February 28, 2016

Rising despotism on 20th anniversary of Feb. 28

Bülent Keneş

Democracy is a lifelong struggle. It is essential to remain alert for dangers and threats targeting democracy, which cannot possibly be separated and isolated from laws and fundamental rights and freedoms, even if they are formally guaranteed under the law, institutionalized by the introduction of a separation of powers system and internalized by large masses. Everyone needs to remain aware and watchful to ensure that democracy, whose establishment begs huge struggles and sacrifices, is protected and remains sustainable.

Democracy, acquired through great sacrifices and painful experiences, is a fragile regime that can be shelved or harmed if democrats fail to protect it and promote its integral parts because you can never be sure when fascism, despotism, dictatorship or arbitrary rule will threaten democracy and the rule of law and eliminate fundamental rights and freedoms. History is full of military coups staged with tanks and other heavy weaponry, as well as many examples of immoral persecutions by corrupt despots who, while exploiting the naivety and opportunities of a democratic order, eventually destroyed that order.

The Feb. 28, 1997 postmodern military coup, which is entering its 20th anniversary, as well as the April 27, 2007 military e-memo, in which the government was forced to call a snap election, are good examples of how military coups seeking to destroy democracy can take different shapes. Turkey, whose experience with democracy has been interrupted by military coups and interventions, is now sadly experiencing one of the gravest coup processes disguised in civilian forms.

When he argued that the Feb. 28 process will last a thousand years, Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu, who served as chief of General Staff during the Feb. 28 postmodern military coup process, was trying to assure the coup perpetrators as well as anti-democratic circles who benefited from the military guardianship. But it is now also possible to see this arrogant statement of Gen. Kıvrıkoğlu as a proper warning for democrats. That was not his intention, of course. But this remark can be reinterpreted as follows: “Dear democrats! Remain alert at all times. Remain alert for any possible threat towards fundamental rights and freedoms, democracy and the rule of law. Otherwise, the Feb. 28 process will take different forms and last for a thousand years.”

And, in fact, this has been the case. Turkey, under a so-called civilian administration, has come to a point that is worse than those anti-democratic years when the Feb. 28 postmodern military coup process was taking place. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which, in reaction to the antidemocratic and illegal conditions generated by the Feb. 28 process, took action in 2001 by focusing on a pro-freedom, democratic and liberal program, now makes us all long for the coup perpetrators in the Feb. 28 process because of its despotic practices, illegal and arbitrary tendencies, persecutions and corruption.

Those who are not ashamed to present themselves as victims of the Feb. 28 process despite having turned into the greatest despots in the world because of their illegal and arbitrary practices have now surpassed the persecutions faced by the people during the Feb. 28 process. In the Feb. 28 process, dozens or hundreds of military officers were expelled from the military without due process on the pretext of being involved in fundamentalist activities. But today, thousands of public officers alone are expelled from the police department and organizations under false pretexts and charges in the absence of concrete evidence. Thousands of police chiefs were removed from their posts. Hundreds of police officers and chiefs were sent to prison.

In the Feb. 28 process, some of the public officers or bureaucrats profiled by the West Study Group (BÇG) that was set up illegally by the military were prosecuted. But even those bureaucrats did not face a harsh witch hunt similar to the one being conducted today and were not expelled from their posts. As an example of the expulsion of public officers and bureaucrats under the AKP/Recep Tayyip Erdoğan regime's despotic practices that cannot possibly be compared to the Feb. 28 process, let me just point out that 1,300 experts were expelled from the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) alone. But I should also add that the degree of uncontrolled paranoia of the witch hunt has also affected a number of teachers, bureaucrats, prosecutors, judges, journalists and intellectuals.

Companies or brands owned or run by conservative and religious groups and figures were discredited and profiled in the Feb. 28 process. But the coup perpetrators' measures against these companies did not go beyond banning members of the military from conducting transactions with them. None of these companies that were profiled and presented as threats to the public were confiscated in that period and the military did not stage an immoral witch hunt against the owners and employees of those companies. But today, those who initiated a witch hunt against everyone they consider a dissident under the pretext of fighting the so-called parallel state structure illegally confiscate private companies, seize the properties of these companies and plunder their capital.

The anti-democratic Feb. 28 process was of course a coup, but its means was the media that the coup perpetrators held under their control rather than tanks, artillery and weapons. Back then, the coup perpetrators controlled media outlets that served the interests of the military and were sensitive to the demands and wishes of the military servicemen and figures; they constructed headlines based on instructions from the General Staff and on false reports and fabricated allegations.

In addition to some media outlets that pandered to the political ambitions of coup perpetrators in return for privileges in the banking and mining sectors, there was also an independent media as well that was fighting for rights and freedoms, democracy and rule of law. Despite this, none of the generals who were responsible for the coup considered confiscating these papers and TV stations or illegally banning their broadcast; they also did not consider trying to intimidate thousands of them and imprisoning those who refused to be intimidated.

Just like the anti-democratic AKP/Erdoğan regime, the Feb. 28 postmodern coup process that attempted to carry out social and political engineering paid attention to the education sector. The coup perpetrators first dealt with the education system and took harsh measures that negatively affected thousands of students who were enrolled in religious and vocational schools. Of course, this imposition and despotic practice that targeted public schools was antidemocratic and unacceptable. But still, none of the coup perpetrators considered shutting down these schools altogether.

The AKP/Erdoğan regime is attempting to engineer society through education. Hundreds of religious schools have been opened despite the fact that there was no need for such a huge number of schools and that they were relatively unsuccessful in central placement exams. But they attempted by arbitrary practices to shut down private study houses and schools that played a remarkable role in ensuring that the poor segments of society become more competitive in education. They confiscated private schools and study houses. They shut down reading houses run by volunteer teachers. In addition, they waged a war against Turkish schools overseas, probably the most important success of Turkey in the world. At a time when public schools saw a complete academic and pedagogic collapse even though their budgets were expanded, the AKP/Erdoğan regime did everything they could to destroy the private education institutions that had already demonstrated their success.

The Feb. 28 process, known for its anti-democratic and illegal practices, is associated with corruption, nepotism, siphoning in the banking system, the unjust placement of retired generals on the executive boards of public and private companies and economic deterioration. But I can honestly say the corruption, nepotism and unfair economic activities in the AKP/Erdoğan regime are far graver than what took place in that era. Those who are curious about what I am trying to say should take a quick look at the evidence for corruption, bribery, plunder and other violations as revealed in the Dec. 17-25, 2013 investigation.

The AKP/Erdoğan regime, which came to power as a response to the anti-democratic conditions of the Feb. 28 process and consolidated its power by introducing democratic reforms for a certain period of time, has now gone far beyond the Feb. 28 process in terms of illegality, arbitrariness and despotism. They not only eliminated the reforms they introduced in their first two terms but also brought Turkey to standards that are lower than those in the military coup periods. The situation is so grave that the democrats in this country now wish Turkey could return to the conditions in November 2002 when the AKP came to power.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 28 February 2016, Sunday