Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi

Erdogan’s Turkey: A rule more ruthless

Posted on: 29/03/2012

Financial Times, by David Gardner and Daniel Dombey, March 28th 2012

His pictures and posters are these days almost as ubiquitous as those of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founding father of the modern Turkish nation. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has come to tower over the country’s political landscape. Elected last June for the third time since 2002 and with a still rising share of the vote, he is a prime minister preternaturally buoyed by the strength of his rapport with the Anatolian heartland.

In Mr Erdogan’s decade, Turkey has re-emerged as a regional power. Its economy has grown at near-Chinese speed, spreading wealth and healthcare, schools and roads, while a new breed of “Anatolian tiger” entrepreneurs has risen up against the incumbent handful of business conglomerates. The ruling Justice and Development Party, refined from the debris of two banned Islamist parties into a Muslim version of Christian democracy, has sidelined the secular elites that had ruled as of right the republic created by Ataturk.

Mr Erdogan devoted his first term to overdue political reform and strengthening civil and minority rights. He used his popularityto shove Turkey’s mighty generals offstage  during a stormy second term. Now, he faces no rival to his power – and his tolerance of any challenge to it is shrinking.

Along with a gathering air of authoritarianism, many detect the first whiff of hubris. Prosecutions of journalists, violations of due process in cases against political foes and the ramming through of contentious legislation all attest to the trend. If the constitutional revolution started by the AKP – after decades of managed democracy by the army and the Kemalist establishment – is going backwards, it is a development that could have big implications for a country that has an increasing clout on the world stage.

While there is no single reason for the shift, Mr Erdogan’s fiery temperament is clearly a factor. Although some observers believe his outbursts are calculated, one Istanbul commentator says he has “eagerly embraced the solitude of power”. Hakan Altinay, chairman of the Open Society Foundation in Istanbul, a branch of George Soros’s advocacy organisation, says “the only feedback he’s interested in is acclaim and loyalty”. Even an AKP loyalist MP acknowledges the problem: “He listens but he thinks he knows everything already and that ‘whatever I decide, works’.”

The prime minister’s outmanoeuvring of the military – more than one in 10 generals are now behind bars for alleged plots against his government – has removed a check on executive power, however undemocratic. More damagingly, a paralysis in negotiations on accession to the European Union has shut down a formidable engine of democratic renewal.

Last year, Turkey leapfrogged Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the number of cases brought against it at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, its 159 cases outstripping Russia’s 121. In the absence of Brussels, Strasbourg has some leverage. This month, the journalists Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, in pre-trial detention for more than a year for writings on the influence inside the Turkish state of the shadowy Islamist movement inspired by Fetullah Gulen, a US-based imam, were released– only days before the court was due to hear their complaint.

That still leaves 104 journalists in jail, 69 of them from the Kurdish minority and more than Iran (42) and China (27) combined. The old joke about committing journalism has real bite in Turkey, especially after Mr Erdogan himself, speaking last April in Strasbourg of all places, likened Mr Sik’s then unpublished book on the Gulenists to a bomb.

. . .

Critics, and even some sympathisers, say Mr Erdogan’s instinct is to polarise. “I have never seen Turkey as divided as this,” says a senior Turkish official who for decades has witnessed the hand-to-hand combat of Ankara politics, which admits of few shades of grey. “There’s no way you agree to disagree in this country,” says Mustafa Akyol, who with reservations remains an AKP supporter. “It’s tantamount to treason if you do.”

“Erdogan’s modus operandi is to pick fights,” says Sinan Ulgen, head of the liberal Edam think-tank in Istanbul. “It has served him well because it eliminates the middle ground – it’s the [George W.] Bush approach: you’re either with us or against us.” He adds: “Erdogan and the AKP displayed a clear sense of purpose in reducing the political influence of the army” but “failed to show the same dedication to building a stronger democracy. The quality of Turkish democracy today remains problematic due to an intolerance of dissent, the weakening of individual freedoms and lack of constraints on executive power.”

Political prosecutions: Rights punctured by activist judges and long detentions

This month Turkish prosecutors asked for prison terms of between 7½ and 15 years for three students who unfurled a banner demanding free education at an event attended by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister. Two of them have already spent 18 months in pre-trial detention, before being released in October. In a separate case, another student, if found guilty, faces a term of 11 years for taking three eggs to an event attended by President Abdullah Gul.

The students demanding free education have been charged under Turkey’s broad anti-terrorism laws; the student with the eggs for resisting arrest and insulting the police.

Observers say these are merely extreme examples of a broader phenomenon – a justice system with relatively little concern for individual rights. A recent report by the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental body, argued that Turkish practice was shaped by an authoritarian past and in particular a brutal 1980 coup.

While Mr Erdogan promises judicial reforms, there are concerns that the rule of law is on shakier ground than a few years ago.

One issue is the activism of special courts focusing on terrorist offences. Even government supporters say such courts fail to filter cases brought by the police, handing down thousands of pages of indictments against hundreds of defendants, who are often detained for years awaiting trial.

Recently, an Istanbul prosecutor asked for 15-22 years for Busra Ersanli, an academic who works with the Kurdish BDP party, and 7-15 years for Ragip Zarakolu, a publisher previously jailed during military rule. Both are charged with involvement with a Kurdish terrorist organisation (which they deny) and both are at present in jail.

Other politically charged cases include the Ergenekon probe into an alleged conspiracy against the government, and the Sledgehammer case, in which scores of military officers have been detained for alleged coup plotting. This week, Ilker Basbug, a former army chief of staff, went on trial for alleged membership of a terrorist organisation. Next week, Kenan Evren, the leader of the 1980 coup, finally faces trial.

Many Turks argue that such judicial activism corrects past wrongs while guarding against present dangers. Others say the law is being used to intimidate political opponents, not only of the ruling Justice and Development party but, in particular, of the influential Islamist Gulenist movement, which is widely believed to have penetrated the justice system.

“Frankly speaking, I no longer write about the Gulen movement,” says a leading columnist. “It’s too risky.”

Some hardline Kemalists argue that the slide towards authoritarianism is the consequence of a secret AKP agenda to steer Turkey towards Islamist rule. That is a minority view, however, and one contradicted by Mr Erdogan’s public defence of Turkey’s secular system as a shield of state protecting all beliefs – including those of Islamists. At the same time, he partakes fully of a winner-takes-all political culture in which the AKP has resorted to the same methods its enemies used to try to deny it power.

It is well established, for example, that elements within the armed forces have serially plotted against the government. But equally, some of the accusations in the series of baroque conspiracies now under investigation appear likely to have been concocted. “[Erdogan’s] supporters would say none of this success would have been possible if he wasn’t authoritarian, while others would say he’s authoritarian but he is successful,” Open Society’s Mr Altinay complains.

Turkey’s political pass can in some ways be seen as a drama within a paradox. The drama is not the secularists’ spectre of creeping theocracy but that the opposition has proved unelectable, trapped in the past and reliant on generals and judges to win back what it keeps losing at the ballot box. The paradox is that Mr Erdogan and the AKP, although now lords of all they survey, behave as though they were still in opposition.

To be fair, the AKP itself came within a whisker of being banned by the constitutional court as recently as 2008, a year after it had electorally thrashed the opposition that filed the complaint. But the party now dismisses most criticism as sour grapes. “The opposition knows it can’t dent [Mr Erdogan’s] charisma, so keeps saying he’s authoritarian” says Huseyin Celik, AKP vice-chairman. “I am close to the prime minister and if I see him becoming authoritarian I will be the first to object,” he adds, recounting tales of arguments with the prime minister on issues from Iraq to education.

“Being in government is not the same as ruling,” says Mr Celik, who complains that when he was education minister in 2003-09 the courts blocked all attempts at curriculum reform. “These people saw themselves as the landlords of the state and the government as just its tenants.” As another Erdogan aide says: “That’s why we need the new constitution” now under discussion, “to codify the change in the political balance”. But while Turks of many persuasions may have cut the ruling party some slack before, after last year’s electoral landslide this argument no longer convinces many who see the government using the law as a battering ram against its opponents. “The government can no longer send the bill for what the police do to the ancient regime,” says Mr Altinay. “There is a vengefulness about all this that is a bit disquieting.”

. . .

Yet the AKP now finds that using the law for political ends can be a double-edged sword. When Mr Erdogan withdrew from daily politics recently to undergo two operations, a prosecutor assumed to be acting for his erstwhile Gulenist allies tried to open an investigation into Hakan Fidan, his handpicked chief of intelligence. This gambit electrified Turkey, causing one commentator to observe: “We are in the initial phases of an intricate power struggle.”

The Gulenists operate an admired and visible franchise of schools across Turkey and around the world, along with clusters of invisible power, in a strategy that critics say looks like a surreptitious attempt to capture Turkish institutions. They are well entrenched in the police, have footholds in the judiciary and seem now to have set their sights on the security services – tantamount to taking aim at Mr Erdogan himself.

Certainly the prime minister’s reaction was summary: firing three prosecutors and transferring 700 police officers. “There was good co-operation between the AKP and the Gulenists but at a certain point their demands became too much,” says one party insider. “They wanted to be not just in the police but other places as well, and somebody had to tell them to stop.”

Within days the prime minister used his parliamentary majority to change the law to protect his intelligence nominees – giving the lie to protestations that the government’s hands are tied when it comes to wider reform. Mr Celik now admits as much, insisting the government will now curb the discretionary powers of the judiciary. “We accept there are problems with the judiciary, that the special courts sometimes exceed their rights, and that [periods of] detention without trial are too long,” he says. “That is why we are preparing a new legal package.”

Whether this step forward compensates for several steps backwards is moot. The government consulted widely on a recent domestic violence bill, for example, yet is trying to shut out the opposition and ram through a contentious education reform, on which it has not even consulted a closely aligned think-tank that has been working on it for three years. The measure, likely to become law this week, would allow children to attend religious schools from the age of 10, down from the current 14.

In the larger game, what matters are Mr Erdogan’s intentions in drawing up a new constitution to replace the army-dictated charter of 1982. The question is whether he wants to use that opportunity to strengthen individual rights – and craft a settlement giving the Kurdish minority cultural and self-government gains – or to mould a new order in his own image, stepping up from the premiership to an executive presidency on the French model, thereby to claim a mantle to rival Ataturk’s.

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