The demise of democracy in Turkey

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan Picture: Osman Orsal/Reuters

Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2003 as a moderate and modernising Muslim leader in the region, with a large support base at home where he was largely considered the flower of democracy. How far he has fallen from that pedestal seventeen years later both at home – where even stalwarts of his own party the AKP have turned against him – and many in the region now consider him a threat to regional peace and stability.

Erdogan’s insistence on a rerun of the mayoral election in Istanbul in June after the opposition candidate had won the poll only resulted in the confirmation that the AKPs support was waning. The opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu won a decisive victory which has substantially weakened the AKP’s access to a major source of patronage as the city absorbs a quarter of all public investment. Erdogan is determined to undermine the new mayor, and now says the mayor may be tried for insulting a provincial governor. But Erdogan has never hidden his anti-democratic tendencies, once saying “for us democracy is a means to an end.” 

Erdogan’s erstwhile allies have for the first time come out against him, with former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a leading AKP figure, producing a 15 page statement after the AKP challenged the March mayoral election results, criticising the party’s direction. Davutoglu is believed to be establishing a rival political party, as is AKP party heavyweight Ali Babcan. Former President Abdullah Gul has also suggested that he voted for the opposition. 

Erdogan has threatened defectors of the AKP that they will pay a heavy price for their betrayal, and has ensured they are largely frozen out of media outlets with links to the AKP. The majority of the country’s media is now being controlled by the ruling party after it took over most of the independent print and broadcast media outlets, or closed them down. Turkey has jailed scores of independent journalists and remains the country with the highest number of journalists in jail. 

But this sabotage of democracy is nothing new – it went into high gear after Erdogan imposed a national state of emergency in 2016, following the failed coup attempt, when the authorities imprisoned 93 mayors and hundreds of municipal assembly members. In an attempt to justify his actions, Erdogan waved his anti-terrorism law which acts as an instrument for repression of internal dissent. 

Since 2016, the judiciary has been used as a machine to destroy the Gulen movement which was blamed for the coup attempt, as well as liberal, leftist and Kurdish opposition, resulting in 200,000 people having been put into pre-trial detention under the state of emergency. Approximately 150,000 civil servants were fired, including judges, academics, teachers, journalists, soldiers, politicians and diplomats. Almost 2,000 private education institutions and 174 media organisations were closed down. In order to accomplish this the state of emergency was extended seven times. 

Of great concern for Turkey’s democracy is the fact that the government used the state of emergency to get rid of the constitution, institutional and political limitations on its power. The 31 emergency decrees were never sent to parliament for a vote even though the regulations were matters of ordinary parliamentary legislation. What the emergency rule did was deprive the parliament of its supervisory and legislative powers. The Constitutional amendments of 2017 replaced the parliamentary system with a presidential system in order to concentrate power in the hands of the president. 

As a consequence, Erdogan who was elected President in 2018 now has vast appointment powers, can issue executive decrees, deploy the military, and close down parliament. The prevalent criticism of these developments is that there is no effective body to hold the president accountable, and the new system is being characterised as “presidential autocracy.” 

The latest attack on democratic freedoms is the civil society trial which is underway of teachers, academics, lawyers, writers and actors. The main figure being tried is Osman Kavala who has been in detention since October 2017, and is known for building bridges to refugees, Kurds, and Armenians. Kavala is accused of masterminding the civic uprising of June 2013 in Gezi park, when civil society protested against the government’s plan to erect Ottomoan barracks in the park. 

What Erdogan has done to destroy the democratic processes in the Kurdish region is also egregious. At least 10 members of parliament from the opposition Kurdish party the HDP have been jailed on fabricated charges for allegedly supporting peace negotiations between Turkey and the PKK. 

What shocked the world was when on August 19th Erdogan’s Interior Ministry disbanded municipal assemblies and removed democratically elected mayors in three Kurdish cities – Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van. All the mayors were summarily replaced by unelected administrators from the ruling AKP party, who have allegedly squandered the resources of the municipalities. In essence, Erdogan has usurped what could not be gained by his party at the elections.

The Kurds, which make up 15% of the population, have suffered a long history of injustice in Turkey’s history, but since the peace deal broke down in July 2015, it is reported that thousands have lost their lives with the bombardment of their towns and villages by Turkish security forces, operating under the guise of ‘anti-terrorist operations.’ But in reality the ‘war on terror’ is a war on democratic participation, also designed to eradicate the Kurdish identity. Erdogan has linked any assertion of Kurdish culture, language and identity as unpatriotic, and said, “there is no such thing as a Kurdish problem, whoever utters it is committing separation.”

Erdogan’s determination to eradicate the existence of any autonomous Kurdish entity explains why he is most recently threatening to invade Northern Syria, where autonomous, democratic, and inclusive Kurdish institutions have been established under the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Erdogan is determined to stage a military intervention in Northern Syria in order to control the area where the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) are entrenched. The goal is to clear the Kurdish militias from anywhere near the Turkish border with Syria. 

The pretext is to demand the creation of a “safe zone” for Syrian refugees, 30km deep into Syria, which will be controlled by Turkish forces. Erdogan is now threatening that if the safe zone is not implemented immediately, whereby his forces have full control of the area, they will advance into Northern Syria in the next few weeks. The other threat which Erdogan is making to the rest of Europe is that if such a safe zone is not created imminently he will open the flood gates and allow refugees to leave Turkey for the rest of Europe. 

As if these moves are not enough of a threat to regional peace and stability, Erdogan has also recently stated that it is unacceptable that Turkey cannot have nuclear weapons, and that his country wants the same protection as Israel which has a sizeable nuclear arsenal. 

Against this background of fear that now permeates Turkish society among anyone who dares criticise existing government policies, our own ruling party in South Africa has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkey’s ruling AKP party, declaring it a sister party. The objective is to create greater educational and trade ties between the two countries. 

What is of particular concern is that the AKP is a party that has presided over unprecedented human rights violations against its critics, the Gulen movement and the Kurds. As South Africans we take pride in the fact that human rights is a central theme of our foreign policy and is supposed to be a consideration in party to party relations. Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the democratic deficit in Turkey today before such fraternal relations are concretised. 

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s foreign editor.

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