second course that inevitably led to more and more oppression and censorship in the media and caused Turkey to slide into despotism faster than anyone could have imagined. In addition to mounting pressure on the media, the judiciary was compromised as well. Already fragile legal institutions in Turkey have lost their independence in politically motivated trials and counter-investigations against the police officers, judges and prosecutors who dared try the new political elite of Turkey.

As a result, ridiculous indictments that argue the corruption investigations were coup attempts against the government in reference to Adam and Eve and the Lord of the Rings are treated as legal documents even though they deserve to be treated as evidence of lunacy. Because Erdoğan holds the Gülen movement responsible for exposing the AKP’s dirty laundry, anyone affiliated with the movement is also targeted in the most extensive witch-hunt in Turkey’s history. As far as the Kurdish question is concerned, it is also dependent on political calculations stemming from Dec. 17-25. In an effort to have unchecked power, Erdoğan preferred an executive presidential system over following the corruption investigations. When the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) ruined his plans, the settlement process also ended, which resulted in the spiral of violence that we have witnessed since the June 7 election.

Given the heavy price that the country has been paying, one wonders whether things might have been better had the corruption investigations never emerged. Seemingly maybe yes, but society would have continued to be rotten from the inside. If and when Turkey overcomes this infectious disease, its immune system will be stronger. Of course, provided that the bitter remedies are taken and the vaccination of the rule of law is taken. Otherwise, the patient might face bigger risks. We will see how much treatment the patient is willing to undergo in the Nov. 1 election.

Published on Today's Zaman, 10 October 2015, Saturday