March 30, 2016

Turkey descends into autocracy

S. P. Seth*

Early in this century, Turkey looked like making a healthy transition to democracy. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now Turkey’s president, became the country’s prime minister after his party won a landslide victory in the 2002 parliamentary elections. The economy started to pick up and Turkey was held as a model for other Muslim countries. For once, it seemed that elected democracy in a Muslim country was not antithetical. But events in the last few years have created serious doubts about the health of Turkish democracy, as President Erdogan appears to increasingly believe that democracy in Turkey is essentially synonymous with him and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). This is because his opponents of all shades of opinion are branded either terrorists or supporters of terrorism, as well as plotting a coup against his government, and that with such ‘diabolical’ designs against the country, they don’t deserve any mercy.

Erdogan has a litany of enemies, as he sees it, plotting from inside and outside the country. And the country’s media is bearing the brunt of it for being critical of President Erdogan’s authoritarianism, which has led the government to seize control of the country’s biggest newspaper, Zaman, and its English sister publication, Today’s Zaman, believed to be linked with the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his Hizmet movement. Indeed, Erdogan’s AKP and Hizmet were erstwhile political allies and Gulen’s organisation helped Erdogan come to power. But they fell out over how to run the country and the Hizmet movement became increasingly critical of Erdogan’s exercise of arbitrary power, with its supporters in the media even calling him a “pharaoh” when he went after the mass protests against his plans to turn Gezi Park in Istanbul, a landmark public space, into a vast shopping mall.

Furthermore when it was revealed that some of his ministers and their families were beneficiaries of large-scale corruption and money laundering, it created a serious crisis for the government. The police raids and subsequent arrests of suspects, with most of those arrested found to have connection with the ruling AKP party, seriously tarnished the image of the Erdogan government. It became big news when a video appeared on YouTube implicating Erdogan and his family. Erdogan claimed that the recording was a fake put up by Gulen’s supporters and foreign interests to bring down his government. That led his government to ban social media outlets.

Since then the Erdogan government is trying to eliminate all signs of any influence/control of Gulen supporters at all levels of Turkish political life, be it police, judiciary, bureaucracy and media-outlets, believed to be linked to Gulen’s Hizmet movement. Gulen denied in a 2014 BBC interview that he was behind the corruption probe into murky dealings enriching government ministers and the Erdogan family. He said that, “People in the judiciary and police carried out investigations and launched into this [corruption] case, as their duties normally require.” He quipped: “Apparently they weren’t informed of the fact that corruption and bribery have ceased to be criminal acts in Turkey.”

Erdogan’s crusade against the media critical of his government, as dramatised with seizing control of the country’s largest circulating newspaper, Zaman, and other related outlets, is to virtually announce his ascension to absolute power. Turkey is said to be the country with one of the highest number of journalists behind bars. But the government justifies such crackdown on journalists, and anyone else that might take issue with the government, and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is quite comfortable doing that. During a recent Iran visit, he said in Tehran: “Turkey has the right to question those who take part in a clear coup attempt, whether economic or journalistic, against an elected government.” That makes it sound like Gulen’s movement, Hizmet, and those belonging to it have some sort of an army trying to seize power from the Erdogan government. Hizmet is essentially a political/educational/religious movement, now operating at cross-purposes with the government, but the answer to that would need to be political and not the use of state power to shut down any criticism or questioning of corruption and abuse of power.

President Erdogan and his government are tying themselves in multiple knots. They are carrying on a crusade on a number of fronts, and they are seeking to shut down and crush legitimate political opposition to the government. It is simultaneously conducting a virtual war on the Kurds within and outside the country, across the border in northern Iraq and Syria. It has been funnelling arms to Syrian rebels and facilitating flow of fighters for disparate groups fighting to bring down the Assad regime in Syria. Its relations with the US are strained because Washington hasn’t been as enthusiastic and aggressive as Ankara would like it to be in its crusade against the Assad regime. The US is helping and supporting Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) -- considered an affiliate of the Turkish PKK-- against IS. Indeed, PYD is its main ally on the ground against IS in Syria. But Turkey regards both PKK and PYD as terrorist organisations, and it is bombing them both in separate operations.

At the same time, its relations with Russia are frozen ever since it shot down a Russian plane that, Ankara said, was violating Turkish air space in its bombing missions in Syria. And Ankara is also at the centre of a refugee crisis in Europe, with refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries making hazardous journey across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. Here, Turkey seems pleased with the agreement it has reached with the EU under which it will receive billions of euros as aid for refugees, and for its help in regulating and controlling refugee flows. It is still not quite clear how this will all work, and might even end up making things messier than they are at present.

However, Ankara has reason to be pleased that the agreement with the EU promises to make travel into Europe for Turkish citizens visa-free, as well as accelerate the process of its EU membership. Nevertheless, EU might find it difficult to completely ignore domestic political repression in Turkey, including the suppression of free media, as its tempo and intensity continues to rise. Therefore, it makes sense to maintain healthy scepticism about the working of the EU-Turkish deals on refugees and their overall relationship.

*The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia.

Published on Daily Times, 30 March 2016, Wednesday